After losing the Bedlam rivalry matchup against Oklahoma State for the first time since taking over as head coach in 2017, Lincoln Riley sat in front of the media and was crystal clear about his intentions.
"Let me stop you right there," Riley told members of Oklahoma's press corps. "I'm not going to be the next head coach at LSU."
Technically, Riley wasn't lying. Nevertheless, he shocked the sport by heading west to resurrect college football's preeminent Pacific power: the USC Trojans. In doing so, he became the first Oklahoma coach to leave for another college job since Jim Tatum left the Sooners -- which at that point hadn't won a national championship -- for Maryland after the 1946 season. Obviously, times have changed.
The move sent a shockwave across the sport as the native of Muleshoe, Texas -- population 5,000 -- left for the bright lights of Hollywood. More than anything, his explosive decision could change the fate of three programs, two conferences and countless others in between as suddenly Oklahoma reluctantly joins one of the most competitive coaching carousels on record.
Riley's addition transforms the Pac-12
Since 2014, the year Oregon made the inaugural College Football Playoff National Championship on the shoulders of Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota, the Pac-12 has been in a state of disarray. The league has not put a team into the playoff since 2016 (Washington), but perhaps more disappointingly, the league has barely put teams into the top 10 of the playoff rankings with consistency.
The league has lacked a true blue-blood contender, point blank. That could change.
Riley's arrival gives new Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff something priceless: credibility. Riley won six consecutive Big 12 titles between his time as offensive coordinator and head coach with four top-five finishes and three playoff trips. He has a 55-10 record as a head coach and a CBS Sports poll ranked him No. 3 among all coaches, behind only Nick Saban and Dabo Swinney.
Even more critical, Riley quietly built a pipeline to Southern California. The Sooners held commitments from five-star running back Raleek Brown, five-star quarterback Malachi Nelson and five-star receiver Makai Lemon -- All of whom are from SoCal. Nelson has already decommitted in the wake of the news. Brown, a Mater Dei product, sent out a cryptic tweet after Riley's decision making it highly likely that he stays home.
Staying home ? 👀— RALEEK BROWN (@raleek2) November 28, 2021
In one fell swoop, Riley gives the Pac-12 and USC everything it desperately needed to survive.
The difference between the Pac-12 and the four other Power Five leagues isn't level of play alone, though. The other leagues have tentpole brands that not only up the ceiling, but also up the floor. When a fellow SEC team beats Alabama -- even if it's not the best Alabama team -- it buys instant credibility. The same is true of a team beating Oklahoma, Ohio State or Clemson across other conferences.
It will take time for USC's roster to be up to that level of credibility, but playing against a Riley-led Trojans squad will bring many of the same advantages. Even more importantly, Riley's decision is an affirmation of the USC brand, which in turn helps the Pac-12. While national college football has largely discounted the league since former Trojans coach Pete Carroll left for the NFL, Riley just gave the Pac-12 a big spoonful of validation.
The attention also will aid in search of the sport's lifeblood: recruiting. Remember the 2020 quarterback recruiting class, when five-star Californians Bryce Young, C.J. Stroud and D.J. Uiagalelei opted to hop on cross-country flights, leaving USC with the No. 64 recruiting class in the nation? That ain't happening with Riley in the conference. The more California standouts stay home, the better off the Pac-12 will be long term.
The timing could not be worse for Oklahoma
Over the summer, Oklahoma announced shocking plans to depart the Big 12 for the SEC. There were a number of reasons for the move, but along with the financial windfall such a decision brings, the ability for Riley to shore up some of his weaknesses -- specifically, on defensive and in the trenches with the door opened to SEC recruiting -- was a significant driver.
Instead, Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione was left with a shocking departure of his own to deal with. Now, instead of entering the SEC from a position of strength as a perennial Big 12 title winner and playoff participant, the Sooners are facing the toughest conference in college football history with a new coach. With so many questions surrounding the 2022 team, Oklahoma could suddenly find itself stumbling into the SEC.
The early years of a program's tenure in a new conference can set the tone. See Texas A&M, which leveraged a Johnny Manziel Heisman season into becoming a popular national brand and a mainstay in the SEC West race. Conversely, see Nebraska, a once-proud blue blood that fell apart under Mike Riley and never recovered. The Cornhuskers went 3-9 in 2021, their worst season since 1957.
Oklahoma has more implicit advantages than Nebraska, but competing with Alabama and LSU is still substantially more difficult than wrestling with Minnesota. The Sooners have been successful in virtually every era since college football formed. Still, this will be a new challenge, and the impending questions could quickly become existential with a hiring whiff.
LSU might not be an automatic draw for elite coaches
When Texas and Oklahoma announced their intent to join the SEC, the common logic seemed to be that it would set off a long trudge towards consolidation. But Riley didn't just spurn Oklahoma. He turned down LSU as well.
Scott Woodward is the man who lured legendary Boise State coach Chris Petersen to Washington and nabbed Jimbo Fisher at Texas A&M. Just this summer, Woodward poached Baylor women's basketball coach Kim Mulkey to lead a program that went 9-13 last season. Point is, Woodward doesn't miss. But despite having one of the most powerful football programs in sports at his disposal, he's closer than ever to doing so.
The new SEC features nine of the top 12 most valuable programs in college athletics, according to the Wall Street Journal. However, USC has one massive advantage that most of the new SEC won't be able to touch: a more direct path to consistent success.
Ed Orgeron led the Tigers to the 2019 national championship with one of the greatest teams in college football history. Over the next two years, the Tigers went 11-11 and he was fired. Les Miles led the program to a national championship in 2007 and a national championship game in 2011. Outside of those runs, he failed to win a conference title.
The yo-yo of being the LSU head coach has its perks. The last three coaches to lead the program won national championships, and it's hard to believe Orgeron or Miles could have accomplished the feat somewhere else. Riley unquestionably could win a national championship in Baton Rouge. He also very likely would have won fewer than 10 games (outside a pandemic-shortened 2020) for the first time. Suddenly, what seemed the best the most attractive in-season opening on the market becomes one still looking for a coach as high-profile candidates sign megadeals to stay at their current job by the day.
At USC, Riley can compete for conference titles every year with Oregon and Washington and earn playoff trips. Eventually, he might win a national championship. At just 38-years-old, the odds are well on his side.
While Riley is just one coach, seeing perhaps the biggest young star in college football coaching opt for a more regional, manageable path to national championship contention is a canary in a coal mine, especially for the non-powers of the SEC. Being part of the best league is far less of an allure if you can't beat the best.