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Commentary: Lincoln Riley and USC share Heisman Trophy frustrations, but that soon could change

Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley talks to quarterback Spencer Rattler before a two-point conversion.
Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley benched quarterback Spencer Rattler, the preseason Heisman Trophy favorite, during an Oct. 9 game against Texas. Riley is now the coach at USC and Rattler is in the transfer portal.
(Jeffrey McWhorter / Associated Press)

Saturday was supposed to be Lincoln Riley’s night once again at New York’s famed Downtown Athletic Club, the cameras continually panning the audience to lock in on the West Texan who had made the big city feel like home each year on the second weekend of December.

It seemed preordained that Spencer Rattler would follow in the footsteps of Oklahoma quarterbacks Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray in taking home the Heisman Trophy under Riley’s tutelage. So the oddsmakers named Rattler, the top quarterback in the 2019 recruiting class who showed promise in 2020 as the Sooners’ starter, the Heisman favorite entering his redshirt sophomore season in Norman.

But, by halftime of the Texas game Oct. 9, Riley unthinkably sent Rattler to the bench because of his ineffectiveness — or was it Riley’s own struggle over a season and a half to unlock the young talent’s greatness that sent him there?

As we enter Heisman Saturday, Rattler is in the transfer portal, looking for a fresh start. And you can bet that Riley, now the head coach at USC, won’t be sitting around watching the ceremony moping about what is probably his biggest letdown as a coach. Rather, he’ll be voraciously working to fill out the Trojans’ 2022 recruiting class before Wednesday’s early signing period so that Riley’s first quarterback protege at USC — whomever that may be — will have plenty of skill around him.

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A look at what Lincoln Riley’s USC team could look like come the 2022 season.

USC fans will bring their own frustrations into Saturday night. If they’re inclined to watch the ceremony, they may want to pour a little extra bourbon into their eggnog as Southern Californians Bryce Young and C.J. Stroud own the stage.

Young, the Alabama quarterback who enters the night as the unquestioned favorite, should have been wearing cardinal and gold. He was next in the Santa Ana Mater Dei quarterback pipeline to USC — Matt Leinart to Matt Barkley to JT Daniels to Young — and committed to the Trojans in July 2018.

Deep in his heart, Young wanted to play for USC. He held strong after its rough 5-7 campaign in 2018, as speculation began to swirl for the first time that Clay Helton could be fired, as Kliff Kingsbury was named offensive coordinator only to leave a month later for the Arizona Cardinals, as Helton settled on Graham Harrell to lead the offense. But it was around that time that Steve Sarkisian rejoined Alabama’s staff as offensive coordinator, making the flipping of Young to the Crimson Tide his top priority.

More Oklahoma assistants are working for Lincoln Riley at USC beyond the ones he brought with him on the plane to Los Angeles when he was first hired.

In September 2019, after Kedon Slovis took over for the injured Daniels and received glowing public praise from Harrell, Young announced his change of heart and switched his commitment to Alabama. It was sweet revenge for Sarkisian, the formerly disgraced Trojans head coach, and a brutal blow to the perception of Helton’s program.

From there, the pain for USC fans only grew with time. Slovis regressed and battled injuries during his sophomore and junior campaigns. And this year, in his first season as Alabama’s starter, Young was tested often but showed moxie as a playmaker when the Crimson Tide needed it most, leading his team to a Southeastern Conference championship and No. 1 seed in the College Football Playoff.

Young lived up to his high-school hype, which was far from a given this season (see Rattler and Clemson quarterback DJ Uiagalelei of Bellflower St. John Bosco). Sadly, given the state of the USC program as the Helton years drug on, no Trojan could blame Young for placing his career in Nick Saban’s hands. Who knows where he would be today if he had stayed true to USC?

Alabama quarterback Bryce Young runs past Georgia defensive lineman Jalen Carter for a touchdown Dec. 4 in Atlanta.
(Brynn Anderson / Associated Press)

Saturday night’s shared disappointment between Riley and the USC faithful only reinforces the mandate he has gladly accepted: Keep the best quarterbacks in the Southland at home in Los Angeles and develop them in the mold of Mayfield, Murray and Jalen Hurts (another Oklahoma Heisman finalist) and not Rattler.

Only Riley, Rattler and members of the Sooners offense know what went so wrong this year in Norman. From an outside perspective, it seemed like it became a confidence issue for the young man from Phoenix. Riley had surrounded him with premier playmakers at wide receiver like Marvin Mims, Jadon Haselwood and Theo Wease, but the explosive plays just didn’t come as they should have.

Rattler was Riley’s first homegrown quarterback, as the three who preceded him were transfers. USC fans can rest assured that Riley will learn from that experience, and the early returns were positive with Rattler’s replacement, freshman Caleb Williams, the five-star prospect who sparked Oklahoma’s amazing comeback win over Texas but couldn’t get the Sooners over the hump in losses at Baylor and Oklahoma State.

It was those surprising defeats that allowed USC to swoop in and steal Riley on Thanksgiving weekend. He wasted little time in proving he meant business, flipping Los Alamitos’ Malachi Nelson, the No. 2 quarterback in the 2023 class, from Oklahoma to USC.

The college football coaching landscape has changed significantly in recent weeks, with several big-name hires. Which schools finished at the head of the class?

The more immediate question for the Trojans is whether Williams, the Dallas native, will transfer and join Riley at USC to compete with Jaxson Dart and Miller Moss for the starting job entering next season.

On the day Riley was introduced at USC, he walked through the Heritage Hall lobby, checking out the hardware, which of course featured the school’s six Heismans (not counting Reggie Bush’s vacated Heisman). He seemed confident he would soon add a seventh to the display.


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