When Lincoln Riley took over Southern California’s four-win football program one year ago this week, the coach stood on the top rim of the Coliseum and boldly declared his Trojans should be competing for championships right away.
Riley chuckled Tuesday when he was reminded of that exhilarating time in his life after his shocking departure from Oklahoma, but he has no interest in gloating about just how right he turned out to be.
“I feel a lot right now like I did then,” Riley said. “When you do sit back for a second and think about where we were a year ago, and some of the things that have transpired for this team and the program during that time, it’s fun to think about. But it’s just not the time and place right now.”
Riley has delivered on his declaration with a swiftness that even surprises some of the players who have turned USC (11-1, 8-1 Pac-12) into the nation’s fourth-ranked team with a chance at both the Pac-12 title and a College Football Playoff berth. The Trojans even won both of their biggest rivalry matchups against UCLA and Notre Dame in the past two weeks, reclaiming the Victory Bell and the Jeweled Shillelagh.
It's a stunning correction to a miserable decade-plus for the West Coast's marquee program, which has won just one conference crown since 2008 and has never played in the CFP, which began in 2014.
USC will be in Las Vegas on Friday night for the Pac-12 title game against No. 12 Utah, the only team to beat Riley's Trojans this season. One more payback victory in a year dubbed “a revenge tour” by star USC defensive end Tuli Tuipulotu would punctuate this season with an exclamation point, even if it isn't over yet.
“It is a crazy story, but I think we knew that we had to turn everything around, and we’ve been working ever since Lincoln Riley came in,” said Tuipulotu, the FBS leader with 12 1/2 sacks. “We knew it was going to happen if we kept working.”
Riley and Heisman Trophy favorite Caleb Williams are the faces of this turnaround as two former Sooners who moved to California and immediately hit it big. But the coach and his players all say this flashy transformation happened because of 12 months of hard work and a fierce commitment to team-building.
“From spring ball to summer workouts, I thought we were going to be a great team,” said Williams, the elusive quarterback with 3,712 yards passing and a school-record 44 total touchdowns. “The outside world is going to say what they want to say, and we're 11-1 right now, so obviously it doesn’t matter. We thought we were a great team, and we’ve shown that.”
USC restocked its roster with a host of talent from the transfer portal, particularly at the offensive skill positions, but the bedrock of this hard-hitting team is the players left behind after seven modestly successful seasons under Clay Helton. That veteran core was hurt and humbled after going 4-8 last year under Helton and interim coach Donte Williams — but almost nobody left, and almost everybody improved under the guidance of Riley's staff.
“Some teams really whooped us last year and disrespected us, even in our home stadium,” center Brett Neilon said. “I think that made the bond even tighter between the guys that are left here, and I think it had a trickle-down effect to some of the new guys. I feel like last year we had really good talent, and we were just getting beat. Coming back here this year, we’re making the wrongs right.”
The offense was immediately transformed by Riley and Williams. The defense took longer after receiving a fraction of the talent influx. But coordinator Alex Grinch has built an opportunistic group with an FBS-leading turnover margin (plus-23, a full nine better than the second-place competitors) that can no longer be ascribed simply to luck.
No coach in USC's 135-year football history has won more games in his debut season than Riley, who has delivered on every promise and the most optimistic predictions for his success.
Anyone with an understanding of the dysfunction and chaos behind the scenes in USC's football program over the previous 12 seasons understands the magnitude of the accomplishments by Riley and athletic director Mike Bohn over the past year, but Riley has no interest in basking in his success.
“You just go to work, and you start putting it together as fast as you can, and start building the culture as fast as you can," Riley said after USC finished the regular season last Saturday by beating Notre Dame 38-27 in front of more than 72,000 screaming Los Angeles fans.
“I can’t say, ‘Yes, I knew this was going to happen,'” Riley added. "But at the same time, I don’t believe in putting limits on what you can accomplish, especially if you get the right people in the building and everybody decides to be unselfish and work hard for each other. I stood right by what I told you our expectations were from Day One. A lot of people thought I was crazy, and that’s fine.”