History up for grabs by USC, TCU and Tulane as Georgia, Michigan aim to finish strong on championship weekend

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In many ways, Lincoln Riley went into this season by the seat of his coaching pants. The transfer portal was a weapon, sure, but an unrefined one. USC’s coach told CBS Sports he would not blame observers for seeing this season as an “experiment.” Twenty incoming transfers — the most for a single team nationally — have not only assimilated but excelled.

Should the No. 4 Trojans defeat No. 11 Utah in Friday’s Pac-12 Championship Game, USC will be conference champs for only the second time since 2008. It will also get a chance to contend for the national title for the first time since 2004.

“People are going to see this as a quick fix, an opportunity to maybe turn something around that’s been down,” said Riley. “It’s like anything, whether you’re signing a high school [class or bringing in transfers], … some of them turn out and some of them don’t.

“I do think a lot of ours has been by luck or skill or a combination of both. We’ve hit on the right kind of kids.”

Across a championship weekend that appears to lack drama, the Pac-12 title game assumes the most of it. A USC loss would open a door giving No. 5 Ohio State new life in the College Football Playoff conversation. 

Off the field, in the second year of the one-time transfer exemption, there still is no blueprint for going all-in with the portal. There isn’t enough proof of concept. But for now, it’s become foundation for the Trojans, which are 11-1 for the first time since 2008.

In this Year of the Turnaround, USC has achieved that record rebounding from 4-8, the worst finish at the school since 1991. Quarterback Caleb Williams, an Oklahoma transfer, enters Friday night as the Heisman Trophy favorite. The Trojans’ top four wide receivers are all transfers. 

One of the biggest criticisms of transfer free agency, locker room issues, hasn’t played out nationally — at least not publicly to this point.

“Fortunately, we brought in the right kind of guys,” Riley reiterated. “They were locker room-type guys. They really added to the culture. It could have been a disaster without that. If you mesh a group together that doesn’t vibe, nothing is worse than that.”

That last USC team to play for a national title in 2004 had 74 players from California on its 85-man roster (87%). This year’s roster has 42 players from out of state with only 62% from California.

Regardless, Riley wants to recruit more high school players. His Class of 2023 is currently 13th in the 247Sports Composite team rankings with 20 high school commitments and no transfers — yet.

“We definitely want to get back to more of a high school model,” Riley said. “But I think we’ll always be in the market for some transfers. Early on, the first couple of years here is probably going to be a little more [transfer heavy]. I hope we can build the foundation of the roster — and I think we will — where we don’t need that many.”

Riley admits there is a bit of a free agency feel to the current climate, but the ability to transfer doesn’t mean it’s the best thing.

“Whether they transfer to the business world or the NFL or whatever, you can’t bounce around in real life,” he said. “… It already is [free agency] to some point. In the NFL, you have pro scouting. I don’t think this is going to be much different.”

We’ll find out further on Monday when the next transfer window opens nationwide.

Don’t hold your breath

As mentioned, this is easily the least dramatic championship weekend in the CFP era. No. 1 Georgia, No. 2 Michigan and No. 3 TCU are all but locks for the playoff, win or lose. USC might be one as well.

Think of it as a window into the future. With 12 teams in the expanded 12-tea playoff beginning in 2024, all of the current top four could easily afford to lose (as long as they are OK with giving up a bye). Not only that, Ohio State, No. 6 Alabama, No. 7 Tennessee, No. 8 Penn State and No. 9 Clemson would be resting comfortably on the couch.

On Saturday, all but the Buckeyes would need unforeseen miracles. In 2024, they would have their practice schedules already arranged.

Yes, in the future, the championship games will essentially exist for seeding purposes. If the expanded playoff reduces the impact of the league title games, well, that’s just how it shakes.

Part of the appeal of the NFL is not only the scramble for playoff spots — 14 in a 32-team league — but also jockeying for home-field advantage and byes. The thought here is that same type of passion will lead to excitement in a 12-team playoff. Not just who is in, but who they can potentially play and where.

Conference championship games aren’t going way. The provide a key source of revenue in the leagues’ media rights contracts worth at least $3 million per school annually.

More on The Year of the Turnaround

No. 18 Tulane is on the brink of the biggest turnaround in FBS history. The Green Wave are currently eight games better than they were in 2021, improving from 2-10 to 10-2. They can tie the record Saturday by beating No. 22 UCF in the AAC Championship Game, though they would also need to win their bowl game to set a new mark.

The all-time record for one-year improvement currently stands at 8.5 games by 1999 Hawaii (4-9 to 12-0).

TCU and USC are also in contention to tie the record. The Horned Frogs (12-0) can improve by 8.5 games from last year’s 5-7 record should they win out. The Trojans (11-1) can similarly improve by 8.5 games from last year’s 4-8 record should they win out.

It’s Revenge of Nerds in the Power Five title games. All feature a participant with at least three losses: No. 10 Kansas State (Big 12), No. 11 Utah (Pac-12), No. 14 LSU (SEC), No. 23 North Carolina (ACC) and Purdue (Big Ten). The 19 combined losses in the Power Five title games are second-most of the CFP era. In 2018, the teams playing in the aforementioned games combined for 21 losses.

LSU’s impact on Georgia could be significant. With a Tigers’ win, it is assumed the Bulldogs will remain in the top four and could even repeat as national champions. But the Dawgs would don so in consecutive years without winning the SEC. Georgia’s last SEC championship was captured in 2017.

The ACC Championship Game is the most irrelevant among the Power Five. Clemson (10-2) and North Carolina (9-3) both enter off brutal losses. The Tigers saw their 40-game home winning streak slowly slip away in a one-point loss to South Carolina, while the Tar Heels lost to a NC State team that was playing its fourth starting quarterback.

A final word on the expanded playoff

It took 71 years to go from the first game that decided the a recognized national champion (Princeton vs. Rutgers, 1869) to the creation of the AP Top 25 in 1936. From there, it took 62 years to decide a champion on the field with the Bowl Championship Series beginning in 1998. That lasted 16 years until the College Football Playoff debuted in 2014.

The four-team playoff will have lasted 10 years by the time the 12-team playoff debuts in 2024.

From a June 2021 formal announcement of the expanded playoff through two earth-shaking conference raids (by the SEC and Big Ten), through three new Power Five commissioners, through an obstinate Rose Bowl, we are finally here.

This week was significant in the history of American sports. College football is essentially the last major sport to adopt a legitimate, progressive multi-elimination playoff.

Yes, it is time to celebrate.

Quick kicks

One huge reason for the SEC’s dominance: The favorite has won 27 of the 30 prior championship games … remember Clay Helton? His Georgia Southern offense was the most improved in the nation, scoring an average of 13.4 more points per game than a year ago … Boise State is meeting Fresno State for the fourth time in the last 10 years in the Mountain West Championship Game … the winner of the SEC Championship Game has won at least one CFP game since 2015 … at 25 years, 1 month and 6 days, Stetson Bennett would be the oldest quarterback to win an SEC title … the Pac-12 was the only conference with six teams in the top 20 of the CFP. It had six teams with 9+ wins. Seven of 12 Pac-12 teams are bowl eligible. Ah, but in each case, USC and UCLA were two of those. Their last season in the league is 2023.

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