As USC football falls short of expectations, Lincoln Riley must prove he can build a program

LOS ANGELES — Last January, Lincoln Riley stood in front of his team as it reconvened for the first time following the 2022 season and delivered a straightforward message.

“We’re going to put a plan together for this team to go get what was out there,” Riley said, “what we left hanging out the year before.”

At the time, USC was a little more than a month removed from a devastating loss to Utah in the Pac-12 title game that prevented the Trojans from reaching the College Football Playoff. They were a week removed from an embarrassing collapse in the Cotton Bowl. It went unsaid but the expectation was clear: win the Pac-12, make the CFP and do what the team fell so excruciatingly short of doing in 2022.

But as Cole Becker’s 38-yard field goal went through the uprights in the Coliseum on Saturday night, Utah squashed the Trojans’ hopes for a CFP bid — no matter how faint those aspirations were — and put their Pac-12 title hopes on life support.

USC won’t be able to grab whatever it left on the table last year. If it suffers one more loss in the next four weeks, chances are it won’t even get to the table at all this season. In the aftermath of the loss, Riley tried to reframe things when asked about falling short of expectations.

“We’re in the middle of the season. That’s a dream world,” Riley said. “You’re fighting your ass off every single week. We don’t come in every single week talking about winning a national championship, going to the playoffs. I don’t know where that narrative starts.”

Lincoln Riley walks past Utah coach Kyle Whittingham following the post-game handshake. (Kirby Lee / USA Today)

Whatever. Words don’t really matter here. The reality is we’re going to learn a lot about Riley over the next few months. And the work will or won’t reveal itself over time. That’s what will matter most.

Riley has never been in this spot, a moment where his program has been rendered essentially irrelevant by the time the calendar flips to November. His teams typically play in high-profile games in December and January.

At Oklahoma, he inherited a program with a well-established winning DNA that was created by Bob Stoops. Earlier this week, he acknowledged that the same sort of standard wasn’t in place when he arrived at USC. That is true. To be frank, USC’s program was a mess and had fallen behind other blue bloods in terms of how it operated in the modern era of the sport.

If Riley is going to take USC to the most elite level of college football, he’s going to have to do something he’s never done before — build. And it’s going to be a lot more difficult than it appeared 12 months ago when the Trojans were riding high amid an 11-1 regular season.

“I think that’s part of our progression as a program,” Riley said. “I think when you haven’t been in this position in a while, it takes time. It’s going to take some scars, some tough lessons to learn. These are lessons we couldn’t learn last year. It wasn’t like this. It didn’t feel like this. And this is part of our progression. It sucks. It kills you but this program will be better for it because for the first time in a while, there are going to be championship expectations here and those aren’t going anywhere. We’re not going anywhere. We signed up to do this thing for a long time. So I’m heartbroken for the team right now. In the big picture, this program will get more ready to be back on the stage it was at for a long, long time.”

USC is now 6-2 and 4-1 in the Pac-12. The Trojans can technically still win the conference, but a step back from last season is pretty much inevitable based on how they’re playing at the moment.

It wasn’t hard to envision that being a possibility. The schedule was much more difficult this season. There were some key departures on offense. The defense was bound to have massive turnover regression.

Of course, some of the issues have been self-inflicted as well. Riley gambled and decided to keep embattled coordinator Alex Grinch for another season when the defense had a disastrous end to the 2022 campaign.

The defense is more talented this season, primarily in the front seven, but Grinch hasn’t been able to take the unit to another level. On Saturday night, just like last season, the defense was in position to close out Utah and couldn’t, which resulted in another loss in the final moments to the Utes.

Washington looked sluggish against Arizona State on Saturday, but if Bryson Barnes, a former walk-on quarterback, can throw for 235 yards, rush for 57 more and account for four touchdowns, then what will Michael Penix Jr. do to this defense in two weeks? Or Bo Nix when USC faces Oregon after that?

Riley will have to evaluate the coaching staff on that side of the ball. USC creates some chaos here and there, but it doesn’t tackle well, doesn’t stop the run well, doesn’t cover well, doesn’t contain well. It’s a mess.

On the other side of the ball, the offense has lacked rhythm for weeks despite the fact that it has the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, Caleb Williams, on its side. The offense had some moments on Saturday, mainly in the first half, but there has to be some self-evaluation there too. The Trojans scored one touchdown over the game’s final three quarters — and that came after a Zachariah Branch punt return in the final minutes set them up at the 11-yard line.

It’s one thing to not win a national championship with the reigning Heisman Trophy winner. It’s another to end your season in the Alamo Bowl, or the Holiday Bowl or whatever secondary bowl the Trojans appear destined to play in.

Riley said he signed up to do this thing for a long time. If that’s the case, recruiting has to take a massive step forward, because if things are going to ever take a leap on the field, USC has to be much better on the recruiting trail.

When talking about expectations after the game, Riley said: “All the outside noise that comes with it, it can get to you. I think at times, it’s fair to say, it’s got to this team. I don’t think in a negative way but we’ve had to really fight the urge — I think we’ve had to fight to keep things on our own terms.”

Back in January, Riley set the terms. At the moment, USC appears well on its way to falling short of them this year. How he and the program respond to that moving forward will certainly be fascinating to watch.

(Top photo: Keith Birmingham / MediaNews Group / Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images)

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