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Lincoln Riley's hire at USC gives snoozing Pac-12 a needed jolt

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For the fifth consecutive season, it is expected that the Pac-12 will fail to place a team in the College Football Playoff. It’s a drought of irrelevance compounded by the fact that the best players from the West keep signing to play football outside of the league.

Too many California kids at Alabama or Clemson. Too many Seattle recruits headed to Ohio State. Too many Oklahoma Sooners coming from all over the place.

USC doesn’t deserve all of the blame here. Outside of Oregon and Utah, there aren’t a lot of programs doing well. But the Trojans are the league’s historic power residing in its biggest city amid its most fertile recruiting ground.

If there was a program that could lift all boats, that could contend for national titles regularly and land a string of five-stars on an annual basis, it’s USC. In the 2000s, when Pete Carroll was there, it did just that.

Well, maybe now it’s back. Not just the Trojans, but the entire league.

LAWRENCE, KS - OCTOBER 23: Head coach Lincoln Riley of the Oklahoma Sooners talks to players during warmups before a game against the Kansas Jayhawks at David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium on October 23, 2021 in Lawrence, Kansas. (Photo by Kyle Rivas/Getty Images)
Lincoln Riley ended his run at Oklahoma with a 55-10 record. (Kyle Rivas/Getty Images)

On Sunday, USC shocked college football by luring Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley out of Norman and to Troy. The 38-year-old has a 55-10 record, three playoff appearances and a wide-open offense that recruits love.

“It’s everything,” said Adam Gorney, the Southern California-based recruiting expert for Rivals.com. “They needed that kind of hire to excite the skill players and quarterbacks to play at USC. Talking to players and coaches already, kids want to play at USC they just need a reason. That offense is going to be the reason.”

There are no sure-thing hires in college football. Sometimes the most obvious fail. Sometimes the fifth choice — as Carroll famously was — become icons. Yet in Riley, USC has itself a proven winner, a young offensive-minded guy who has shown to be an aggressive and successful recruiter, especially in the West.

While Texas and Oklahoma have always been the mainstays of Sooner recruiting, Riley has signed or taken commitments from a dozen California prospects since he took over in 2017, plus others out of Arizona, Oregon and Nevada.

With his arrival, there is a jolt of energy to not just USC, but the conference that will have to raise its game to compete with him. It mimics Ohio State’s 2012 hiring of Urban Meyer, which launched the Buckeyes and forced the rest of the somewhat-sleepy Big Ten to keep up.

Consider that within an hour of the news breaking that Riley was headed to USC, this happened: Running back Raleek Brown, a Class of 2022 five-star from Mater Dei High School in Orange County who is ranked as the second-best prospect in California by Rivals.com, was already tweeting, “Staying home?”

Brown was committed to Oklahoma because he wanted to play for Riley. Also pledged to OU was Class of 2023 quarterback Malachi Nelson of Los Alamitos (Calif.), the best player in the state and highest-rated quarterback in the country not named Arch Manning. You can expect him to reconsider, not to mention his two four-star wide receiver teammates, Makai Lemon and Deandre Moore.

“It looks like most or all of them are going to flip,” Gorney said. “Not a lot of kids in Southern California are dying to move to Norman, Oklahoma. They were going to play for Lincoln.”

You don’t hire a coach for a handful of recruits, even ones this highly touted, but Riley represents a trend. If he and his offense were already winning over local kids when he was 1,300 miles away, how will he do when he’s just up the road?

Can he keep game-breaking talents who have powered or are powering national programs such as Najee Harris and Bryce Young at Alabama or C.J. Stroud and Wyatt Davis at Ohio State or D.J. Uiagalelei at Clemson?

Considering Riley’s offense resembles the 7-on-7 style of play that Gorney says has become nearly as important as the high school season, the answer is probably. USC has had decent coaches. What it has lacked is a dynamic recruiter as a head coach since Carroll — or at least Lane Kiffin — left.

Back then, USC cleaned up out West on signing day and competed with the best teams in the country in the fall. No one doubted the Pac 12’s relevance. If nothing else, poaching Riley gives hope that those days are returning.

And if USC is winning, then it’s up to the rest of the league to raise its game to compete. Half a decade without a playoff appearance is an embarrassment for the Pac 12.

Sunday, a step toward changing that perception happened.

Also on the "College Football Enquirer":

  • Lincoln Riley to USC

  • Did Oklahoma’s move to the SEC play a role?

  • Who is next for the Sooners?

  • Florida hires Billy Napier

  • Michigan finally beats (and beats up) Ohio State

  • Jim Harbaugh fires back at Ryan Day

  • The Iron Bowl fallout

  • Bedlam is bedlam

  • Coach O goes out a winner as A&M reels

  • Plus: the Small Sample Heisman and Say Something Nice

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