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Commentary: Surprise! Lincoln Riley was right to promise immediate championships at USC

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

I knew that Riley, already proven as one of the top coaches in the sport at 39 years old with a West Texas swagger, was eventually going to elevate USC back to national prominence. I knew that his presence and his electric offenses would reignite Los Angeles’ passion for college football, right as the Rams were building momentum toward a Super Bowl crown won 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 driven colleagues on the college beat.

But I did not know Riley would be this good.

Yes, once he convinced star quarterback Caleb Williams to transfer from Oklahoma, and once Biletnikoff Award-winning wide receiver Jordan Addison followed Williams here from Pittsburgh, I figured USC’s turnaround from a deflating 4-8 season would be definitive and swift.

Yet, at the start of the season back in August, I couldn’t shake the need to set tempered expectations for year one. Looking at the soft start to the schedule, I saw a reasonable path to 9-1, with the lone loss coming at Utah (which I picked to crash the College Football Playoff semifinals).

My logical brain said UCLA, which beat USC 62-33 last year at the Coliseum and returned Dorian Thompson-Robinson and Zach Charbonnet, would be built too soundly for the Trojans to overcome in the fifth year of Chip Kelly’s tenure.

That same measured thinking led me to assume that a Notre Dame program USC hadn’t beaten since 2016 and had made two CFP semifinal appearances in that time period — even with a first-time head coach in Marcus Freeman — was going to be able to dictate the tenor of the action with Midwestern brawn.

Wrong. Doubly wrong.

I never could 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 easy-pour foundation that ended up tougher than Riley’s 2021 Easter brisket (if you don’t get the reference, a quick Google search should explain).

Holy smokes, these Trojans are tough.

Just as much as the Heisman-worthy exploits of Williams, USC roughed up its rivals because it had superior will — and skill — in the trenches.

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

The Trojans aren’t on the verge of winning the Pac-12 and heading to the playoff for the first time due to their Hollywood flash. South L.A. mettle, more like.

USC running back Raleek Brown rambles through the Notre Dame defense in the third quarter Saturday at the Coliseum.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Just like against UCLA when Charbonnet was held to 95 yards, USC stayed committed to stopping the run against Notre Dame’s pounding attack and never cracked.

Early in the game, the Fighting Irish could not move the ball three to six feet when they needed it most. They resulted to passing with quarterback Drew Pyne, who did it well, but that was never going to be Notre Dame’s formula for victory in the Coliseum.

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

Riley lost seven conference games in five seasons leading Oklahoma.

This week, Riley gets a few days to prepare for Utah, the one team that beat USC this year — by one point thanks to a gutsy two-point conversion call by Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, the dean of Pac-12 coaches.

Whittingham’s Utes never go down easy. But, after the last two weeks, I can say this confidently: Neither do Lincoln Riley’s Trojans.

Michigan mea culpa

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

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 graduate of Michigan, I thought I was taking a stand and doing what was right for my alma mater on Nov. 28, 2020.

The Wolverines had just lost to Penn State at home to bring 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 had me out of sorts.

It was Harbaugh’s 0-5 record against Ohio State and the assumption it was about to be 0-6 — “The Game” ended up being canceled due to Michigan issues with COVID.

So, I wrote in this space that Harbaugh should not be issued a “pandemic pardon” by Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel.

Of course, as it turned out, I could not have been more wrong (I hope you are not noticing a theme in today’s column).

Harbaugh deserves a world of credit for performing deep self-evaluation, hiring a staff of young, creative assistants and rediscovering his incomparable zest for life and the game of football. He also finally prioritized “The Game” the way the Buckeyes have been doing as they lorded over the Wolverines the past 20 years.

Manuel deserves credit for not listening to disgruntled alums like myself and staying the course while also applying pressure where he could — before the 2021 season, Manuel cut Harbaugh’s pay in half.

After back-to-back double-digit victories over Ohio State, Harbaugh has returned to the top rung of coaches in the sport.

Now, it is 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 may 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 sideline and watches his team play against California in Berkeley

Stanford coach David Shaw watches his team play against California in Berkeley on Nov. 19.

(Godofredo A. Vásquez / Associated Press)

Late Saturday night, after Stanford lost to Brigham Young to fall to 3-9, David Shaw announced his resignation. It had to come as a relief to Stanford fans that Shaw was able to see this was the right move for all involved.

Stanford was never meant to be a perennial powerhouse in football, but the Cardinal have fallen way too far the last couple years to justify Shaw’s bloated salary.

It will be interesting to see where Stanford goes with its search. The job has become even harder in today’s climate with name, image and likeness and the transfer portal. Stanford administration will stick up its nose at anything resembling pay for play, and school admissions is not going to be kind to undergraduate transfers.

The Cardinal would be smart to look across town at Brent Brennan, the San Jose State head coach who has quickly led the Spartans back to respectability.

As for the rest of the coaching carousel, the weekend saw lots of intriguing developments.

  • Nebraska hired Matt Rhule, who struggled in the NFL with the Panthers but is a proven program builder from his time at Temple and Baylor.
  • Lane Kiffin signed an extension to remain at Mississippi, which has opened the door for Liberty’s Hugh Freeze to potentially return to the SEC at Auburn.
  • Arizona State announced Sunday morning that it has hired 32-year-old Oregon offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham, an Arizona State graduate.
  • Colorado has reportedly offered the job to Deion Sanders. Would Sanders leave Jackson State and the Southern footprint to coach the Buffaloes?
  • Wisconsin had been assumed to be leaning toward promoting 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 that Wisconsin is now targeting Cincinnati’s Luke Fickell.

Tiebreak needs a tweak

Washington quarterback Michael Penix Jr. looks for a receiver against Washington State Saturday.

Washington quarterback Michael Penix Jr. looks for a receiver against Washington State Saturday.

(Young Kwak / Associated Press)

The Pac-12’s decision to eliminate division winners and send its top two teams in the standings to the league championship game made sense. Theoretically, it was going to lead to its teams with the best chance of making the playoff squaring off in Las Vegas.

Only, that didn’t happen in year one.

Utah, at 9-3, is not under playoff consideration. But it won the three-way tiebreak of 7-2 teams with Washington, 10-2, and Oregon, 9-3.

The league should revisit its rules. The Huskies should be playing USC in Vegas Friday, not the Utes.

The first tiebreaker is head to head, and Washington beat Oregon. Oregon beat Utah. The Utes and Huskies didn’t play each other, which rendered the head to head factor useless under the rules.

The three teams made it all the way to step four of the tiebreaker, which was the strength of the teams’ conference schedule. Utah’s won out.

If head to head could not settle it, then overall record should have been a component, moving Washington to the front of the line.

If chaos reigns on championship weekend, an 11-2 Washington team coming off a win over what will likely be No. 4 USC would at least be under consideration for that fourth playoff spot, while Utah will not be a choice under any circumstance.

Applause for Rattler

South Carolina quarterback Spencer Rattler throws the football against Clemson Saturday

South Carolina quarterback Spencer Rattler (7) throws the ball against Clemson Saturday in Clemson, S.C.

(Jacob Kupferman / Associated Press)

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

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

Like Williams, Rattler took advantage of the transfer portal to find a better home with the Gamecocks.

The last two weeks, Rattler finally lived up to his five-star billing in massive upset victories over Tennessee and Clemson which shook up the playoff picture.

Thanks to Rattler and Shane Beamer’s upstart South Carolina program, the playoff selection committee is running out of deserving teams to consider.

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