How Lincoln Riley’s USC hot start affects Nebraska, Urban Meyer

How Lincoln Riley’s USC hot start affects Nebraska, Urban Meyer

Jaguars coach Urban Meyer stands on the field before an NFL football game.

Former Ohio State and Jacksonville Jaguars coach Urban Meyer is once again fielding appeals from a desperate college football fan base — this time from Nebraska. (Jae C. Hong/Associated Press)

The biggest headlines of the day were written Saturday morning in America’s heartland before a minute of football had been played, when a series of unfortunate events led to a raucous crowd of Nebraska fans feeding the ever-hungry ego of college football’s most controversial and iconic former coach.

“We want Urban!” they yelled at the smug and smiling Urban Meyerwho had his back to the adoring crowd on the set of Fox’s weekly Big Noon Kickoff pregame show in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Like everything that happens in sports these days, some of these scenes were simply made for TV. Even the Fox crew rallied the Big Red faithful, who entered Saturday’s meeting with old rival Oklahoma still reeling from their team’s loss to Clay Helton’s Georgia Southern Eagles a week earlier. The result sparked the immediate firing of Nebraska alum Scott Frost.

But some of the love showered on Meyer, the former national championship-winning coach at Florida and Ohio State, was also very real. They. I am doing. I want. Urban. Despite all the problems of the past – and the inevitable baggage that comes with it.


If you were confused, it should have started to make more sense as the rest of Saturday unfolded — especially how it ended, with Lincoln Riley’s No. 7 USC Trojans methodically destroying one of the fiercest underdogs out there — the Fresno State Bulldogs — 42-17 in front of a national audience.

In just its third game under Riley, USC was cold in its accuracy, which, of course, is exactly what it paid for last November when it pulled Riley from Oklahoma in the middle of the night.

The Trojans, who will travel to play another undefeated Oregon State this coming Saturday, seemed to improve from week two to week three. As at Stanford, the game was never in doubt — USC built a 21-3 lead by scoring on its first three drives — but this time there was no letdown in the second half. The Trojans are now winning the turnover battle 10-0.

Three weeks into this season, judgments about which coaches are elite — and therefore worth the astronomical investment — are no longer fleeting.

USC, no matter what happens from here to 2022, is proof that the right coaching hire can chart a whole new and refreshing trajectory after a strategic offseason. Seeing Riley’s team at 3-0, you have to squint to see 4-8 in the mirror.

On Saturday, there were plenty of examples to the contrary. Once again, Notre Dame struggled under first-year coach Marcus Freeman. If not for a Hail Mary drop by California quarterback Jack Plummer in the Notre Dame end zone, the Fighting Irish would have gone to overtime against the Golden Bears. In contrast, Notre Dame held on 24-17. So Freeman won his first game as the program’s head coach after three losses to start his tenure, including one last week at home to Marshall, which lost Saturday to Bowling Green.

“It’s hard to win football games,” a relieved Freeman said afterward.

So far, it hasn’t been difficult for USC. That moment will come, but it arrived much quicker at Louisiana State, which lost its Brian Kelly debut to Florida State, and at Florida, where Billy Napier’s Gators were one South Florida goal away from a scary trip to extra time on Saturday.

No such fear has yet entered the atmosphere among USC fans.

“My Saturday nights are so much better now” tweeted Fox radio host Colin Cowherd, an ardent follower of the Trojans. “True happiness #FightOn.”

It should be noted that his tweet came in the first trimester. That’s how quickly the game ended against a respectable Fresno State team that beat UCLA in the Rose Bowl last season.

Riley’s upset of the Trojans, as enticing as it looks from afar, could be a toxin disguised as an elixir for a program in the state of Nebraska.

Sure, Nebraska and USC share a trait as traditional blue-bloods that fell on hard times in the 2010s. As of June, they also left their conference to join the Big Ten, albeit a decade apart. The commonalities end there, really.

Ironically, a year after the Trojans kept Clay Helton because of an embarrassing two-game losing streak, the Huskers said goodbye to Scott Frost because he lost to Helton, now the coach at Georgia Southern.

Nebraska could have acquired Frost for $7.5 million on Oct. 1, but was so desperate to move on that it agreed to pay him $15 million early last week.

