Column: Heat is on Lincoln Riley and USC to earn College Football Playoff spot

USC coach Lincoln Riley finishes an interview during Pac-12 media day.
USC coach Lincoln Riley finishes an interview during Pac-12 media day, where the Trojans drew plenty of attention for their flashy rebuild with their pricey coach and high-profile transfers.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

They have a millionaire coach who lives in a mansion.

They have a charismatic quarterback with a huddle full of endorsements.

They are loaded with high-priced free agents who came here for a chance to reap the rewards of Hollywood.

To nobody’s surprise, they have become Los Angeles’ most popular professional football team, rich and rollicking and seemingly headed this winter for SoFi Stadium stardom.

The Rams? Think again. The Chargers? Nice try.


It is, of course, the USC Trojans, college football’s merry band of opportunists who head into this season with stars in their eyes and a target on their back.

During a call with Pac-12 university presidents and athletic directors last year, USC President Carol Folt ‘shut down’ potential expansion plans.

July 29, 2022

Anything less than a spot in the College Football Playoff just won’t do.

Even that might not be enough, just listen to the man who started all this ruckus.

At Pac-12 media day Friday, I asked new USC coach Lincoln Riley for his expectations for this season.

“To win the championship,” he said.

The championship. This season. Win it. OK!

The CFP title game is at SoFi Stadium on Jan. 9, so, yeah, this is an incredibly high and dramatic bar set by a 38-year-old dude who came here from Oklahoma eight months ago and promptly turned a 4-8 team into the game’s hottest destination.

“We didn’t come here to play for second, we are not wired that way,” Riley said. “We came here competitively to win championships, win them now and to win them for a long time.”

A nation-leading 20 kids have transferred to USC from other schools. At least that many have been forced out of the program. The money is flowing, the promises are soaring, the program has been turned on its helmet, and you know what that means.


The pressure starts now. The honeymoon ends here. Even before the first summer practice sweat, the heat is on.

“The reality is if there’s no pressure, then you probably don’t have the same opportunities as others do,” Riley said, adding, “The opportunity is, if you do it well, anything is possible. This is one of those places. This is one of those programs. Frankly, this is one of those cities that if you do it well here, the sky’s the absolute limit. I believe it’s there for our football team.”

USC coach Lincoln Riley responded publicly Friday to Pittsburgh coach Pat Narduzzi accusing him of tampering in receiver Jordan Addison joining the Trojans.

July 30, 2022

So much, so fast, so unnerving. Has there ever been a team in this town under more deserved preseason scrutiny than this one? Has there ever been a college team anywhere that will enter a season with more unearned swagger?

They should win? No, they better win. All this, and they have yet to take an official snap.

“I would reiterate again, we didn’t come here to play for second,” Riley said.

It’s good that college athletes are finally getting paid. It’s fair that college athletes are finally able to transfer and become immediately eligible. The college athletes have long been the backbone of this billion-dollar industry and deserve to be compensated for it. Whatever they get, they’ve earned it.

Yet it’s a bit unsettling when this confluence of changes occurs in such dramatic fashion at a place where the drama has always been rooted in tradition. Never have USC fans been asked to cheer for so many complete strangers. Never before has it been so abundantly clear that these strangers are only here for the money and the football.

Fittingly, for the first time in memory, the two players USC brought to Pac-12 media day to represent the university probably still have trouble finding their way around campus. They were quarterback Caleb Williams and linebacker Shane Lee, two highly touted transfers from Oklahoma and Alabama, respectively.

Said Lee: “Our focus is on getting the culture right.”

Said Williams: “USC is a blue blood, simple as that. Teams … have rough moments, that’s what USC has had. We’re here to try to turn that around.”

Williams is the centerpiece of the Trojans’ remodel and the best example of the new era. He is a transfer from Oklahoma who already has several endorsement deals despite starting only eight college games.

Caleb Williams’ father, Carl, is doing everything he can to maximize the USC quarterback’s brand, but parental pressure on athletes can lead to pitfalls.

July 21, 2022

I asked what he would consider a successful season.

“Win every game,” he said.

His main target will be Jordan Addison, a transfer from Pittsburgh who was voted the country’s best wide receiver last season and now will be its best dressed. When Addison showed up, he asked for Carson Palmer’s retired No. 3 jersey. This put Palmer in an impossible position. He could never say no, even if he wanted to say no. So, with Palmer’s very public blessing, USC regrettably gave the kid the number.

No, this is not the same thing as former athletic director Mike Garrett giving Darnell Bing his No. 20 in 2005. It was Bing’s senior season, and Garrett considered it a reward for dedicated service.

In Addison’s case, it feels more like a recruiting tool. He’ll play one year here and go to the NFL. The jersey giveaway feels like a direct hit on Trojan tradition.

Imagine the increased pressure on Addison. He drops a ball wearing a Heisman Trophy jersey? The crowd won’t be thrilled.

USC has another great transfer wide receiver in Oklahoma’s Mario Williams, and a great transfer running back in Oregon’s Travis Dye. They should score 50 points a game. Problem is, they could give up 60.

Riley doesn’t really do defense. The numbers 54, 45, and 63 represent the points scored by opponents in three of his four bowl games at Oklahoma.

He hopes transfers like Lee, Arizona State’s Eric Gentry, Colorado’s Mekhi Blackmon and Auburn’s Romello Height will help change that narrative.

But nobody knows. Nobody has seen this remodeled-down-to-the-studs team in action. In reality, they’re one of college football’s most unknown quantities.

They must win anyway. Win big. Win often. Win that championship.

“My expectations are extremely high,” said Riley. “I mean, again, this is a go-for-it kind of place.”

This is also a boo-at-it kind of place. Kudos to the Trojans for going for it, but understand one thing.

It will get real ugly, real quick, if they don’t get there.