The following is part of a 10-part series, wherein I (Connor O’Gara) outline 10 chaos scenarios for the 2024 college football season. These are not predictions. These are, however, things that could happen that would create a significant ripple effect in the sport.

What is chaos, you ask? Last year, Texas beating Alabama caused chaos because it was the preamble for Texas’ return to the national spotlight while the Tide had “sky is falling” energy that prompted a QB change and a discussion about Nick Saban’s future. Saban’s retirement was also chaos because it prompted 4 FBS coaching vacancies, as well as raises for coaches who were reportedly targeted as his successor.

Chaos can come in non-Saban ways, too. Florida State getting left out of the Playoff as a 13-0 team was chaos, as was Deion Sanders beating defending national title runner-up TCU in his Colorado debut. Chaos can come in a variety of forms.

So far, we did:

Today is the third installment of the 10-part series for 2024 …

I know, I know, I know.

You saw that headline and you laughed out loud. Why? You’ve seen Lincoln Riley’s teams play defense and … you laughed out loud.

I, too, will never forget being at the 2019 Peach Bowl and laughing out loud at several LSU touchdowns against ab Oklahoma “defense” that looked like it had 4 players on the field. It’s not surprising that in 2 years at USC, Riley’s defensive woes followed him to Southern California. Perhaps that’s because his Oklahoma defensive coordinator, Alex Grinch, followed him to USC.

But finally, after 5 years as Riley’s DC, Grinch is gone. That begs the question — how chaotic would things be if Riley actually has a defense?

Don’t laugh me out of the room. That’s not a prediction. Treat this like prepping for a storm. We’re bracing for the skies to open up instead of scrambling at the last minute. We’re just forecasting what this could look like and what it would mean if it happened.

Before we dig into the credentials of new USC defensive coordinator D’Anton Lynn, we must outline just how laughable Riley’s defenses have been in his 7 years as a head coach. These are their scoring ranks:

  • 2017 (Oklahoma) — No. 68
  • 2018 — No. 101
  • 2019 — No. 64
  • 2020 — No. 28
  • 2021 — No. 58
  • 2022 (USC) — No. 93
  • 2023 — No. 121

That’s 1 top-50 unit, and as we know, 2020 wasn’t exactly a year we should use as anyone’s barometer.

But wait, there’s more!

Look at where those units ranked in yards/play:

  • 2017 — No. 82
  • 2018 — No. 102
  • 2019 — No. 63
  • 2020 — No. 26
  • 2021 — No. 79
  • 2022 (USC) — No. 124
  • 2023 — No. 104

That’s 1 unit that ranked in the top 60 in yards/play allowed, and as we know, 2020 wasn’t exactly a year we should use as anyone’s barometer. I feel like I said that already.

It’s bad. Real bad. Why Riley held onto Grinch for the past 5 seasons is beyond comprehension. Now, though, he has Lynn, who most recently led a unit that was better than any of Riley’s. Even better, he did it exactly where Riley is on the other side of the rivalry at UCLA.

Lynn is a rising star in the sport. The 34-year-old assistant got the UCLA DC job after 2 years on John Harbaugh’s defensive staff with the Baltimore Ravens. All Lynn did was take a UCLA defense that finished No. 90 in FBS the previous year and lead them to a No. 14 finish in 2023.

It’s not crazy to say that UCLA had systemic issues on defense before Lynn arrived. Before 2023, that group never finished in the top half of FBS in scoring defense under Chip Kelly. UCLA’s first top-50 defense of the Playoff era came in 2023 with Lynn.

It was a fantastic hire by Riley. Does that guarantee it’ll work out and that Lynn will avoid the same fate as Grinch? Nope. Once upon a time, Grinch was seen as a fantastic hire coming over from Ohio State. We know how that turned out.

For the sake of this argument, though, we’re mapping out the chaotic world in which Lynn is a major upgrade for USC’s defense in 2024. That’s significant for a program that’s set to enter a new conference that prides itself on tough, physical defense. Riley’s teams need more ways to win than scoring 35 points. Last year, USC hit the 42-point mark in all 7 of its wins. In Riley’s 7 seasons as a head coach, he lost 7 times when his team hit 35 points and he has just 3 wins when failing to score 27 points. In 2023 alone, Ohio State had 4 such victories.

That’s more what this is about. Riley doesn’t need to have Lynn repeat his UCLA overhaul, though that would certainly help in a post-Caleb Williams world. Riley needs a vastly improved defensive unit that isn’t the butt of the joke. That’s easier said than done.

USC having a top-40 defense would create chaos because even if it isn’t a vintage Riley offense, could that get USC to 10-2 with a 12-team Playoff bid? Absolutely. And if that’s the case, that’s not the type of first-round foe that you’re going to want to face with extra time to prepare. If USC has gotten to that point, it figured out how to play in Big Ten weather so any sort of cold climate Round of 12 game wouldn’t necessarily be the question mark that it feels like it is right now.

That’s why this is chaos. To be clear, these are 2024 chaos scenarios. These aren’t “rest of the decade” chaos scenarios. If Lynn does indeed give Riley an actual defense, one would think it’ll only be a matter of time before he gets the call to run his own program and USC could be back to square one.

For now, though, USC has an intriguing combination at its disposal if Lynn can do the unthinkable — give Riley a defense that’s nothing to joke about.

Chaos scenario No. 4 will publish next week. To spoil all 10 chaos scenarios for yourself, watch the full breakdown, as discussed on The Saturday Down South Podcast.