After dropping his final game as Oklahoma's head coach in the Bedlam Series against rival Oklahoma State, Lincoln Riley walking off the field knew a tough decision laid ahead of him.
When or how he came to deciding on leaving Oklahoma and going to Southern Cal we will never know, but ultimately his decision to depart scorned Sooner hearts and created euphoria in Trojan community.
The Trojans stand at 9-1 and controls its destiny to make it to the Pac-12 Championship Game in Las Vegas, and in turn controls its destiny to make the College Football Playoff for the first time ever and first Pac-12 team since 2016 Washington Huskies.
Their remaining schedule is truly the litmus test fans gauge a season's success. Beating Fresno State, Oregon State, Arizona State, Washington State is and should always be a given, but what you do against UCLA and Notre Dame is what makes a season for the men and women of Troy.
"There's a lot of emotion and intensity and excitement in these games. That's what makes them fun, right? Makes them fun for the players, makes them fun for the fans, and people across the country to watch. You have to balance out playing football, which can get lost in the heat of the battle. You have to have poise. You also have to have intensity. You have to understand the intent of this game and the emotions of this game. The overall intensity will be a little bit different. It should be a lot of fun," Riley said this week of UCLA rivalry.
A sold out Rose Bowl is expected for the most anticipated Battle of Los Angeles since 2005, getting the Trojans back among college football's elite took center stage with Riley using the transfer portal.
Former Southern Cal head coach and current Ole Miss head coach Lane Kiffin dubbed himself the "Portal King" on Twitter, but after Riley landed Caleb Williams and Mario Williams from Oklahoma, Biletnikoff Award winner Jordan Addison from Pitt, and former Oregon running back Travis Dye plus 16 others, Kiffin acknowledged the "Portal Crown" was transferred to Riley.
For any first year head coach at a program it is a grind to establish your culture, implement your new system, and establish new relationships in recruiting. For Riley it was exponentially more difficult, as his name and resume heightened expectations. Going to a program the status of Southern Cal makes it difficult, but once Riley received the "Portal Crown" from Kiffin, it added to the complexity.
It’s one thing to add into the fold an exceptionally talented quarterback onto a new roster. It’s another to essentially build your foundation with players who haven't played together, who don't know each other, who were not recruited together, and who had no chemistry, but have to come together with a common goal and mindset. “It’s kind of like an arranged marriage,” said Oklahoma-turned-USC wide receivers coach Dennis Simmons.
The marriage so far has been extremely successful. But as with any marriage, there comes challenges and obstacles.
One of the big obstacles that has been cleared is the return of Jordan Addison to the lineup.
Prior to his leg injury in the second half versus Utah, Addison was cruising to another All-American season having 39 receptions for 585 yards and seven touchdowns. Addison returned to limited action against Colorado last week, but expect his usage to grow after Travis Dye suffered a season ending injury in the same game.
Dye was a critical part of the Trojans offense, he was averaging over six yards per carry, had over 1,000 yards from scrimmage, and nine touchdowns. Riley said that Dye was critical to the culture being created in his program and finished by saying,"There’s no way we would be sitting here as a football team if it wasn’t for him."
While the Addison injury had impact, the depth of the Southern Cal receiving room was never in question. The Dye injury brings it under the microscope to see if Austin Jones and Raleek Brown can compliment a potent passing attack like Dye did.
I purposely added the question mark to the end of the title of the article, because to me it is still a question mark if Riley has Southern Cal resurrected.
The first component he is missing is the signature win. So far, he is 0 for 1 in this situations losing to Utah at Rice-Eccles Stadium 43-42 last month. He may see them again in the Pac-12 Championship game if they beat UCLA Saturday.
The Trojans schedule thus far have all been winnable games and with the talent advantage Southern Cal possesses all the other games were and should have been won.
The remaining schedule for Southern Cal gives them the opportunity to add signature wins to the resume: UCLA, Notre Dame, and potentially a Pac-12 Championship Game against either Oregon or Utah. Win all three, they make the College Football Playoff. Pretty cut and dry.
The Playoff, however has been a house of horrors for Riley, going 0-3 during his time in Norman. Whether it was the heartbreak in overtime at the Rose Bowl against Georgia, or Alabama's fast 28-0 start that Oklahoma couldn't overcome, or simply the demolition at the hands of LSU in 2019 that saw the Tigers up at one point 56-14 in that game.
Riley is looking to advance in that tier of coaches and have his program be one of the juggernauts, when you look at the 2022 Southern California Trojans, they eerily look like all those Oklahoma teams. In those three playoff seasons at Oklahoma, the Sooners offenses were No. 3 in 2017, No. 1 in 2018, and No. 6 in 2019 in scoring offense, this season the Trojans are third at 42.4 points per game.
The characteristics of those teams were exceptional play at the quarterback position, dynamic receivers that can make the explosive plays, and a ground game that complemented the passing game. All these exist on the Trojans offense this season.
However, the Trojans also have some of the most undesirable characteristics of those Oklahoma teams, most notably, a well below-average defense. Between 2017 and 2019, the Sooners scoring defense ranks were No. 68, 101, and 64th. This season the Trojans have been No. 51 scoring defense, which is an improvement, but the offensively capable teams haven't been there and the teams that have been capable of scoring on Southern Cal, have scored Utah put 43, Arizona put 37 with its potent passing attack, and Cal put 35 points up.
The Trojans are 87th in Total Defense including 99th overall in pass defense. They did not have to play Washington or Oregon this year, this was an extremely favorable schedule (current record of opponents Trojans played so far is a combined 46-54 overall) for the Trojans and still their defense ranks near the bottom in the country in key defensive statistics.
When you look at how Oklahoma has regressed, its regression can be attributed to a poor defense that is in play, that was in a poor system without proper infrastructure to develop and flourish.
When Brent Venables arrived, and along with Ted Roof, began to implement defensive systems, most Sooners Insiders reported the players having difficulty with the advanced systems including some reporting players receiving defensive scouting reports, something Riley and his staff never issued.
It was one of his fatal flaws at Oklahoma. The other was recruiting elite defensive players.
While he has players sent to the NFL like Tre Brown, Tre Norwood, Ronnie Perkins, and Nik Bonitto, Riley and his staffs has failed to attract the top defensive talent that could have put him over the top. In his 2017 recruiting class, three of his top five defensive rated recruits eventually transferred out of Oklahoma. In 2019, three of its top six defensive rated recruits left the program, although safety Jeremiah Criddell retired medically, the poor defensive talent evaluations have crippled the Oklahoma defense.
Current Trojan defensive end Tuli Tuipulotu might be the best defensive player Riley ever had, he is currently up for the Nagurski Award and is amongst the nation's leaders in sacks.
Finding and landing elite defensive talent stands in the way of Riley and having a juggernaut programs like you see at Ohio State, Alabama, Clemson, and Georgia.
Lastly, he needs to continue attracting top California to his program and reverse the mass exodus of top talent out of the state. He was able to keep five-star quarterback Malachi Nelson at home, but a lot of high end talent has left in the hyper competitive recruiting territory in the Golden State.
Riley has brought the Trojans back to relevancy. The schedule has certainly had a hand in that as well. But the question truly remains is he the resurrector? He has his personal demons and challenges to contend with.
The challenge of being head coach begins Saturday. At Southern Cal, you are gauged on beating UCLA, Notre Dame, the Pac-12 championship, and the Rose Bowl.
His first attempt at that schedule begins Saturday and over the next few weeks will begin to formulate if he truly has the Men of Troy resurrected.