Before the Big Ten bombshell that would remake the college football landscape, USC was already embarking upon major change. The Trojans had brought in a big-name new coach, Lincoln Riley—poached from Oklahoma at great expense. He was soon followed by a veritable Rose Parade of star transfers, and the Trojans roster was gutted to the studs.
“There’s not one person in here who’s not doing something new,” Riley said in late August. “Every player here is either in a new school, a new system or both.”
How is the remodel going one week into the season? Rapidly. There is drywall, windows and electricity, but come Saturday against Pac-12 rival Stanford in Palo Alto, it will be time to flip the switch and turn on the lights for real.
The promising soft launch last week showed how different USC is. Of the 66 points scored in the season opener against poor Rice, 42 of them were produced by players wearing a cardinal-and-gold jersey for the first time. Star transfer quarterback Caleb Williams completed 86.3% of his passes, the highest completion percentage by a Trojan with at least 20 attempts in a decade. The top four rushers (including Williams), along with the eight players who caught passes, are all new to the program. The top two tacklers were transfers from Alabama and Arizona State.
This is the transient nature of modern college football, but cranked up to another level by the coaching change, Riley’s ability to draw talent and the program’s name, image and likeness potential. USC didn’t pay Riley a fortune to rebuild gradually, and he didn’t uproot from Oklahoma for a tedious fixer-upper project. When asked about his first-year expectations during Pac-12 media days earlier this summer, Riley answered: “To win a championship. … This is a go-for-it kind of place. I would reiterate again, we didn’t come here to play for second.”
The most important foundational piece for a rapid rebuild was quarterback, and Riley brought Williams along from Norman to Los Angeles. He was followed by rising-star wide receiver Mario Williams. There were three more notable wideouts from the transfer portal—2021 Biletnikoff winner Jordan Addison (from Pittsburgh) and Brenden Rice (Colorado), son of Jerry. Add in two dynamic multipurpose running backs from within the league in Austin Jones (Stanford) and Travis Dye (Oregon), and Riley quickly amassed the versatile weapons he needs to put his trademark pretty plays into practice.
Constructing a quality defense is the bigger challenge. USC was soft on that side of the ball last year, allowing 31.8 points per game. Riley brought Alex Grinch over from Oklahoma to run the unit and got a whopping three pick-six touchdowns in the opening rout against Rice—USC had a total of two defensive touchdowns (both in 2021) in the previous three seasons combined. One of those scores came from Alabama transfer linebacker Shane Lee.
Stanford, while not in vintage David Shaw form, presents a bigger challenge this week. It also could be one of the last times two ancient rivals meet, as USC and crosstown rival UCLA are set to move to the Big Ten in 2024. Their first contest was in 1905. They’ve played each other 101 times, 10 more than USC has played against UCLA. This is the price of economic progress—losing traditional matchups. In the near future, two SoCal programs that had routinely traveled up the coast to the Bay Area or south to Tucson and Tempe will have to pack the hand warmers and bench heaters for late-season games against strangers in the Midwest and Northeast.
That massive change may have even been a jolt to Riley, who will face long trips and blue lips in his third year on the job, if indeed there is a third year (you simply never know anymore in this business). Riley said the right things in a school release in early July that quoted several coaches in the days after the jarring shift was made public: “This move to the Big Ten Conference positions all of our teams for long-term success. It provides our student-athletes with more exposure, new resources and challenges them with elite competition. USC Football is excited to compete in the Big Ten.”