Hayes: While you weren't looking, USC became a power again
Let’s begin with what must be said: 7 months ago, USC was a hell hole.
Coach after coach, recruiting class after recruiting class, and nothing stuck. Nothing took root and developed into the beautifully perfect Eden like it had in the past, amid the most fertile environment in all of college football.
“When you come into a program in the position we did, you really try to peel back the layers on every part of it,” said new USC coach Lincoln Riley. “And try to figure out what’s going on.”
Now look at the metamorphosis in a matter of 200-plus days since Riley accepted the job, without playing a game, without snapping a ball: USC — months after finishing the season by losing by 30 at home to an average UCLA team — was recently named a betting favorite by Las Vegas sharps to reach the College Football Playoff.
Of all the once-elite programs desperate to find their way back — most notably Texas, Miami and Florida State — USC is a country mile ahead in the race.
Not Texas and Steve Sarkisian’s juiced-up offense. Not Miami and Mario Cristobal’s quick refurbish in a conference long on questions for the 2022 season.
But USC — which fired its coach after Week 2 of the 2021 season, and has won 22 games in the last four seasons.
Think about that. A roster devoid of talent at the end of 2021, and lacking realistic scholarship numbers (and realistic Power 5 players), will earn 1 of 4 coveted Playoff spots.
Frankly, it’s ridiculous to even consider.
But dig deeper into the last 7 months, and understand the heavy lifting and reconstruction that took place under the radar of Georgia winning its first national title in 41 years, wild NIL deals, cheating accusations and bickering of high-profile coaches, and a(nother) paradigm shift in the college football landscape.
Amid all that — and while no one was looking or really cared — USC built a potential monster.
— Nov. 28, 2021: USC shocked the college football world by hiring the uber-successful Riley from Oklahoma for an estimated $110 million deal (larger than the Conference USA, MAC and Sun Belt media rights deals).
— Feb. 1, 2022: Oklahoma QB Caleb Williams, the No. 1 player in the transfer portal, signed with USC and joined former star Sooners WR Mario Williams, who followed Riley to USC.
— May 19, 2022: Pittsburgh All-American WR Jordan Addison, the 2021 Biletnikoff Award winner, ended his controversial transfer portal recruitment — Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi publicly claimed USC tampered with Addison — and signed with USC.
Addison’s signing was the last major piece of a group of starters from the transfer portal — and a handful of impact freshmen — who will redefine the USC program.
A defense that was 11th in scoring in the Pac-12 last season (31.8 ppg) picked up starters with S Bryson Shaw (Ohio State), DE Solomon Byrd (Wyoming), MLB Shane Lee (Alabama), LB (Arizona State) and CBs Mekhi Blackmon (Colorado) and Latrell McCutchin (Oklahoma).
More important in the world of “offense wins games,” Riley surrounded Williams with elite tailback Travis Dye (Oregon), another strong tailback in Austin Jones (Stanford), a starting left tackle (Bobby Haskins, Virginia) and a completely revamped receiving corps of Addison, Williams, Terrell Bynum (Washington) and Brenden Rice (Colorado).
Then there’s 5-star safety Domani Jackson and 4-star wideout C.J. Williams — both from famed Mater Dei High in Southern California who were likely headed to Alabama and Notre Dame, respectively — who signed with USC and enrolled early to participate in spring practice. Both will play a significant role this fall.
— July 1, 2022: USC joins the Big Ten, solidifying its future in an ever-changing college football landscape. USC will go from earning $30 million a year from the Pac-12 media rights deal to an estimated $100 million annually from the Big Ten.
The football giant has officially awoken.
When USC is aligned, when its athletic department and university are zeroing in on the same goal, there is no better program in college football. There is no better place to recruit, no better name, image and likeness haven.
Case in point: Caleb Williams. Since signing with USC, Williams has signed 4 major NIL deals, including Beats by Dre, Ac+ion Walter, Fanatics and Hawkins Way Capital, a Beverly Hills real estate private equity fund that manages nearly $2 billion in assets.
So while Texas is the biggest brand in college sports and has the largest budget, and Miami hired a dynamic alum and secured financial support from billionaire booster John Ruiz, and FSU is slowly crawling back to the top of the ACC, USC has rocketed past all 3 in a matter of months.
Riley already proved he could beat the college football elite for recruits, despite the disadvantage of recruiting only 2 weeks for USC before his first early signing day.
He has since beaten Oklahoma with a commitment from 5-star QB Malachi Nelson for the 2023 class and Texas A&M and Ohio State for 5-star WR Zachariah Branch — 2 of the top 5 players in the 247Sports Top 100 rankings. 247Sports predicts USC will lands 4 of the top 25 players for 2023, including TE Duce Robinson and edge Matayo Uiagalelei. Riley also has a commitment from LB Tackett Curtis, a Top 50 player.
This is a private university with an elite academic reputation, a $300 million renovation to the legendary Coliseum and a $110 million deal to hire a coach who won 4 Big 12 titles, advanced to 2 Playoffs and produced 2 Heisman Trophies and a Heisman runnerup in 5 seasons at Oklahoma.
Riley went from competing with Texas and Texas A&M and everyone else from the meatgrinder SEC for state of Texas recruits, to recruiting the most fertile 2-county area (Los Angeles, Orange) in the country with the inherent advantage of a name brand.
He used to bring recruits to his swanky home in Norman, Okla., complete with a putting green in his backyard. Now he brings them to his luxurious $17.2 million compound in Ranchos Palos Verdes, with the limitless horizon of the Pacific Ocean as his backyard.
He’s young, he’s hip, he’s in control of the best program in college football. The question isn’t if USC will make it back.
It’s, could it really happen this fall?