Lincoln Riley and the USC Trojans are Looking to Replicate Mid-2000s Success

Apr 23, 2022; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Southern California Trojans coach Lincoln Riley during the spring game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 23, 2022; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Southern California Trojans coach Lincoln Riley during the spring game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports /

The USC Trojans enter the 2022 college football season with more hope than they’ve had for nearly a decade. Lincoln Riley is poised to bring the program back to their elite status as a juggernaut in the PAC-12.

The USC Trojans Glory Days

The USC Trojans were a staple in mainstream media in the early-to-mid 2000s. Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush reached rare air for college athletes by crossing over into bonafide celebrity status. Before either guy could legally consume alcohol, they were household names around the country.

Pete Carroll spearheaded the program at the time after the journeyman head coach tried and failed multiple times to lead an NFL locker room. Along with Leinart and Bush, Carroll branched out into superstardom himself. The trio won 37 of their 39 games together at USC, marking one of the most dominant three-year runs in college football history.

Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush entered their names into the 2006 NFL Draft with each guy hearing their name called within the top ten selections. Pete Carroll stuck around and continued to dominate the Pac-12 until his final season in 2009. As we all know, Carroll went on to coach the Seattle Seahawks to a Super Bowl title, which is more success than Leinart or Bush ever saw as professionals.

To say that the brand has taken a hit over the past decade and a half would be a mild way of putting it. While USC still recruits well, regardless of who the head coach is, they’ve failed to consistently get the top-tier players that come from their own backyard. Things are about to change… and it’s going to unfold at a breakneck pace.

New USC Trojans Head Coach Lincoln Riley

Lincoln Riley was a walk-on quarterback at Texas Tech in 2002, a year before the USC hysteria would begin sweeping the country. Ironically enough, current Cardinals head coach and former USC offensive coordinator (for about a month) Kliff Kingsbury, was the starting quarterback ahead of Riley at Texas Tech.

Riley quickly found that his biggest impact on football would be made with a headset rather than a helmet. He became a student assistant on the Red Raiders coaching staff for his final three years on campus.

A stint at East Carolina led to Riley earning a dream job at the University of Oklahoma. He served as the offensive coordinator for two seasons before being promoted to the head coach spot following the retirement of Bob Stoops.

Riley is known for his masterful understanding of offensive concepts, as well as his creative and aggressive play calling. This led to a fellow former walk-on at Texas Tech, Baker Mayfield, winning the 2017 Heisman Trophy for the Sooners. After Mayfield departed for the NFL, Kyler Murray stepped in and won the 2018 Heisman Trophy.

This marked the first time since 2004/2005 that a school produced back-to-back Heisman Trophy winners. If you haven’t caught on to the theme yet, the 2004 Heisman Trophy winner was Matt Leinart, and the 2005 Heisman Trophy winner was Reggie Bush. Bush has since had his award stripped, but they can’t erase what we all saw.

As far as the win-loss column goes, it’s impossible to label Riley’s stint in Norman as anything other than a booming success. Obviously, the Sooners’ faithful wish that a national championship had come to fruition, but Riley had the team in a position to compete for one in each of his five seasons with Oklahoma.

The USC Trojans Glory Days Part 2?

Now, the stars have aligned and Lincoln Riley is the new head coach at USC. From being a walk-on quarterback at Texas Tech to inheriting the team that he idolized in the mid-2000s is a storybook ending that is befitting of its setting in Hollywood.

Riley did not come to Los Angeles by himself. Caleb Williams is a former five-star recruit that committed to Oklahoma to play under the tutelage of Lincoln Riley. Williams overtook the incumbent starter at quarterback, Spencer Rattler, a few games into the 2021 season and never looked back.

Williams entered his name into the transfer portal shortly upon hearing the Lincoln Riley news. He entertained other offers from prestigious programs, but as many assumed would be the case, Williams followed Riley to Southern California.

More help was quickly on the way, as 2021 Biletnikoff Award winner, Jordan Addison, opted to go from the east coast to the west coast. Addison was the No. 1 wide receiver for 2022 first-round pick Kenny Pickett last season and is looking to make the same impact for Caleb Williams.

As disastrous as the Clay Helton era was, he still accumulated some talent and in doing so, he left Riley with players to work with in year one. USC fans were granted a glimpse into the future during the teams opening game against Rice.

The star-studded duo of Williams and Addison made waves immediately. Williams completed 19 of his 22 pass attempts for 249 yards and two touchdowns, marking an efficient debut with his new squad. Addison hauled in five of those passes for 54 yards and he also caught both of Williams’ touchdown tosses. This is everything that fans envisioned when the two committed to USC.

The competition against Rice is not to the standard that the rest of their schedule features, so it remains to be seen how the team handles a squad with similar talent as them. With Utah losing an early game to the Florida Gators, the Pac-12 is wide open for the taking.

As always, the season will be determined by conference play. USC is scheduled to travel to Salt Lake City on Oct. 15, and there’s a strong chance that game will decide who wins the Pac-12 South.

Whether the Trojans win the Pac-12 in 2022 or not, it is clear to see that the brand is on its way back to the top, and in a hurry. You can guarantee that recruits are going to take notice of this. If Lincoln Riley can convince a kid to come to Oklahoma, he’s going to have no trouble getting them to commit to 70° weather and sunshine.

The recruiting cycle is not the only way that Riley is going to change the landscape of college football. As is evident by the arrival of Caleb Williams and Jordan Addison, the transfer portal is going to be a major factor that should work in the favor of USC.

The Trojans are admittedly light on 2023 NFL Draft prospects, but it won’t be long before they start seeing their players taken in early rounds similar to what we see with Alabama, Georgia, and Ohio State yearly.

Jordan Addison is pretty easily the best prospect currently for USC, but a few more names to keep an eye on would be: running back Travis Dye, offensive lineman Andrew Vorhees, defensive lineman Tuli Tuipulotu, and cornerback Mekhi Blackmon.

Starting in the 2024 NFL Draft, when Caleb Williams becomes eligible, the Trojans are going to become a mainstay atop draft boards. Their image is already undergoing a positive facelift, so everything that happens on the field in 2022 is just icing on the cake.

Given how successful Lincoln Riley, Caleb Williams, and Jordan Addison have already been in their collegiate careers, these three may be able to replicate the headline-grabbing USC teams from the mid-2000s. The star power is there. The location is ideal. And the conference is ripe for the picking.