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How Lincoln Riley’s success rebuilding USC through transfer portal offers peek at college football’s future

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The greatest transfer class in history did not disappoint. It’s not just the 20 players that Lincoln Riley brought in to help revamp USC this season. This is what he did to them.

“Heated up a roster that needed a ton of help,” said Cooper Petagna, national recruiting analyst at 247Sports.

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There are some qualifications for these labels. The greatest in history? Basically, yes. This story covers the modern transfer era, which is 18 months old. In terms of USC’s recovery rate, the Trojans are 9-1 less than a year after falling 4-8 amid both fan apathy and desperation.

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“Microwave” absolutely refers to a program that is outdated.

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The No. 7 Trojans are more than hot in Saturday’s game of rivalry with No. 16 UCLA. Not only is the Pac-12 Championship Game on the line for USC, it could be the venue for the College Football playoffs for the first time in six years of the Pac-12.

You know the main sights, all the transfers: Guard Caleb Williams left his Washington, D.C. home for the West Coast (with a year off in Oklahoma) and became a Heisman Trophy contender. Running back Travis Dye (via Oregon) is 3rd in the Pac-12 despite now being out with an injury at the end of the season. Linebacker Shane Lee (via Alabama) leads the Trojans in tackles. The first four recipients are also transfers. Most notable among them is lead pass catcher Jordan Addison (via Pittsburgh), who made a splash by leading the Panthers for the Trojans after winning the Biletnikoff Award last season.

It is clear that Riley, the coach with the most transfers in 2022, also handled them in the best possible way. The last USC coach to start 9-1 or better in his first season was John Robinson 46 years ago.

USC is not alone

The importance of including transfers in the game plan has grown since the portal turned four years old last month. The transactional nature of using transfers as a quick fix has crystallized in the last year or so.

Just check the 247Sports transfer rankings before the season starts. USC (20 assists), Ole Miss (17) and LSU (16) were 1-2-3. Together they are 25-5 and all of them are in the top 14 of the CFP rankings going into week 12. The Trojans and Tigers are real contenders for the playoffs.

“You have to look at the circumstances when you enter any business or organization,” said LSU coach Brian Kelly, who has become a master of change himself this season. What is organizational health? The organizational health was such that it needed to be reset.”

Petanha is an informed observer with a lot of experience. The 247Sports analyst came to his current position after working with player personnel in Oregon, Washington and Michigan. Informed is putting it mildly. How many guys have ever worked for Mario Cristobal, Chris Petersen and Jim Harbaugh?

“Me, what [ideal transfer] will be around 17,” Petanha said. – This will be a fifth of your 85 [scholarships]. I wouldn’t be surprised if it becomes something like 10-15 players a year, especially for these outstanding programs.”

All this must be accompanied by a disclaimer in these nascent days of one-off transfers: Transformation does not guarantee success. Among 247Sports’ top 12 pre-season transfers were Miami (11), South Carolina (nine), Nebraska (15), Texas (seven) and Oklahoma (14). The total records of these five: 25-25.

USC remains the shining transfer gem of 2022. To date, the Trojans have improved in six games since last year’s disaster. A 4-8 record was their worst season in three decades.

Kelly is close to inheriting LSU’s roster of just 39 fellows who will compete in the January Texas Bowl. His 16 transfers helped the Tigers move up in the information playoffs to 6th in the CFP rankings. TCU went from a messy 5-7 split with Gary Patterson to a 10-0 record and 4th place under coach Sonny Dykes, who did it himself with 14 transfers.

“At my stage of life, I don’t know how it could be better,” Dykes said.

UCLA No. 16, No. 10 in this transfer ranking, attracted 13 new players. Lane Kiffin has long styled himself “King of the Portal”; his Ole Miss took 14th place.

Is the transfer method stable?

They don’t quite make it up on the go. But they do it – for now. The ability to extract gold from football tramps has become one of the main headlines of this season. Who knows where he’s going?

“If you had asked me at the beginning of this season if it was sustainable, I would probably have said no,” Petagna admitted. “You ask me now, I think if you approach it the right way – the line-up has to be balanced – yes, of course.”

