A year ago yesterday, USC made a move that would change the program’s outlook for the foreseeable future: Lincoln Riley was hired as the head coach.
The surprising hire sparked an immediate change in USC football’s culture and recruiting. The former University of Oklahoma head coach helped the Trojans flip the switch from last year’s 4-8 season, drawing in 19 new transfer athletes including current Heisman Trophy frontrunner, quarterback Caleb Williams.
Now, after going 7-0 at home and 11-1 overall, the Trojans secured their spot in the PAC-12 Championship and have national championship aspirations on the horizon. For USC students, the change is not limited to the football program, as it has also extended to fan culture.
“It’s definitely a lot more entertaining to watch because we’re winning,” said Rishab Iyer, a junior computational neuroscience major. “I think there’s also a lot of fans that are more into the games. It’s more exciting to go to the games because I feel like last year a lot of people were against the coach and against the team just because they felt like they were doing badly. It’s more exciting now.”
The Trojans are ranked fourth in the nation, behind only Georgia, Michigan and TCU. The team is heading to Las Vegas where they will face off against the Utah Utes at 5 p.m. on Friday at Allegiant Stadium. It will be the first time that USC is competing in the PAC-12 championship since 2017 excluding the COVID year, when the Trojans lost to Oregon at the Rose Bowl.
It’s also the first time USC will be facing Utah since the Utes handed the Trojans their first and only loss of the season in Salt Lake City on Oct. 15. Since then, the Trojans have been on a hot streak that has broken records both on the field and in the stadium.
The Coliseum was 94% full on Saturday for the final home game of the season against Notre Dame, the most highly attended home game since the pandemic began in 2020. This attendance figure came over Thanksgiving break, a stark contrast to last year’s attendance of 72% for the last home game.
“I think [the energy has] shifted massively,” said Emily McDougal, a senior communication and theatre major. “I’ve been here for a while, and I remember it got to a point where our stadium was not very well filled mid-game. But I think this semester it’s been so fun to see it get filled to the brim. The Notre Dame game was hugely packed and that was awesome to see and it’s cool to see people really get excited about USC football.”
The turnaround for former seasons is visible not only to older students, but also to underclassmen who will likely experience a winning program for the majority of their years at USC.
“The energy I feel around campus is excitement and joy for the team, future and insanely good quarterback Caleb Williams,” said Darren Hanna, a sophomore health and human sciences major. “We are just ready to win and be great.”
The Trojans will be looking to redeem their midseason loss to the Utes, and students and fans will be traveling in hoards to Las Vegas.
“In my four years at USC, this is the most excited I’ve seen the student body about a team,” said Emily Duijser, senior majoring in biomedical engineering. “I feel so lucky to be in the conference title game my last year. Even though it’s during finals, I can’t miss the trip to Vegas to support the team.”
From Las Vegas or South L.A., Trojan fans are witnessing a momentum shift the likes of which have not been seen in years.
“I’m carpooling with my fellow Trojans to the game,” said Eli Gingold, a junior business administration major. “It feels great that I’m attending college at the start of such an incredible era of USC football. I always wanted to go to a school where I had an incredible football team to support, and in Lincoln Riley’s first year, it is great to see where the team is.”
On Friday, the Trojans look to clinch their first ever trip to the College Football Playoff since its inception in 2014.