Lincoln Riley’s move to become the next head coach at USC has created a short-term shockwave in the college football player landscape. Players are decommitting from Oklahoma and, by the nature of the type of program Oklahoma was under Riley, those players tend to be highly sought after and highly ranked recruits. USC, which had fallen from grace well before what was essentially a lame duck career of Clay Helton, is a hot destination with Riley at the helm.
Perhaps the most poignant example of what has played out in recent days was Malachi Nelson, a five-star quarterback in the 2023 recruiting class, decommitting from Oklahoma and committing to USC. In all, five players have decommitted from the Sooners following Riley’s departure, including one other highly rated recruit from Nelson’s same high school.
After the initial shock, however, the dust will settle. Players will stop decommitting and recommitting, and we’ll achieve a steady state. These shifts are nothing new (though the transfer portal and rules favoring players have certainly exacerbated these cycles), and we’ll see the same things in South Bend, Baton Rouge, Gainesville and elsewhere before bowl season even begins, just like we do whenever there is a major coaching changeup.
But that’s where things get interesting, because it’s not just a coaching change for USC, and that’s because USC isn’t an ordinary program. Rather, it’s an opportunity to put the once-prominent program back on the map, which is, all of a sudden, a real possibility under Riley in ways it hasn’t been in the last decade or so. As a natural follow-on to that change, when USC is good, the recruiting landscape shifts.
That shift isn’t unique to USC, and could be applied to any major program that is far from other geographic powers (Texas might be the next best option). However, USC is a great example, since the Pac-12 has collectively been bad, making the College Football Playoff just twice in seven years — the lowest among any Power Five conference. As a result, major players from other conferences have been able to poach players who otherwise may have stayed closer to home. Oregon has started to defy this logic under Mario Cristobal, achieving top-10 recruiting class rankings in recent years. By comparison, USC was 64th in the 2020 rankings, but jumped to seventh in 2021, though they brought on just one five-star recruit in that class.
Once again, Nelson offers a glimpse into the future of what the recruiting landscape could be. Los Alamitos, where Nelson goes to high school, is a 30-minute drive from USC’s campus. Until this week, Nelson was ready to head to Norman, Oklahoma, to play under Riley. Now, he can play his college ball in his own backyard.
Now let’s take another example of a highly touted quarterback from California, say, Rancho Cucamonga, which is closer to an hour from USC, or even a receiver from San Marcos (90 minutes or so from campus).
What might have happened if USC was a viable option for CJ Stroud in 2020 or Chris Olave in 2018? Both had offers from the Trojans, but Ohio State offered (and still offers) a mighty fine pitch compared to what USC could give. The Buckeyes have won a national title in recent memory. You need more than two hands to count the first round NFL Draft picks from the last five years alone. Ohio State won four-straight Big Ten titles from 2017-2020. Moreover, the program, like many in the Big Ten, has been a model of stability, with even what could have been a drama-filled coaching change going extremely smoothly and the team not missing a beat.
Here’s where the Nelson/Stroud example falls apart somewhat. While Bob Stoops is returning to Oklahoma to coach the Sooners in their bowl game, there’s no telling who will be their head coach heading into 2022 and beyond. When Stroud came to Ohio State in 2020 (and committed and was recruited well before then), it was clear who Urban Meyer’s successor would be and what that would mean for new recruits coming to the program.
Looking into the future for USC, players might commit or decommit en masse as a result of a coaching change, but what does the steady state of recruiting look like?
Ohio State has an advantage in that it only competes, realistically, with a generous dozen other programs for top recruits. For many programs outside of the usual roundup of Playoff contenders, the only way they’ll get five-star commitments is by a personal connection (e.g., a family member went there) or a desire to stay close to home. Guys like Purdue’s George Karlaftis (who prepped in West Lafayette) or former Iowa defensive end AJ Epenesa (a Hawkeye legacy recruit) come to mind. As a result, Ohio State can capture the out-of-state recruiting market extremely efficiently, similar to how Alabama, Clemson and Notre Dame are able to.
But when USC is back, that’s one of those dozen or so programs who Ohio State has to compete with for those out-of-state five-stars. It’s a power with historical significance that’s on a level with the Buckeyes — seven Heisman Trophy winners, 11 claimed national titles, 39 conference titles.
The direct impact to Ohio State, suddenly, looks a lot greater. Not only might players like Stroud and Olave opt for USC, but players not from Ohio or California might choose to go to LA and play under Riley as competition for five-star recruits becomes more fragmented.