Lincoln Riley was right to promise immediate USC championships

A year ago, I knew what USC’s bold move in bringing in Lincoln Riley meant — not just for the Trojans, but for college football on the West Coast.

I knew that Riley, who at 39 had already proven himself to be one of the sport’s top coaches with a West Texas swagger, would eventually lead USC back to national prominence. I knew his presence and electrifying offenses would rekindle Los Angeles’ passion for college football just as the Rams were winning a Super Bowl crown right here in Inglewood. As the Times national college football reporter, I was selfishly excited because Riley’s arrival guaranteed a wider audience for my work and that of my ridiculously talented and dedicated college peers.

But I didn’t know it would be Riley This Well.

Yes, after convincing star quarterback Caleb Williams to move from Oklahoma and after Biletnikoff-winning wide receiver Jordan Addison Williams followed over here from Pittsburgh, I thought USC’s turnaround after a deflationary 4-8 season would be final and fast.

But as the season started in August, I couldn’t shake the need to set moderate expectations for the first year. Looking at the soft start to the schedule, I saw a reasonable path to 9-1 with the only loss coming to Utah (whom I picked to topple the college football playoff semifinals).

My logical brain said that UCLA, which defeated USC 62-33 at the Coliseum last year and brought back Dorian Thompson-Robinson and Zach Charbonnet, was too solidly built for the Trojans to overcome in the fifth year of Chip Kelly’s tenure.

The same measured thinking made me assume that a Notre Dame program that hadn’t beaten USC since 2016 and had two CFP semifinal appearances in that span — even with a first-time head coach in Marcus Freeman — would be able to dictate She sets the tone of the story with Midwestern muscle power.

Not correct. double wrong.

I could never have imagined – and I don’t think I’m alone – that in less than a year, Riley and his coaching staff would be able to take Clay Helton’s church youth group culture and mold it into an easily pourable foundation, which ended up being harder than Riley’s 2021 Easter Breast (if you can’t get the reference, a quick Google search should explain).

Holy smokes, these Trojans are tough.

Like Williams’ Heisman-worthy exploits, USC slammed its rivals for superior will — and skill — in the trenches.

During a 38-27 win over Notre Dame on Saturday, the Trojans rushed 204 yards to the Fighting Irish 90. Running back Austin Jones had 154 yards, bringing his total in rivalry wins to 274. USC’s lead receiver, Addison, had just 45 yards.

The Trojans are not close to winning the Pac-12 and making the playoffs for the first time due to their Hollywood performance. More like South LA Championship.

USC running back Raleek Brown rips through Notre Dame's defense in the third quarter

USC running back Raleek Brown smashes through Notre Dame’s defenses in the third quarter Saturday at the Coliseum.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Just as it did against UCLA when Charbonnet was held for 95 yards, USC worked to stop the run against Notre Dame’s pounding attack and never broke.

Early in the game, the Fighting Irish failed to move the ball three to six feet when they needed it most. They finished with a pass with quarterback Drew Pyne making it good, but that was never Notre Dame’s formula for the Coliseum win.

If you need more proof of Riley’s influence on Saturday, look no further than what happened at his alma mater, Texas Tech. The Red Raiders beat Oklahoma 51-48 in overtime and handed the Sooners their sixth Big 12 loss.

Riley lost seven conference games in five seasons while leading Oklahoma.

This week, Riley has a few days to prepare for Utah, the only team to beat USC this year — by a point thanks to a brave two-point conversion call from Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, the dean of the Pac- 12 trainers.

Whittingham’s Utes never sink easily. But after the last two weeks, I can say with confidence: Neither did Lincoln Riley’s Trojans.

Michigan mea culpa

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh gestures with his hand and argues with a game official during a game.

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh argues with a game official during the Wolverines’ win over Ohio State on Saturday.

(Jay LaPrete/Associated Press)

As a proud Michigan graduate, I thought I would take a stand on November 28, 2020 and do what is right for my alma mater.

The Wolverines had just lost at home to Penn State to take their record to 2-4 in Harbaugh’s sixth season, but it wasn’t just the sad results of the Big Ten’s COVID-ravaged season that ruffled me.

It was Harbaugh’s 5-0 record against Ohio State and the assumption it would be 6-0 – the game was canceled due to problems in Michigan with COVID.

So I wrote at this point that Harbaugh should not be issued a “pandemic pardon” from Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel.

Of course, as it turns out, I couldn’t have been more wrong (I hope you don’t spot a theme in today’s column).

Harbaugh deserves worldwide recognition for conducting an in-depth self-evaluation, hiring a staff of young, creative assistants and rediscovering his unparalleled zest for life and the game of football. He also ended up prioritizing the game the way the Buckeyes have done for the last 20 years when they ruled the Wolverines.

