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Column: Lincoln Riley keeps raising the bar, expecting his first USC team to be his weakest

USC coach Lincoln Riley gestures during the second half against UCLA.
USC coach Lincoln Riley gestures during the second half against UCLA on Nov. 19 at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)
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Don’t be fooled by his understated demeanor. Lincoln Riley is brash. He tells you he’s going to kick your you-know-what and he explains how he’s going to do it.

Riley showed up here talking a big game, but with his first season as USC’s coach nearly complete, he’s convinced even the most cynical observers that he isn’t just full of hot air from the Oklahoma plains.

He said he expected to compete for championships this year, and he did, the Trojans in line for a place in the College Football Playoff semifinals until they lost to Utah in the Pac-12 championship game.

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He predicted the Trojans would be a player again recruiting in the West, and they have, unveiling a recruiting class in the early signing period that included the No. 1 player in California in quarterback Malachi Nelson and No. 1 player in Nevada in receiver Zachariah Branch.

Now, with the Trojans preparing to play Tulane in the Cotton Bowl, Riley made another brazen declaration.

“I’ll be disappointed if this isn’t the worst team that we have in our entire tenure here,” Riley said.

He might have just voiced the expectations of the USC fan base, but consider how unusual that is in these times when quotes of that nature are forever preserved by the internet and could later be weaponized against their sources.

Riley might not be Muhammad Ali, but he’s certainly closer to Ali than he is to UCLA coach Chip Kelly, who before this season refused to even define what a successful year would be for his team.

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The Trojans have won 11 games. They are third in the nation in scoring. They have a Heisman Trophy winner in quarterback Caleb Williams, who could one day be the first overall pick in the NFL draft.

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And here was Riley saying of these Trojans, “This is so bottom level for what this program can be.”

Riley wanted to emphasize the point at his early signing day news conference in Heritage Hall. He introduced the concept without any prompting. He reintroduced the idea later in the news conference, again without any prompting.

Instead of celebrating a potential top-10 class, Riley already was speaking to his next group of potential recruits.

“You better jump on,” he said, “or watch us go by.”

Little wonder the likes of Nelson, Branch and receiver Makai Lemon committed to USC before Riley coached his first game with the Trojans. And little wonder Riley claims the team’s success increased the number of high-caliber players who are considering USC.

While Riley said he anticipated his future teams would be more talented, he said he wanted them to retain the spirit of this year’s Trojans.

Los Alamitos High School quarterback Malachi Nelson waits to enter the field before a game against Newport Harbor.
Los Alamitos High School quarterback Malachi Nelson waits to enter the field before a game against Newport Harbor High School on Sept. 30 in Newport Beach. Nelson signed with USC during early signing period on Wednesday.
(Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

“When we look back 10 years from now, in some ways, this will be maybe one of the less talented teams we’ll have,” Riley said. “But in terms of chemistry, the locker room being right, the kind of vibe and culture around this team, these guys have been outstanding. That’s been our ace in the hole. That’s been the thing that separated us and gave us a chance to win a lot of games, to go on a pretty cool run here in Year 1. That’s something we’ve worked hard to establish here in the first 12 months. We damn sure aren’t going to let that fade away as we build the roster up and we build the talent level.”

The Trojans signed 19 high school players on Wednesday, 12 more than they did on early-signing day last year.

The team this year relied heavily on the transfer portal to construct its roster, and while Arizona receiver Dorian Singer is expected to lead another loaded class of transfers, Riley said his preference was to build his program around four-year players.

Riley said that with time, he and his staff have gained a greater understanding of the kinds of players who are more likely to succeed at USC.

“This is not a small-town college setting,” he said. “This is a big market. There’s bright lights on you every single day. There are big opportunities, on and off the field, and you have to find guys that embrace that are ready to handle that, and I think it takes a unique individual to do that.”

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The implication was that Riley was now recruiting from a position of power, that he could choose the players he wants rather than have to settle for players who want to attend USC.

Asked if he thought USC lost players because of name, image and likeness considerations, Riley replied, “Yeah. Of course we did. But everybody did.”

He didn’t seem to care.

“We’re looking for people whose priorities align with USC’s priorities, and USC’s priorities are about the team first,” he said. “It’s going to be about the university and education first. NIL is going to be a part of it here, and a tremendous opportunity, but it’s not ever going to be No. 1 on the priority list.”

Riley can speak like this with a measure of credibility because of what his team accomplished on the field. He’s backed up his talk. But if he wants to maintain his air of casual confidence, his future teams will have to clear the elevated standards he has set for them.

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