OPINION: Stern: Caleb Williams, Lincoln Riley would be wise to jump off Trojan ship


The trio of images showing Caleb Williams frustrated after his three losses to Utah over the last two seasons should be framed in the Louvre to summarize his tenure with USC. His latest letdown -- a 34-32 loss in Los Angeles to Utes backup quarterback Bryson Barnes -- dashed the Trojans' hopes of a College Football Playoff berth this winter, and served as a sign that both Williams and head coach Lincoln Riley have already peaked. So, this tandem should soon cash in on their marketability, by bailing on Southern California for the NFL.

The dynamic duo of Williams and Riley have fallen short of lofty expectations since taking their talents from Oklahoma to USC. The season has been a total failure, as they've dropped back-to-back games to Notre Dame and Utah after barely beating Arizona. The Trojans' record of 6-2 would be satisfactory if they were a Junior Varsity team. But this was a program that was supposed to take a step forward, following a 10-3 campaign in 2022 that concluded with a loss to Tulane in the Cotton Bowl.

At this lethargic pace, not even the golden boy Williams under center -- who reportedly feels entitled to partial ownership of whatever NFL team takes him in the draft -- can save USC from a disappointing home stretch of the season. It's not impossible that USC's vulnerable and weak defense could force them to finish with seven or eight wins, as opposed to the double-digit total they'd coveted. With both Williams and Riley seemingly struggling to handle scrutiny that's come with their underachievement, they'd be smart to spend a couple of additional minutes on LinkedIn, networking for their next opportunity.

For Williams, this means shutting it down and starting to train for April's draft. There's now nothing left to play for, little room for growth. He has to feel like some older sibling responsible for babysitting his drunk younger brother by bailing out the defense's incompetence.

Now, that isn't to ignore hardships Williams will face in the pros, considering he's most likely to be drafted by a team in transition. But the current situation gives him much to lose and very little to gain, when factoring in recency bias involved with losses and poor performances. The coach that recruited him is in a similar predicament, and should be looking to arrange a package deal.

Riley was handed more than $100 million to take the reins at USC almost two years ago, but he seems to have hit a dead end, in danger of regression with the program joining the more competitive Big Ten conference in 2024. That’s not to say that his job security and potential is in question (yet), but a lack of future success could push things in that direction.

With Riley making it clear that he doesn't want to coach forever, aggressively pursuing his next move would be the logical next step. Since he's produced sustained results at two schools, testing his hand at the NFL level should be the final item on his bucket list. Only a handful of college coaches have been able to bring their style and methods into the pros, and this should give Riley motivation to prove he's more similar to one of his successors in Pete Carroll, rather than Urban Meyer.

There's some deja vu element to Riley's potential success in a league that's increasingly favoring younger, offensive-minded coaches from the collegiate ranks. Kliff Kingsbury, his current quarterbacks coach, took advantage of the trend, landing the Cardinals' head coaching job after fizzling out at Texas Tech on the heels of a 5-7 campaign. Kingsbury was less successful in the tail-end of his tenure, but the connection to explosive offenses and former top-overall pick Kyler Murray won out in the end.

That guinea pig experiment failed, as Kingsbury went 28-34-1 in the NFL with just one playoff appearance. But teams shouldn’t be scared of Riley. For one, he's more proven in the collegiate rankings with five appearances in top bowl games across six seasons. But he also has much better command as a team's CEO, and seems more likely to be able to transfer his offensive success to the next level. Though similar, the differences should be enough for the team that takes Williams to roll the dice by hiring his college coach under one condition: the general manager picks the defensive staff.

While Riley's ego may prevent him from wanting to accept a role under those terms, it should be a nonnegotiable with his track record. That one weakness of his can, and will, hinder him from reaching his ceiling in the NFL, leaving a distributed responsibility model as the best option. However, similar to when the Greeks used a Trojan Horse to conceal their identity, finding ways to hide Riley's deficiencies could set him up for a next saga in the NFL with Williams.

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