Extra Points: How concerned should the SEC be about what Lincoln Riley is building at USC?
Lincoln Riley is closing in on 2 months as the USC coach, and is a week from completing a remarkable remake of the program.
And maybe making his final sales pitch in the process.
The latest addition of Oregon All-Pac 12 TB Travis Dye further strengthens a run of transfer portal additions and high school signings designed to lift USC back to the top of the conference in one season.
It’s also a collection of talent heading into National Signing Day next week that could surround the biggest transfer portal prize of all: former Oklahoma freshman All-American QB Caleb Williams.
While USC appears to be the favorite for Williams because Riley recruited him to OU and coached him, LSU and Wisconsin have made strong pushes over the past 2 weeks.
The 10 transfer portal signings – which include former OU freshman WR Mario Williams and freshman CB Latrell McCutchen (both in Caleb Williams’ signing class of 2021) — and a few critical high school signings are a clear sign to Caleb Williams that Riley is focused on winning in 2022 and not rebuilding.
Williams said he wants a winning program and a coach/staff with a history of developing players for the NFL. Riley’s 3 previous quarterbacks at Oklahoma before Williams are all starting in the NFL (Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray, Jalen Hurts).
If Caleb Williams joins the USC rebuild – which includes 4 potential starters on defense and Colorado WR Brenden Rice and Stanford RB Austin Jones — change could be quick in a very winnable Pac-12 South Division.
The schedule plan
For years the Big Ten tried to get uniformity in conference scheduling, claiming the SEC had an advantage by playing 1 less game per season.
Now it appears as though the sides are flipped.
Before we go further, understand that the future of college sports is media rights deals. And the future of media rights deals are marquee football games.
Which makes any potential move to reduce conference games more perplexing for the Big Ten – especially considering it will shortly be in the middle of a prime negotiating period for a new media rights deal (the old deal ends after the 2022-23 calendar year).
The Athletic reported earlier this week that reducing the conference schedule was one of two foundational-changing options being considered by the Big Ten. The other is eliminating divisions.
A Big Ten athletic director told me Wednesday the concern is a top-heavy East Division, and not enough games between the heavyweights to sell to potential media partners.
“If you eliminate divisions, you have a better chance of producing those games that will draw big numbers,” the Big Ten AD said.
Translation: You might get Michigan-Ohio State twice in one season. Or any combination of Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan State again in the conference championship game.
“That’s obviously appealing,” the Big Ten AD said. “I don’t think we can ignore that, considering the competition is adding two iconic (television) brands.”
Michigan’s first win over Ohio State in 9 years was the most watched game of the 2021 regular season, earning 15.89 million viewers. The SEC Championship Game between Alabama and Georgia drew 15.28 million.
By comparison, the Big Ten Championship Game between Michigan and Iowa drew 11.66 million.
The magic number for media distributors is 4 million viewers, and there were 41 games last season that reached the 4 million viewer mark. The top 5 teams that appeared in the most games: Alabama (8), Ohio State (7), Michigan (7), Penn State (6), Georgia (5).
But Wisconsin (4) and Nebraska (3) are also ratings draws, and moving from 9 conference games to 8 and adding another nonconference game could come at the expense of potentially more glamorous conference games.
The SEC hasn’t announced future scheduling plans or divisional alignments, and likely won’t until it gets a firm idea of when Texas and Oklahoma will officially play in the conference.
Hooked and loaded
Overlooked in a wild transfer portal offseason is the work Steve Sarkisian has accomplished in an effort to change the fortunes of Texas.
Texas can stack its 3 big catches from the portal against anyone in the country. If 2 of the 3 play to their potential, Texas will be the most dangerous offense in the Big 12, and one of the best in the nation.
It begins with QB Quinn Ewers, the No. 1 overall recruit from the 2021 class, who left Ohio State after the season (he wasn’t beating out CJ Stroud) and will be the Day 1 starter. One SEC coach who recruited Ewers told me, “He was far and away the best at his position (in last year’s recruiting class). I know there’s a lot of hype around where (Caleb) Williams will go, but he’s not at the same level as (Ewers) as a thrower.”
Sarkisian got Ewers immediate help, getting the best receiver in the portal (Wyoming’s Isaiah Neyor) and the best tight end (Alabama’s Jahleel Billingsley). They will join All-American TB Bijan Robinson and freshman All-American WR Xavier Worthy.
Ewers hasn’t thrown a college pass, and Billingsley began the season at Alabama on the bench because of questionable work habits and eventually lost his job to Cameron Latu. If Billingsley is committed and plays like he did in 2020, Ewers will be surrounded by elite skill talent that will all play in the NFL.
Reboot in The Boot
It wasn’t long ago when the LSU defensive backs room was a microcosm of the LSU program: empty, exposed and in turmoil.
Now it’s a team strength.
This, everyone, is the impact of Brian Kelly’s ability to recruit.
While many made fun of Kelly’s fake southern accent – and frankly, it was easy to do – he went out and did what he does best: recruit. This is the same coach who consistently recruited top-10 classes to Notre Dame despite the inherent academic restrictions at the school.
Recruiting to LSU would not only be less stressful from that standpoint, but Kelly’s history of winning and developing NFL players at Notre Dame would be a huge draw for both high school and transfer portal recruiting.
In 6 weeks under Kelly, the LSU secondary room has added All-Big 12 CB Jarrick Bernard-Converse (Oklahoma State), CB Greg Brooks (starter at Arkansas in 2021) and CB/S Mekhi Williams-Garner (starter at Louisiana). Those three will be LSU’s starting corners and nickel in 2022.
Safety Joe Foucha, who played in 44 games at Arkansas over the past 3 seasons, is another potential starter, as is freshman signee Laterrance Welch, the No. 1 cornerback in the state of Louisiana.