Now where do we go from here? Is the plug-and-play philosophy sustainable, not just at USC, but everywhere else?

“It’s a tricky situation,” said ULM veteran Terry Bowden of the current state of the portal, “but I’m pretty sure no one wants to build and live this way. They bring you in and you better win pretty fast. you won’t lose by the second year.”

Riley said from the beginning that he wanted to rely more on schoolchildren in the future. (The 2023 USC class is 13th on 247Sports with 20 commitments.) But he didn’t wait to read the room before implementing his immediate quick fix.

“I don’t know what a honeymoon looks like,” Riley said before the start of the season.

Maybe we should have foreseen this. When Baker Mayfield won the Riley-led Heisman at Oklahoma in 2017, he became the first transfer since 1945 to win the top game award without having to make a college pit stop first. Kyler Murray, who moved from Texas A&M, moved to OU a year later.

The journey to this place began painfully slowly. Eleven years ago, Russell Wilson left North Carolina State for Wisconsin as an alumnus when then-Wolf Pack coach Tom O’Brien got mad at an offseason baseball quarterback. The portal opened in 2018, sparing coaches their abusive practice of “banning” players from their preferred transfer point. Simply put, adults didn’t have to ask permission to change colleges.

By 2021, the one-time transfer rule has become inevitable. The NCAA, terrified of the legal implications, was forced to relent. They started granting transfer waivers so often that it seemed silly to restrict players at all.

Riley showed up at the right time. USC was in despair. It haunted Riley, not knowing that the coach always had west coast thing. USC changed its football profile by paying big money and giving Riley the keys to a long-abandoned Ferrari.

The coach had a plan. He/we just didn’t know how well it would be done. Of the 20 transfers, 17 opened the season on a two-depth chart. Williams was one of two former five-star prospects. There were also five four-star. With the exception of difficult moments, at some point all players in skill positions were transferred.

USC itself then moved into the Big Ten in 2024.

We certainly need to start asking a different set of questions. Is the portal a philosophy, a tool sometimes used, or a mixture of both?

“I can share with you my philosophy, which is that I think it can be managed,” Kelly said this week. “So you can top up the tank. Most of the tank has to come from player development, from freshmen… Then you can bring in a guy, because they can assimilate into the culture you have built.”

But the reliance on transfers to USC, LSU, Ole Miss, and TCU forced all of that to be rethought. Dykes conceded arguably his best running back, Zach Evans, to Ole Miss. Somewhere further down the food chain, Bowden lost the talent he called his “best player”, quarterback Josh Newton, to TCU.

These days, the portal either kills or it kills you.

Is anxiety exaggerated?

A decade or so ago, Bowden decided to create his own transfer flare in North Alabama’s Division Two. Bobby Bowden’s son has decided to return to coaching after a long career as an ABC analyst. At some point, all 11 of his hitters were transferred from FBS schools. In the end, the Lions took first place in the rankings for price.

“By the time we made the playoffs, my receivers were no longer blocking each other,” Bowden said. “One of them was getting more balls thrown at him.”

Given that the one-time transfer waiver is only 19 months old, there has yet to be evidence of dressing room controversy at the national level. Maybe it’s because we write mostly about success stories. But you know there are problems out there. Squad management is hard enough for coaches without roaming players in and out of the program.

“What they’ve been able to do is very, very difficult – and not easy to replicate,” Pro Football Focus college analyst Anthony Trish said of USC. “We cannot measure the aspect of culture. The culture is huge. Putting all these guys together and saying, “Hey, these aren’t guys who’ve been together for three years.”

John Canzano reported this month about alleged NIL benefit requirements from QB JT Daniels, who is now attending his third school in West Virginia: a personal chef, a four-bedroom rental house, and a six-figure advertising deal.

“Chemistry is still the only thing that can really upset a locker room,” Kelly said. “Just because they are great players doesn’t make them great teammates. That’s why they call it a portal. They direct you to the campus. I dont know…


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