College Football

Lincoln Riley vs. Brent Venables: Who will have a better Year 1?

May 26

By RJ Young
FOX Sports College Football Writer

Two of the most heralded hires of the 2022 head-coaching cycle were USC coach Lincoln Riley and Oklahoma coach Brent Venables. Both are expected to compete for conference titles and possibly lead their respective programs to national titles. 

But which one will have the better first year?

Let’s look at all the main factors.

How will Lincoln Riley fare in Year 1?

While there is a considerable amount of work to do for a program that won just four games in 2021, perhaps no one is better equipped for a complete turnaround in a short amount of time as Lincoln Riley.

I have my doubts about the Trojans' offensive linemen — mostly that there aren’t enough of them — and Riley is working with a new offensive line coach, Josh Henson, for the first time in six years. But if the O-line is the only worry USC has heading into the 2022 season, the Trojans should be successful.

Will Lincoln Riley or Brent Venables have a better debut season?

RJ Young breaks down all the factors in trying to predict who will have the better Year 1.

You can watch the "The No. 1 Ranked Show with RJ Young" on YouTube or subscribe on podcast platforms, including Apple Podcasts.

What qualifies as success? If Riley can mirror what Dave Aranda achieved at Baylor, turning a two-win program in Year 1 into a 12-win program by Year 2, then that would certainly qualify.

It’s optimistic to believe the Trojans can win 12 games this year, and it’s improbable that they win just two. Given the talent Riley will have at his disposal and the quality of the USC schedule in 2022, USC fans should lean toward a high number as the minimum.

Games to watch: vs. Fresno State (Sept. 17), at Utah (Oct. 15), vs. Notre Dame (Nov. 26)

Utah and Notre Dame are seemingly the toughest opponents on USC's schedule, so those feel like the games that could elevate the Trojans from pretenders to contenders. Utah is the defending Pac-12 Conference champ and pushed mighty Ohio State to the brink in one of the best Rose Bowl games I’ve ever seen.

And the Utes have heard everything said about the new man in South Central and will want to demonstrate that last year was no fluke. In South Bend, Marcus Freeman is better prepared than Riley to succeed in Year 1, having taken over a program he has been a part of for two years — not unlike how Riley was prepared to take over OU in June 2017.

Both games will be unique measuring sticks for the Trojans in October and November, respectively. But early on, the Trojans will face a Fresno State team that returns one of the Group of 5’s best quarterbacks in Jake Haener, who threw for more than 4,000 yards with 33 TDs and just nine interceptions last season.

On Sept. 17, USC defensive coordinator Alex Grinch will find out just how good his pass defense is.

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Players to watch: QB Caleb Williams, WR Jordan Addison, DL Korey Foreman

Williams and Addison are two of the biggest names to enter the transfer portal, and both were recruited to USC with tremendous fanfare and intrigue. Williams has his favorite WR target from OU in Mario Williams, the best tailback at Oregon last year in Travis Dye and Addison, the reigning Biletnikoff Award winner.

That quartet will form the backbone of what should be a dynamic offense — if the O-line can play to a high level. On the other side of the ball, defensive coordinator Grinch is looking to get an eye-popping season from Foreman as a sophomore.

Recruits to watch: CB Domani Jackson, RB Raleek Brown, S Zion Branch

Add to this quartet a trio of big-name recruits — cornerback Domani Jackson, safety Zion Branch and running back Raleek Brown — and all eyes will be on Riley to see what he can come up with in Dr. Dre’s backyard.

Jackson is the No. 2-rated corner in the 2022 class, Brown is the No. 3-rated running back and Branch is the No. 6-rated safety. Overall, USC had the No. 6-ranked 2022 class in the 247 Sports Composite.

How will Brent Venables fare in Year 1?

When Venables touched down last December at Max Westheimer Airport in Norman, OU fans staked a place near the tarmac to cheer. And why not? Venables had won a national title as Sooners linebackers coach and was promoted to the defensive coordinator position before departing to Clemson in 2012. 

At Clemson, Venables cemented his reputation as one the best defensive play-callers in the sport, and OU fans are betting on that prowess showing itself in Norman for the first time since he left.

Venables’ staff and ability to hang on to important OU players have put him in a position to pick up where Riley left off. The bar at OU is winning 10 games, though that might prove difficult given the Sooners' schedule.

Games to watch: at Nebraska (Sept. 17), vs. Kansas State (Sept. 24), at Texas Christian (Oct. 1), vs. Texas (Oct. 8), vs. Baylor (Nov. 5), vs. Oklahoma State (Nov. 19)

Last year, OU nearly lost that game to Nebraska in Norman. That matchup will prove challenging once again, if not more so, in Lincoln, Nebraska, this season.

The quadruple threat of Nebraska, K-State, Texas Christian and Texas will challenge OU. In years past, those programs have proven formidable, especially K-State and Texas. The Longhorns always get up for the annual showdown at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas and this year, they boast one of the most talented rosters in the sport.

Players to watch: QB Dillon Gabriel, WR Marvin Mims, DL Jalen Redmond

The connection between Gabriel and Mims could prove to be special. Mims has demonstrated he can be the Sooners’ most potent threat downfield, and Gabriel is uniquely prepared to lead Jeff Lebby's offense at OU.

Gabriel played for Lebby when both were at Central Florida, and that is perhaps the best reason to expect the offense to be potent starting in Week 1.

Redmond is positioned to be the first OU defensive lineman to earn a first-round NFL Draft selection since Gerald McCoy, whom Venables coached. OU fans are excited about the prospect of the defense being a team strength after the offense has lifted the Sooners to Big 12 Championships, College Football Playoff invitations and New Year’s Six Games in years past.

There’s also room to be excited about new faces, including freshman linebacker Kobie McKinzie, who figures to factor with veterans Danny Stutsman and Key Lawrence on the OU defense.

Who will have a better Year 1: Riley or Venables?

Push.

Both could win 10 games this season.

As a head coach, Riley has never failed to win at least 10. Even though all of his head-coaching experience to date has been in Norman, he brought with him to USC many of the staff members who helped him achieve remarkable success at OU.

Couple Riley’s staff with this cycle's most impressive haul of transfers and a not-so-difficult schedule, and it’s easy to see how the Trojans could end the season playing for the Pac-12 Championship in Year 1.

RJ Young is a national college football writer and analyst for FOX Sports and the host of the podcast "The No. 1 Ranked Show with RJ Young." Follow him on Twitter at @RJ_Young, and subscribe to "The RJ Young Show" on YouTube. He is not on a StepMill.


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