After a massively disappointing season, Riley is at a familiar crossroads

With USC closing out a massively disappointing 2023 campaign, Lincoln Riley is entering a crossroads in his college football coaching career.

LOS ANGELES — Two years ago, Ohio State head coach Ryan Day was at an inflection point in his young coaching career.

After quickly rising through the ranks as a bright offensive mind, Day got his first head coaching job at a blue blood program before his 40th birthday, taking over for a retiring legend in Urban Meyer. Day’s first few seasons as the head coach of the Buckeyes were filled with big wins, College Football Playoff appearances, and elite quarterback play.

But in 2021, things took a sudden turn. On a Saturday afternoon in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Day’s Buckeyes were physically dominated for 60 minutes by the rival Michigan Wolverines. It was Ohio State’s first loss to Michigan in a decade, and fans were embarrassed.

Does that story sound at all familiar to you?

USC head coach Lincoln Riley’s story is strikingly similar to that of Day. Like Day, Riley quickly rose through the coaching ranks as an offensive savant. Like Day, Riley got his first head coaching job before he turned 40, taking over for the legendary Bob Stoops at Oklahoma. Like Day, Riley’s first few seasons as a head coach were marked by double-digit wins, elite quarterbacks, and trips to the College Football Playoff.

And, much like Day, Riley’s philosophy eventually caught up to him. After Riley’s Trojans fell to Oregon 36-27 this past Saturday night, USC dropped to an incredibly disappointing 7-4 on the season. In at least two of those losses—both Saturday against the Ducks and last month against archrival Notre Dame—the Trojans were physically dominated by their opponent. USC could not stop the run, their offensive line got manhandled, and superstar quarterback Caleb Williams was running for his life all night.

So where do Lincoln Riley and USC go from here? Well, perhaps they can look to Day and Ohio State as a blueprint.

After the 2021 season, Day changed his identity as a head coach. He parted ways with defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs and hired the highly-renowned Jim Knowles away from Oklahoma State to replace him. While he stuck to his roots as an innovative offensive mind, Day made a commitment to having his teams play a much more physical brand of football.

Two years later, the results appear to be paying off. Despite experiencing a drop-off in quarterback play this season following the departures of first round NFL Draft picks Justin Fields and C.J. Stroud, Ohio State is currently 10-0 and ranked No. 1 in the College Football Playoff rankings. Led by Knowles, their defense ranks in the top five nationally in the majority of metrics. Earlier this season, they went into South Bend, Indiana and defeated the same Notre Dame team that blew out Riley’s Trojans three weeks later.

This transformation was possible because Day was willing and able to evolve as a head coach.

He hired the right people. He made changes behind-the-scenes. He committed the Buckeyes to playing a different brand of football than they had previously played in his tenure.

These are the type of changes that Lincoln Riley must make if he truly wants to take USC to the next level.

Riley already took the first step in that transformation with the firing of much-maligned defensive coordinator Alex Grinch. But that alone will not solve the Trojans issues. If Riley wants to transform USC into a national title contender that can compete with teams such as Day’s Buckeyes, there are many other changes that need to be made.

Riley must hire a strong defensive coordinator to replace Grinch. He must put together an elite coaching staff full of assistants who are fully committed to both recruiting and player development. He must adjust the Trojans’ practice habits to prepare them for more physical opponents. He must bring in a strong strength and conditioning and support staffs to help best prepare his teams for on-field success.

Obviously, Riley is not going to give up his identity as an offensive mastermind. Nor should he. But if Riley is truly serious about about turning the Trojans into a national title contender, there are numerous institutional changes that he must make.

This offseason feels like a crossroads in Lincoln Riley’s evolution as a head coach. If he is willing and able to make significant changes to his coaching philosophy, he can get the Trojans back on track in their climb to return to the top of college football. But if Riley fails to do so, his tenure in Los Angeles could quickly go off the rails.

Fortunately for Riley, there is a clear blueprint to follow. It can be found in Columbus, Ohio.