Manuel deserves credit for not listening to disgruntled alums like me and staying the course while also pushing where he could – ahead of the 2021 season, Manuel halved Harbaugh’s salary.

After back-to-back double-digit victories over Ohio State, Harbaugh has returned to the top of the sport’s coaching staff.

Now it’s Ohio State coach Ryan Day who will find himself in a must-win scenario next year when the teams meet again in Ann Arbor. That might seem crazy given Day’s 45-5 record in Columbus, but the Buckeyes won’t accept three straight losses to “That Team Up North.”

Stanford coach David Shaw stands on the sidelines watching his team play California at Berkeley

Stanford coach David Shaw watches as his team play California on November 19 in Berkeley.

(Godofredo A. Vasquez / Associated Press)

Late Saturday night, after Stanford lost 9-3 to Brigham Young, David Shaw announced his retirement. It must have been a relief to Stanford fans that Shaw could see that this was the right move for everyone involved.

Stanford was never meant to be a perennial football powerhouse, but the Cardinal has fallen far too far in recent years to justify Shaw’s inflated salary.

It will be interesting to see where Stanford goes with his search. The job has become even more difficult these days with names, photos and likenesses and the transfer portal. The Stanford administration will turn their noses up at anything resembling payment for the game, and school admissions will not be kind to student transfers.

The cardinal would be smart looking across town at Brent Brennan, the San Jose State head coach who quickly restored the Spartans to seriousness.

As for the rest of the coaching carousel, there were many intriguing developments over the weekend.

  • Nebraska hired Matt Rhule, who has struggled in the NFL with the Panthers but is a seasoned program builder from his days at Temple and Baylor.
  • Lane Kiffin signed an extension to stay in Mississippi, which has opened the door for Liberty’s Hugh Freeze to potentially return to the SEC in Auburn.
  • Arizona State announced Sunday morning that it had hired 32-year-old Oregon offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham, an Arizona State graduate student.
  • Colorado reportedly offered the job to Deion Sanders. Would Sanders Leave Jackson State and the Southern Footprint to Coach the Buffaloes?
  • Wisconsin was thought to be inclined to promote interim head coach Jim Leonhard. But can the Badgers really be impressed by his 4-3 record against unranked opponents, with two of the losses coming to rivals Iowa and Minnesota? A report by ESPN’s Pete Thamel Sunday morning said Wisconsin is now targeting Cincinnati’s Luke Fickell.

Tiebreak needs to be adjusted

Washington quarterback Michael Penix Jr. is looking for a receiver against Washington State.

Washington quarterback Michael Penix Jr. is looking for a receiver against Washington State on Saturday.

(Young Kwak/Associated Press)

The Pac-12’s decision to eliminate the division winners and send its top two teams overall to the league championship game made sense. In theory, it would lead to the teams with the best chances of making the Las Vegas playoffs.

Only, that didn’t happen in the first year.

Utah, at 9-3, will not be considered for the playoffs. But it won the three-way tiebreak from 7-2 teams with Washington, 10-2, and Oregon, 9-3.

The league should reconsider its rules. The Huskies were scheduled to play USC in Vegas on Friday, not the Utes.

The first tiebreaker is neck and neck and Washington defeats Oregon. Oregon beats Utah. The Utes and Huskies didn’t play each other, making the head-to-head factor useless under the rules.

The three teams made it to stage four of the tiebreak, which was the strength of the teams’ conference schedule. Utah won.

If Head to Head couldn’t sort it out, then the overall record should have been a component that put Washington at the front of the line.

If chaos ensues over championship weekend, an 11-2 Washington team that would pull off a win over likely No. 4 USC would at least be considered for that fourth playoff spot, while Utah will not be a pick under any circumstances .

Applause for Rattler

South Carolina quarterback Spencer Rattler throws the football.

South Carolina quarterback Spencer Rattler throws the ball against Clemson Saturday in Clemson, SC

(Jacob Kupfermann/Associated Press)

One of the best stories in college football this season ended with another one with deep ties to Riley.

If the sport honored a feel-good story of the year, it would go to South Carolina quarterback Spencer Rattler, who lost his job last year in Oklahoma to Caleb Williams midseason after being a preseason Heisman Trophy favorite.

Like Williams, Rattler also used the transfer portal to find a better home with the Gamecocks.

In the last two weeks, Rattler finally lived up to his five-star tally with massive wins over Tennessee and Clemson that shook the playoff picture.

Thanks to Rattler and Shane Beamer’s Upstart program in South Carolina, the playoff selection committee is running out of deserving teams to consider. Lincoln Riley was right to promise immediate USC championships

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