Berry’s college football buffet: Without a star QB, Lincoln Riley’s USC job loses luster

Berry’s college football buffet: Without a star QB, Lincoln Riley’s USC job loses luster

Riley used the transfer portal to jumpstart the USC program two years ago, starting with Caleb Williams, and he seems OK with the notion that what goes around comes around.

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

| Dec 22, 2023, 6:00am CST

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

Dec 22, 2023, 6:00am CST

Quarterback Caleb Williams is headed to the National Football League and will skip Southern Cal’s Holiday Bowl game against Louisville.

Heir apparent Malachi Nelson is in the transfer portal, along with ex-Sooner receiver Mario Williams and two of the few USC defenders who seemed interested in keeping opponents out of the end zone.

Riley’s next quarterback appears to be Kansas State transfer Will Howard, who never so much as made honorable mention all-Big 12 in four seasons, and these last four years have not been blessed with vintage Big 12 quarterbacking.

So those Oklahomans who delight in Riley’s demise are living large these days.

Riley won 11 of his first 12 coaching Southern Cal. Since then, his record with the Trojans is 7-7.

And here are Riley’s next 14 games: Louisville in the Holiday Bowl, then on to 2024 with Louisiana State in Las Vegas, Utah State, at Michigan, Wisconsin, at Minnesota, Penn State, at Maryland, Rutgers, at Washington, Nebraska, at UCLA, Notre Dame. Followed ostensibly by another bowl game.

Another 7-7 stretch seems possible. The Trojans figure to be favored in about half those games.

But while some of us figure he still could end up being the NFL Chargers’ coach by the second week of January, Riley retains a sense of calm and confidence. Looks and talks very much like his Sooner days.

Riley used the transfer portal to jumpstart the USC program two years ago, starting with Caleb Williams, and he seems OK with the notion that what goes around comes around.

“It’s part of it now, you know what I mean?” he told Los Angeles reporters after a USC bowl practice a few days ago. “It’s just part of the world of college football, at this current time.

And for me, and our coaches, the one thing we’ve talked about is putting our energy into the people that are here.”

That would not be Nelson, who was committed to OU two years ago and was the nation’s top quarterback recruit. But Nelson flipped to USC when Riley went West, and Nelson spent 2023 redshirting. He threw three passes all season.

Nelson’s departure set off alarms, either that he’s not the quarterback everyone thought or that he grew disenchanted with Riley. Say what you will about Riley, but his status as a quarterback whisperer has not diminished. Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray, Jalen Hurts, Williams. Heck, even Spencer Rattler in 2020, when the then-Sooner made first-team all-Big 12.

Riley seemed to indicate he regretted losing Nelson.

“That part’s difficult, because the old school in all of us has the great memories of guys that we coached that maybe weren’t ready in the beginning and they progressed and got better and you got to see the end of that,” Riley said.

“It’s easy to get wrapped up in all that, who’s entering the portal, who’s doing this, who’s doing that. The reality is, every college football program in the country is dealing with it.”

USC’s reality is a Holiday Bowl against Louisville, which plays fairly stout defense. The Trojans will go with 2023 backup Miller Moss. Junior-college transfer Jake Jenson will be the Holiday Bowl backup.

No coach in the history of football has benefited from transfer quarterbacks quite like Riley. Let’s see. Three Heisman Trophy winners and a Heisman runnerup, all in less than a decade. Anyone want to trump that?

But Riley said building USC needs to be more conventional.

“The recruiting approach for us is going to be centered on people we feel have the passion to be here,” Riley said. “You want to have guys that are hungry to be on the field right away, but also guys that have a mind to be developed and have a good sense of reality. That’s kind of the niche we’re looking for.

“We always felt like the development is one of the hallmarks of our program, one of the strengths that we have.”

Great day. Sounds like Riley has been eavesdropping on our Brent Venables press conferences.

“The other half of that is you have to have people that are willing to hang in there and go through what it really takes to develop and become a really good player at this level,” Riley said. “I would say that piece has become a bigger part of our evaluation process, in terms of what we’re targeting.”

