The 2023 Cotton Bowl was the kind of moment which would normally convince a head coach to do things differently. Seeing Tulane score 16 points in the final five minutes to turn a seemingly easy 45-30 win into a shocking 46-45 loss should have convinced Lincoln Riley to fire Alex Grinch on the spot and initiate a new defensive coordinator search.
The fact that Riley had Caleb Williams coming back for one more season, along with a lot of other talented players on the USC roster, should have made Riley aware of the unique opportunity the Trojans faced.
Getting the right defensive coordinator and bringing him in to maximize Caleb Williams’ talents — and win the Pac-12 championship — seemed like the move Riley needed to make.
Instead, he felt that since USC did well in Year 1, a second year with Alex Grinch’s system would provide continuity for players. It wasn’t a great argument, but it was an understandable one. Riley brought Grinch to Los Angeles from Oklahoma, so he felt giving Grinch a second USC season was the right thing to do.
Also not the right move.
Riley bet big on Alex Grinch and lost everything. Now he has to search for a new defensive coordinator, but it’s more than that. Riley has to consider major staffing changes beyond one man. He has to rethink how he runs his program.
Riley didn’t learn from the Cotton Bowl. Maybe Saturday’s loss to UCLA will truly open his eyes and make him see how much he needs to change his ways.
People are still talking about the Cotton Bowl, in case you haven’t noticed, and that’s worth thinking about as Riley’s career arrives at a crossroads:
THE BIG PICTURE
The Cotton Bowl was supposed to be the humiliating moment which made Lincoln Riley see the light about cultivating toughness and accountability within his program.
It did not do that.
This game needs to do what the Cotton Bowl failed to do. #USC
UCLA FOLKS ARE DEFINITELY AWARE OF THE COTTON BOWL
Never forget when USC blew a two-possession 4th-quarter lead in the Cotton Bowl last year pic.twitter.com/ShZprrunQr
— Barstool UCLA (@StoolWestwood) November 14, 2023
THE COTTON BOWL STILL STINGS
If you really think about it, #USC, Lincoln Riley hasn't done anything for you other than brought you Caleb Williams. He benefited from an easy schedule last year but still lost to Utah when it counted twice and then lost to Tulane! in the Cotton Bowl. He's lost every important…
— Erik Williams (@TheErikWilliams) November 19, 2023
DIDN'T FIRE GRINCH WHEN HE SHOULD HAVE
2023 USC Football:
– Have high hopes
– Start 3-0
– Lose to Utah that was using backup QB
– Get smacked by Notre Dame
– Defense is garbage
– Fires Alex Grinch
– Should've done it after Cotton Bowl implosion
– Nearly lose to Arizona & Cal
– Lose to UCLA
– Campus sinks into Pacific
— RIP Pac-12 Football (@nat_petrone85) November 19, 2023
Pretty safe to say the loss to Tulane in the Cotton Bowl really did USC in that carried over to this year.
— Knucklehead (@279NASCARFan) November 12, 2023
RILEY DIDN'T LEARN FROM TULANE
Tulane broke the USC program
— Gregg Rosenthal (@greggrosenthal) November 19, 2023
WHAT STARTED IT ALL
USC Trojans were frauds since they lost to Tulane last season.
Lincoln Riley should be fired.
— Ken-ough (@ek_loner) November 19, 2023
Let me direct you to USC vs Tulane from last year https://t.co/gOyPtTZ0zO
— ScaryCheese (@ScaryCheese_) November 18, 2023
I remember people ranking USC top 10 over the summer and they really didn’t take into account Utah and Tulane running and throwing all over that defense. USC is burnt out
— RUN THE DAMN BALL (@RTDBNebraska) November 18, 2023
TULANE IS A WORD PEOPLE LIKE TO USE
Tulane broke USC
— Harrison (@harrisonisreal2) November 18, 2023
Lincoln Riley is the definition of used car salesman
Lincoln at USC
Loss in PAC12 championship
Loss to Tulane TULANE!!!!!
Defense is ass
It’s not about Heismans over here Lincoln #FightOn
— The Fadeaway (@thefadeaway310) November 18, 2023
The 11-3 Trojans were one win away from the CFP, but they ended the season falling to Utah in the Pac-12 title game and then to Tulane in the Cotton Bowl. They're currently 7-4 and sitting outside the Top 25. #USC #NCAAF
— Proven Source Sports (@Proven_Source) November 15, 2023
Did Utah or Tulane break usc football?
— KB 🏁 (@KevinCBryant2) November 12, 2023
LR never in a full season at Oklahoma finish under 10 wins
Lincoln Riley under Oklahoma never lost to a G5 program
Lincoln Riley won the conference title his first two seasons at Oklahoma
he will not have a 10 win season this year
he lost to Tulane
only appeared in one
— homo (@faggityqueer) November 12, 2023
UCLA IS WORSE THAN TULANE
The UCLA loss is worse than the Tulane loss because USC’s offensive line, not just its defensive line, got dominated. UCLA owned the game on both sides of the ball. At least versus Tulane, USC’s offense was brilliant, converting over 70 percent of third-down conversions and collecting over 39 minutes in time of possession. USC rolled up 594 yards. The offense was as good as it possibly could have been, minus two specific plays, a safety and a Caleb Williams interception.
This was 100-percent failure throughout the roster, with the exception of Caleb Williams. This was a total breakdown. Lincoln Riley has to own up to it.
MORE THAN A GRINCH PROBLEM
Caleb Williams was running for his life on nearly every play. What happens next year, when Caleb is not USC’s quarterback? The Trojans have to upgrade their whole roster, especially on their lines. This is why the UCLA loss has to get through to Riley that he needs a total makeover, not just some slight changes.
HOW RILEY OPERATES
Staffing changes are hugely important for Riley. He needs to make a lot of them, and he needs to make the right ones. However, it’s not just a matter of firing some guys and replacing them with others. Riley’s whole blueprint for how to run a program must change. The way he is conducting practices and the way he is developing players is not up to par. If Riley can’t change his methods, his personnel changes won’t matter that much.
Riley talked a lot about USC being close to having a much better record. The UCLA loss wasn’t close. Maybe that fact will help Riley realize just how far away USC is from being good.
USC has really fallen behind in 2024 recruiting. With the season now over, Riley has to rally and find a defensive coordinator who will command respect with defensive recruits.
The pressure is on. We will see how much the UCLA game really did teach to Lincoln Riley. The Cotton Bowl didn’t pound home the right lessons. Maybe the UCLA game will.
It needs to.