The University of Southern California hired head coach Lincoln Riley away from Oklahoma late last season. He left for Los Angeles before he could coach his Sooners in the Alamo Bowl. Fans in Norman may still be healing from Riley's burn on the program, but if the first-year coach still has any wounds, it hasn't impacted his Trojans team.
USC has been on fire to start the 2022 season. A miraculous 5-0, the Trojans have already amassed their 2021 season win total of four. The team is ranked at No. 6 in the newest AP poll heading into Week 6.
Yet, a few questions are on everyone's mind: How long will the ride last? Can the Trojans make it to the College Football Playoff in the first year of a rebuild? What could it mean for the sport if the Trojans make the playoffs? Time will only tell, but we can examine the past to try and predict the future.
USC Could End the Pac-12's College Playoff Drought Before Leaving for the Big Ten
Only 13 schools have ever made the playoff. Of those 13, Oregon and Washington are the only schools who have represented the Pac-12 conference, and the two schools combined for only two appearances.
This factor alone would make a playoff appearance impressive, as nobody else in the PAC-12 can seem to figure it out.
Upon closer examination, one will find that no team has ever made a playoff appearance just a year removed from a four-win season. The most similar turnaround happened when Washington flipped from a 7-6 record to a 12-win playoff appearance season in 2016.
Going beyond the playoff era, no Bowl Championship Series (BCS) era team has won the championship game after a losing season in the prior year. Moreover, only one team has made the BCS title game while having a season like USC in the preceding year. That team would be the 2013 Auburn Tigers, who finished with a final record of 12-2 after a 3-9 record in 2012. What USC is trying to accomplish is, historically, next to impossible.
As the Trojans look ahead, they won't have an easy path to the playoffs. In Week 7, USC will visit No. 11 Utah and No. 18 UCLA later in the season before concluding its schedule with a game against Notre Dame. Through Week 5 of the college season, ESPN's college football playoff predictor gives USC an 18% chance of making the playoff.
USC will likely grow into a more robust program under Riley as highly recruited talent on the roster increases. Still, there may not be a better time for the Trojans to strike while the iron is hot. Starting in 2024, the team will play in the Big Ten, a more challenging conference. USC will consistently contend with Ohio State and Michigan, almost exclusively featured in the top 10. A loss to any team in the season will already make for a more challenging path to the four-team playoff. USC will be tasked with going almost undefeated through a brutal schedule.
The playoff committee decided earlier that the playoff will expand to 12 teams in 2026, but maybe as soon as 2024. Perhaps the Trojans could consistently make the 12-team playoff as they move conferences. Still, USC could become stuck in a doom loop: losing in the playoffs as the team plays the most formidable opponents from drawing a higher seed due to one or two losses.
With kickoff approaching vs. Washington State, Riley and the Trojans may feel like they are playing with house money. The team was less than mediocre last season and has already surpassed expectations.
Can the Trojans Breakthrough to the National Championship?
In the grand scheme of the college landscape, however, this USC season means everything. If USC can make the playoffs, it will be considered one of the most remarkable college turnarounds ever. Extreme success may also highlight the importance of the transfer portal, setting a new standard, and making a new blueprint. Riley lured in 26 transfers to the program over the offseason, a number that other teams looking for a quick turnaround may need to model.
Beyond that, college coaches could face a completely different standard. If Riley can turn a four-win squad into a playoff team in just one year, why can't historically relevant programs that make a big hire ask the same of their new coach?
USC football is in an exciting space. Fans of the game may watch under the assumption that the Trojans are the "fun" team with less to lose and just about everything to gain in year one of a rebuild.
Peeling back the curtain, you'll realize that the Trojans season could be the first domino to fall into a chain reaction that could change the entire sport of college football.
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