Let’s Calm Down on Lincoln Riley in Year One with the USC Trojans
The hype surrounding USC has reached a fever pitch. Although the Trojans are coming off a 4-8 season that saw the program win just three conference games, they are favored to win the Pac 12 under new head coach Lincoln Riley. USC has only won the Pac 12 one time since Pete Carroll left the program for the Seattle Seahawks after the 2009 season, so the expectations for an immediate turnaround are more than a bit optimistic.
Yes, USC is in a somewhat weak Power Five conference. Yes, Riley has more advantages than first-year coaches did in the past given the relaxed transfer rules. However, the fact that this program is considered the team to beat ahead of defending champions Utah and Oregon is eyebrow raising given what we have seen from elite head coaches in their first seasons with a program.
The greatest head coach in the history of college football never won more than nine games in his first season with a new program. Nick Saban went 9-2 in his first season with Toledo in 1990, but he went 6-5-1 in his first season at Michigan State in 1995. Saban never won more than seven games in any of his first four seasons with the Spartans before a 9-2 record in 1999 led to him taking the LSU job. He had more resources in Baton Rouge than he did in East Lansing, but Saban was only able to go 8-4 in his first season with the Tigers.
Saban went on to lead LSU to a national championship in 2003. He became the head coach of the Miami Dolphins for two years, but he returned to the college ranks with Alabama in 2007. Saban was supposed to immediately make the Crimson Tide a contender again, but Alabama only managed to go 7-6 in his first season. The Crimson Tide infamously lost a homecoming game to lowly Louisiana-Monroe as part of a four-game losing streak to end the year too. Alabama has since become a perennial juggernaut in college football, winning at least 10 games a season for 14 years and claiming six national championships in that stretch, but even Saban has had trouble winning in his first year.
Upon taking over the Georgia Bulldogs, Kirby Smart told boosters about his plan to turn the program into the SEC East version of Alabama. However, that seemed like a lot of hot air after Georgia went 8-5 in his first season with a catastrophic home loss to Vanderbilt. Smart has proven to be extremely successful though with five straight appearances in New Year’s Six games, and Georgia is the defending national champion. He recruited at an elite level right out of the gate, but his first year was full of growing pains until the Bulldogs became a program to be feared.
It took Dabo Swinney four years to turn Clemson into one of the premier programs in college football. Swinney was 19-15 through his first three seasons with the Tigers, and there were serious talks about replacing him. However, Clemson has since had its most successful run in program history with 11 straight seasons of 10 or more wins and two national championships.
The partial exception to the rule is Jimbo Fisher. He led the Florida State Seminoles to a 10-4 record in his first season with the program, but they did only win nine games in the regular season. Fisher went on to make Florida State one of the premier teams in the nation during the mid-2010s before accepting a jaw dropping amount of money to be Texas A&M’s head coach.
Fisher stepped into a decent situation, but Texas A&M could only go 8-4 during the regular season in his first year in College Station. He has since done an excellent job bringing talent into the program, yet the Aggies have yet to win 10 or more games in a season under his leadership.
This highlights that the expectations being heaped onto Lincoln Riley in his first season at USC are too much. Nick Saban, Kirby Smart, Dabo Swinney, and Jimbo Fisher are probably the four best coaches in college football today, yet they have all been unable to win 10 or more regular season games in their first season with a new program. That makes the Under 9.5 Regular Season Wins for USC extremely appealing even if the Trojans don’t have an extremely difficult schedule.