It’s easy to mock Riley over such comments. He kick-started the USC rebuild by bringing Caleb Williams from OU. Riley is jumping between low road and high road.

And Riley admitted that.

We’re in some ways in transition from how we felt like we had to build it in the beginning,” Riley said. “Kind of where the roster was and how portal heavy we went in the beginning. We knew we wanted to be competitive early. Have a chance to win. Have a chance to do some really good things. 

“And we accomplished that. Now it’s starting to shift to how we really want to build it. And the best way. Which is a little bit more into the high school, the developmental. Stacking great classes on top of each other, then using the portal here and there where we need it. And like I’ve told you before, I think that’s going to continue to taper off as we go on.”

Again, who knows? I predicted Riley would be in the NFL by the 2024 season, so I guess I better stick with it. Riley and Williams a package deal to the Patriots? 

USC’s recruiting seems to be OK, not great. The Trojans are 18th in 247’s composite rankings, for what that’s worth.

And now comes a Holiday Bowl against Louisville. The Trojans will have gone 40 days between games. Defensive coordinator Alex Grinch long since has been fired, and new coordinator D’Anton Lynn, from crosstown rival UCLA, won’t coach the bowl game. Plus Williams is out the door.

“No bad blood,” Riley said of the Trojans who have bolted. “No ill will. But we’re going to move on with those who are dying to be USC Trojans. Because at the end of the day, that’s the only way the history here turns around.

“That’s the only way that some of the struggles in this program over the last 15 years turn around, is going to be with people that are dying to be here and are passionate about this place.”

Is Riley passionate about USC? I guess we’re about to find out.

Bowl Predictions

Ranking and predicting the bowls from Saturday through next Thursday:

