- College football reporter
- Joined ESPN.com in 2007
- Graduate of Indiana University
USC coach Lincoln Riley is shouldering weighty expectations because of who he is and where he is, but there’s also a stark reality facing the coach taking over a once-storied program that won just four games last fall.
“We’re double digits below the NCAA scholarship limit,” Riley told ESPN last week.
A total of 37 scholarship players have left USC since Riley was hired, and the staff has replaced about two dozen of them. Some players transferred on their own, others left early for the NFL draft and the new staff chose not to bring some players back. Having roster openings isn’t entirely bad, but filling those gaps doesn’t happen overnight.
“We didn’t want to come rushing in and take a bunch of high school guys that we didn’t know, or have some kind of relationship with,” Riley said. “We were pretty picky on high school guys, we were pretty picky on transfers, as we were trying to be very selective about who comes in. It’s an advantage because we have so much flexibility right now, and I think it’s going to be pretty intriguing for a lot of guys out there.”
The first task in restoring USC to its championship tradition is restocking the roster with elite talent, and the transfer portal has helped the staff tremendously in that regard, but Riley said the second part of the equation is already in place — a staff that knows how to win on the national stage.
“We’re not a group that’s going to come in and settle for anything less than winning championships,” he said. “That’s what we’re all used to doing. That’s how we’re all wired. It fits in very well with this place and the history of this program, so regardless of the situation, [winning] championships is always the expectation, no matter if it’s Year 1 or Year 20.”
The combination of Riley and his former quarterback, Caleb Williams, has reignited a confidence in USC, but reaching the top four this fall is still a lofty goal. First, USC needs to win its own league (and Utah would like a word). Every Power 5 conference has at least one long shot playoff contender, but the Pac-12 could have two. There are also teams outside of those major conferences that could make a case this fall (sorry, Cincinnati).
Here’s a closer look at seven teams not named Alabama, Ohio State or Georgia that could make a surprise run at the College Football Playoff, grouped by conference:
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