USC made one of the splashiest college football coaching hires in recent history last November, poaching Lincoln Riley from Oklahoma after he posted a 55-10 mark in five seasons. After such a universally lauded hire on the heels of a 4-8 season, hype is radiating out of Los Angeles as a long-storied program seeks to reclaim a place of national prominence on the gridiron.
Since the inception of the Pac-12 Championship Game in 2011, the Trojans have hoisted the trophy just once, and only once in the past decade has USC finished in the top 10 of the AP Top 25 poll. The program didn’t just need a new coach after Clay Helton’s mediocre run on the sideline; it needed a resuscitation in order to remain relevant in college football’s rapidly evolving landscape.
On the heels four Big 12 titles in five seasons and three College Football Playoff appearances, Riley has quickly made the Trojans a relevant talking point again. By bringing rising sophomore quarterback Caleb Williams with him from Oklahoma after a standout freshman season, USC already has one of the sport’s most recognizable stars in the fold. Williams is just one of several potential impact transfers coming from all over the country to play for the revamped Trojans.
The significant haul of incoming talent along with some quality holdovers should make improving on last season’s 4-8 record simple, but how high can the Trojans rise in Riley’s first season? With the Pac-12 struggling for national relevance, the Trojans are already generating buzz as a contender.
So with the expectations sky high in L.A. with the arrival of Riley, the CBS Sports college football experts each assess the USC situation and give their takes on what the Trojans might accomplish in 2022.
Temper your expectations
I’ll start by saying that getting Riley was precisely the kind of hire USC needed to make, and it’s good for the program and Pac-12 as a whole. It’s no coincidence the Pac-12’s declining national reputation has occurred during a mediocre decade from its most historic program. Riley will have the program humming and competing for playoff berths in short order. However, I’d temper expectations a bit for 2022. USC has had a lot of problems within the program for over 10 years that won’t be wiped away by Riley and the transfer portal. Even with Caleb Williams in tow, this is still a team with plenty of holes to fill, particularly on both lines and defensive side of the ball as a whole. USC will compete for a Pac-12 South title with Utah and UCLA and could win the division, and maybe even the conference, but it’s not going to do so without a few scars. Trojan fans should set their sights on a 10-win season as the goal but be willing to settle for 9-3. — Tom Fornelli
New Year’s Six game
The spotlight is on Riley, and for good reason: he has to win now. I’m not talking about a national championship or a playoff berth, but the Trojans should enter late November with a College Football Playoff shot and win the Pac-12 South. Translation: they need to make it to a New Year’s Six bowl game. Remember, Riley has his hand-picked quarterback, hit the transfer portal harder than any coach in the country and comes with a proven track record of success at an elite level. Anything less than a New Year’s Six bid should be viewed as a disappointment. — Barrett Sallee
Dark-horse CFP contender
Don’t let the 2021 record fool you. The Trojans are much closer to competing than a 4-8 record would indicate. Before firing Clay Helton in September, USC was considered an early favorite to compete for the Pac-12 title. USC ranked in the top 10 of the 247Sports Talent Composite in 2021 and added the No. 2 transfer class in the nation with Williams, wide receiver Mario Williams and running back Travis Dye leading the way. When Riley took over as offensive coordinator at Oklahoma, it took only one season to jump from 8-5 to the CFP. Riley deserves a season to get his sea legs underneath him, but quickly becoming a dark-horse contender for the Pac-12 — and College Football Playoff — isn’t out of the question. — Shehan Jeyarajah
CFP or bust
Since the playoff’s inception in 2014, there have been 32 CFP teams representing 13 different schools from six conferences. Of those 32 teams, just two have been led by a first-year coach. Ohio State’s 2019 team coached by Ryan Day is the most recent example, but the first was the 2017 Oklahoma team coached by Lincoln Riley. Considering that Riley has done it before, there’s no reason to believe he can’t do it again. The expectations for USC in the 2022 season should be to reach the CFP or to die on the event’s doorstep as the first or second team out.
As an in-house promotion to be Oklahoma’s coach in 2017, Riley had the benefit of continuity, familiarity and a great foundation left behind by Bob Stoops. Day’s 2019 Ohio State team was in a similar boat. While Riley doesn’t have the continuity factor working in his favor at USC, he has a major advantage that he didn’t have five seasons ago: the transfer portal. With players now eligible to transfer and play right away at their new schools, the feasibility of a quick turnaround for first-year coaches is more reasonable than ever. With an elite transfer haul headlined by Williams, Riley should have the Trojans immediately back to the top of a watered-down Pac-12. This team should either be in the CFP or snubbed in favor of a team with a similar résumé from a more reputable conference. — David Cobb