For a number of reasons — proximity to talented recruits first among them — Nebraska is unlikely to rebuild as quickly as USC under Riley. Everyone knows that, which is why the Cornhuskers won’t be able to find a can’t-lose coach from a major program like the Trojans did.

Frost, the native son, was the domestic tenant and was snuffed out. The desperation for relevance — to feel like USC fans now feel every Saturday — has grown. And Urban Meyer — despite being fired less than a full season into his disastrous tenure leading the Jacksonville Jaguars and questions about how he handled domestic violence allegations involving his staff at Ohio State — is the clearest. road in the corn maze.

Nebraska has other interesting options to pursue. Interesting, not intoxicating.

Washington’s Kalen DeBoer, in a much quieter way than Riley, has revitalized his program in one offseason. The Huskies cruised past No. 11 Michigan 39-28 on Saturday night in Seattle.

Kansas’ Lance Leipold, who has won all of his coaching jobs, has the Jayhawks 3-0 for the first time since 2009 after impressive wins at West Virginia and Houston.

Those kinds of traditional prospects could end up being great hires for Nebraska athletic director Trev Alberts, but they won’t get the crowd singing along.

Because Nebraska won’t be attractive to a guy like Lincoln Riley, who has already made it, the school will feel pressure to consider a guy like Urban Meyer to achieve the same result.

Pac-12 reset

Washington quarterback Michael Pennix Jr., right, throws a touchdown pass against Michigan State

Washington quarterback Michael Pennix Jr., right, throws a touchdown pass in front of Michigan State defensive back Chester Kimbrough on Saturday. (Stephen Brashear/Associated Press)

The Pac-12 championship game got a lot more interesting Saturday when Washington knocked around Michigan State and No. 25 Oregon knocked off No. 12 Brigham Young 41-20.

The Huskies, led by Indiana transfer quarterback Michael Pennix Jr., look capable of competing with Utah and USC. DeBoer, who came out of Fresno State, deserves a lot of credit for bringing this offense back to life after years of boring, predictable play.

Dan Lanning got his first big win as Oregon’s coach just two weeks removed from a humbling beatdown against Georgia. Bo Nix may have played his best college game.

Add in Washington State, which improved to 3-0 and has this win at Wisconsin on its back, and this is the best showing the Pac-12’s top seed has had overall since 2016.

UCLA’s verdict is still out

UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson scrambles for two yards against South Alabama

UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson scrambles for two yards against South Alabama during the third quarter Saturday in the Rose Bowl. (Myung J. Chun/Los Angeles Times)

UCLA certainly looks like it’s in trouble after needing a last-second field goal to beat South Alabama. After all, this is Chip Kelly’s fifth year.

The Bruins will need to clean up their execution. The game wouldn’t be as close if it weren’t for the funny mistakes.

We’ll find out if Kelly deserves a sixth season when the Bruins play Washington, Utah and Oregon in series. As of now, that looks like 0-3.

But first, the Bruins face an awful Colorado team.

The next coaches are coming out

Colorado head coach Karl Dorrell watches from the sidelines as his team plays Air Force on Sept. 10

Colorado head coach Karl Dorrell watches from the sidelines as his team plays Air Force on Sept. 10 (David Zalubowski/Associated Press)

UCLA fans remember how cool Carl Dorrell is. They also remember how that wasn’t enough.

Colorado lost to Minnesota 49-7 on Saturday and is now 0-3. Dorrell’s ouster seems a foregone conclusion.

The same can be said for Georgia Tech’s Geoff Collins after Mississippi beat the Yellow Jackets 42-0 in Atlanta.

Auburn coach Bryan Harsin’s days are also likely numbered after Penn State dominated the Tigers 41-12.

Future Big Ten Rankings

1. Ohio State

2. Michigan

3. U.S.C

4. Penn State

5. Minnesota (top 2)

6. Wisconsin (top 3)

7. Michigan State (bottom 2)

8. Maryland (Top 2)

9. UCLA (bottom 1)

10. Purdue (bottom 4)

11. Rutgers

12. Iowa (up 1)

13. Indiana (down 1)

14. Illinois

15. Northwest

16. Nebraska

This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

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