  1. Alamo Bowl: Oklahoma vs. Arizona, 8:15 p.m. Thursday, ESPN. Wildcats 28-27. Too many starters out for the Sooners, via the NFL Draft or the portal, against a team excited to be in San Antonio.
  2. Pop-Tarts Bowl: Kansas State vs. North Carolina State, 4:45 p.m. Thursday, ESPN. Wildcats 26-21. The OU Quarterback Story, northern version. Howard has hit the portal, K-State is moving ahead with freshman Avery Johnson and everyone seems fine with that.
  3. Duke’s Mayo Bowl: North Carolina vs. West Virginia, 4:30 p.m. Wednesday, ESPN. Mountaineers 29-20. WVU Garrett Greene quarterback is no pro prospect, but at least he’s available. Carolina star QB Drew Maye is not.
  4. Texas Bowl: Oklahoma State vs. Texas A&M, 8 p.m. Wednesday, ESPN. Cowboys 27-17. Revenge for 2019, when the Aggies beat OSU 24-21, the Cowboys playing without starting quarterback Spencer Sanders.
  5. Holiday Bowl: Louisville vs. Southern Cal, 7 p.m. Wednesday, Fox. Cardinals 30-14. Come on, Big 12. Sign up the Holiday Bowl for the next two years and beyond.
  6. Las Vegas Bowl: Utah vs. Northwestern, 6:30 p.m. Saturday, ABC. Utes 13-12. Big 12 preview alert! Big 12 preview alert!
  7. Fenway Bowl: Boston College vs. Southern Methodist, 10 a.m. Thursday, ESPN. Mustangs 35-23. Football in Fenway Park. Sign me up.
  8. Pinstripe Bowl: Rutgers vs. Miami, 1:15 p.m. Thursday, ESPN. Scarlet Knights 19-17. Rutgers coach Greg Schiano was the Miami defensive coordinator in 1999-2000. The ‘Canes have spent the last 20 years looking for a coaching messiah and somehow never have settled on Schiano, a heck of a coach.
  9. Guaranteed Rate Bowl: Kansas vs. Nevada-Las Vegas, 8 p.m. Tuesday, ESPN. Jayhawks 42-20. I’d pick KU anyway, but UNLV laid a couple of late duds. Home losses to San Jose State and Boise State.
  10. Military Bowl: Virginia Tech vs. Tulane, 1 p.m. Wednesday, ESPN. Hokies 20-13. VPI’s Brent Prye did one of the better coaching jobs this season, after a 1-3 start that included losses to Purdue, Rutgers and Marshall.
  11. Quick Lane Bowl: Bowling Green vs. Minnesota, 1 p.m. Tuesday, ESPN. Falcons 25-24. Christmas in Detroit. I’ll leave it at that.
  12. Armed Forces Bowl: James Madison vs. Air Force, 2:30 p.m. Saturday, ABC. Dukes 23-13. Can James Madison handle an academy option? It’s always fun to find out.
  13. Birmingham Bowl: Troy vs. Duke, 11 a.m.. Saturday, ABC. Trojans 23-11. The worst kind of bowl matchup. Both teams have lost their coaches — Troy’s Jon Sumrall to Tulane, Duke’s Mike Elko to Texas A&M.
  14. Famous Idaho Potato Bowl: Georgia State vs. Utah State, 2:30 p.m. Saturday, ESPN. Aggies 27-24. I always thought it would be cool for the Sooners or Cowboys to play a bowl game in Boise. I guess it never will happen.
  15. 68 Ventures Bowl: South Alabama vs. Eastern Michigan, 6 p.m. Saturday, ESPN. Jaguars 31-21. Home game for South Alabama, on its Mobile campus. Here’s an idea. When teams host bowl games, they have to use the visitor’s locker room.
  16. Hawai’i Bowl: Coastal Carolina vs. San Jose State, 9:30 p.m. Saturday, ESPN. Spartans 34-24. Long trip for the Chanticleers — 4,789 miles. That’s about the distance from Conway, South Carolina, to Sarajevo.
  17. First Responder Bowl: Texas State vs. Rice, 4:30 p.m. Tuesday, ESPN. Bobcats 24-21. Jenni Carlson and I will be driving to Houston on Tuesday. We could stop off in Dallas and catch the Rice-Texas State showdown. We could, but we won’t.
  18. Camellia Bowl: Arkansas State vs. Northern Illinois, 11 a.m. Saturday, ESPN. Red Wolves 21-20. Interesting rumor. Gunnar Gundy to Arkansas State. I have no idea if it’s true.

Upset special: Bowling Green

A Mid-American Conference team has beaten a Big Ten team for 16 straight seasons, not counting the Covid year of 2020, when the Big Ten did not play non-conference games.

Starting in 2006, at least one MAC team per year has beaten a Big Ten squad.

If that streak is to reach 17, Bowling Green must beat Minnesota in the Quick Lane Bowl on Tuesday.

The MAC came close this year. Indiana beat Akron 29-27 in four overtimes. Illinois kicked a field goal in the closing seconds to beat Toledo 30-28.

But so far, the Big Ten has avoided losing to the league with which it shares geography but little else.

Here are the MAC victories over the Big Ten, starting with 2006:

2006: Ohio beat Illinois 20-17

2007: Western Michigan beat Iowa 28-19

2007: Bowling Green beat Minnesota 32-31

2008: Western Michigan beat Illinois 23-17

2008: Central Michigan beat Indiana 37-34

2008: Toledo beat Michigan 13-10

2008: Ball State beat Indiana 42-20

2009: Northern Illinois beat Purdue 28-21

2009: Central Michigan beat Michigan State 29-27

2010: Toledo beat Purdue 31-20

2010: Northern Illinois beat Minnesota 34-23

2011: Ball State beat Indiana 27-20

2012: Central Michigan beat Iowa 32-31

2012: Ball State beat Indiana 41-39

2012: Ohio beat Penn State 24-14

2013: Northern Illinois beat Purdue 55-24

2013: Northern Illinois beat Iowa 30-27

2014: Bowling Green beat Indiana 45-42

2014: Northern Illinois beat Northwestern 23-15

2014: Central Michigan beat Purdue 38-17

2015: Bowling Green beat Purdue 35-28

2015: Bowling Green beat Maryland 48-27

2016: Western Michigan beat Northwestern 22-21

2017: Northern Illinois beat Nebraska 21-17

2017: Eastern Michigan beat Rutgers 16-13

2018: Eastern Michigan beat Purdue 20-19

2018: Akron beat Northwestern 39-34

2018: Buffalo beat Rutgers 42-13

2019: Eastern Michigan beat Illinois 34-31

2021: Bowling Green beat Minnesota 14-10

2022: Miami-Ohio beat Northwestern 17-14

Every Big Ten school except Ohio State and Wisconsin have lost to the MAC during that stretch. Every MAC school except Kent State has beaten a Big Ten foe.

Lots of Bowling Green wins (five) on that list. A decent number (three) of Minnesota defeats. And two Bowling Green wins over Minnesota.

The Gophers are a 3½-point favorites over Bowling Green. But let’s go with the Falcons in the upset.

Coach on hot seat: SMU’s Rhett Lashlee

Some coaches leave good jobs not because they found a better job, but because they found a higher-classification job.

Willie Fritz, for example, leaving Tulane for Houston, which now is in the Big 12. Jonathan Smith leaving Oregon State for Michigan State; the demise of the Pac-12 leaves the Beavers without a safety net, while Michigan State retains all kinds of Big Ten security despite chaos on campus.

But sometimes, coaches get the higher-status job without changing employers. Brigham Young’s Kelani Sitake and Central Florida’s Gus Malzahn are prime examples, having just navigated Year 1 in the Big 12.

And that’s what Southern Methodist coach Rhett Lashlee will do next season. SMU joins the Atlantic Coast Conference next season, and the Mustangs get a sneak preview next Thursday in the Fenway Bowl against Boston College.

The Eagles and Mustangs will be ACC mates next season. And frankly, SMU seems capable of immediately competing quite well in the ACC.

The 11-2 Mustangs are 11-point favorites over 6-6 Boston College. 

Next season, SMU will play eight ACC opponents: Boston College, California, Florida State, Pittsburgh, Duke, Louisville, Stanford and Virginia.

Against those eight opponents this season, SMU would have gone somewhere in the neighborhood of 6-2. The Mustangs can’t match Florida State or Clemson in terms of resources and tradition, and SMU certainly doesn’t have the jump on Virginia Tech or North Carolina or Louisville.

But the ACC will be a big conference, with all kinds of Syracuses and Wake Forests and Dukes and Georgia Techs. SMU seems more likely to be ready to compete immediately than were Big 12 newcomers Cincinnati, BYU, Houston and UCF in 2023. The Big 12 hasn’t been great at the top, but it’s been deep in the middle. No pushovers, now that Lance Leopold found Kansas’ shoulder pads.

But before SMU takes stock of its ACC status, there’s this Fenway Bowl. Boston College is the epitome of mediocrity, having won either six or seven games in nine of the last 11 years. And in the other two years, BC went 2-10 and 3-9.

The Mustangs clearly have the superior team in the Fenway Bowl and appear to have the brighter future, with Lashlee turning the Mustangs into American Conference champions this season.

Win, and SMU will announce to the ACC designs on being among the challengers to the Florida State/Clemson dominance of the league. But lose, and SMU will be looked upon as just one great unwashed member of the ACC. This is a big game for Rhett Lashlee.

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Berry Tramel is a 45-year veteran of Oklahoma journalism, having spent 13 years at the Norman Transcript and 32 years at The Oklahoman. He has been named Oklahoma Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sports Media Association. Born and raised in Norman, Tramel grew up reading four newspapers a day and began his career at age 17. His first assignment was the Lexington-Elmore City high school football game, and he’s enjoyed the journey ever since, having covered NBA Finals and Rose Bowls and everything in between. Tramel and his wife, Tricia, were married in 1980 and live in Norman near their daughter, son-in-law and three granddaughters. Tramel can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at [email protected].

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