The fact that the USC Trojans are facing the Louisville Cardinals in the Holiday Bowl gives us the chance to study both Lincoln Riley and Jeff Brohm, the two head coaches in this game.
More precisely, USC-Louisville enables us to look at the coaches together and consider how they are the same and yet how they are also very different.
Their similarities jump off the page. They are brilliant play designers. They really pay attention to the details of creating an offense and prying open opportunities for receivers and running backs. You won’t find many play-callers better than these two men.
Yet, we also have to notice how different these coaches are — not in terms of personality or temperament, but in terms of the paths they have followed and the way their current tenures have developed at USC and Louisville.
Lincoln Riley did briefly spend time as an assistant at East Carolina, but for the most part, he has coached Cadillac programs: Oklahoma, then USC.
Jeff Brohm has coached Volkswagen programs, economy cars called Purdue and now Louisville. These coaches have lived on different sides of the tracks in terms of prestige, national reputation, and resources.
Within that difference, there’s another specific difference between the two: Lincoln Riley’s successful first season at USC was based on offense and, more specifically, having an elite quarterback, Caleb Williams. Riley couldn’t have done anything in 2022 at USC if Caleb or another elite transfer quarterback hadn’t come to Los Angeles.
Jeff Brohm, despite being an offense-first coach like Riley, won at Louisville in his first season (this season) with a strong defense. Louisville’s defense was exceptionally good in first and fourth quarters this season. It gave UL leads (with the exception of the Pittsburgh loss) and protected them (with the exception of the Kentucky loss). The defense did what it reasonably could against Florida State in the ACC Championship Game but got no help from Brohm’s offense.
Brohm was a magician in getting 10 wins out of this Louisville team. Jack Plummer, the mediocre quarterback who transferred from Cal to UL, held the Cardinals back at times. The defense was good enough to overcome that limitation.
It’s notable that Riley needs what Brohm has — a defense — and Brohm needs what Riley has had, a top quarterback.
Imagine Riley having Louisville’s defense this year. Imagine Brohm having Caleb Williams in any year.
Both coaches will have a lot to talk about in San Diego at Holiday Bowl media events.