Can Lincoln Riley get the next Bryce Young to choose USC Trojans over Alabama? | Toppmeyer

College football’s best player in 2021, according to a majority of Heisman Trophy voters, was a California quarterback who opted to play at a college 2,000 miles away.

Alabama star Bryce Young is from Pasadena, home of the Rose Bowl, where Southern Cal regularly concluded seasons during its heyday.

Lincoln Riley’s challenge – and his opportunity as USC’s new coach – became apparent during Monday’s national championship game between Alabama and Georgia.

Young threw for 369 yards to conclude his stellar sophomore season.

Georgia’s best offensive player, tight end Brock Bowers, had four receptions, including a touchdown, in the Bulldogs’ 33-18 triumph.

Bowers hails from Napa, California.

Napa is about 400 miles north of USC’s campus. It’s more than 2,500 miles from Georgia’s. Nonetheless, Bowers chose playing in the SEC over remaining instate to play in the Pac-12.

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Is it any surprise, then, that the Pac-12 hasn’t produced a College Football Playoff qualifier since the 2016 season?

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If the Pac-12 is going to rebound to relevance, USC must be part of the solution. And for USC to be part of the solution, it can’t allow players like Young and Bowers to slip away to SEC schools.

If Riley can box out schools like Alabama and Georgia for California’s top instate prospects, he has an opportunity and the acumen to lead a USC resurgence.

Pete Carroll built a dynasty at USC, but since his exit following the 2009 season, the Trojans have finished just two seasons ranked in the top 10 of the Associated Press poll. They’ve had losing seasons in two of the last four years.

USC’s downturn coincided with the SEC’s climb to supremacy, and players like Young and Bowers are more regularly choosing to play for programs two or three time zones away.

Georgia’s national championship roster included four players from California, including wide receiver Jermaine Burton, who ranked second on the team in receptions behind Bowers.

The Trojans showed they’re serious about rejoining the big-kid table when they hired Riley, who went 55-10 in five seasons at Oklahoma.

California doesn’t match Texas or the Southeast for top-100 prospects. But the state has a fertile enough talent base to support USC – if the Trojans start winning more recruiting battles.

Consider, the 2005 recruiting class featured 11 California prospects ranked in the top 100 of the 247Sports Composite. Seven of the 11 signed with USC.

Of the state’s 26 prospects ranked in the national top 200 that year, 22 signed with Pac-12 schools, while just one signed with an SEC school, Florida.

Compare that to the 2020 recruiting class that featured 21 California prospects in the top 200. USC signed the same number of those national top-200 prospects from California as Oklahoma State: one.

Four of the state’s 10 prospects who ranked in the national top 100 in 2020 signed with SEC schools, including Young. That class also included blue-chip California quarterbacks D.J. Uiagalelei (signed with Clemson) and C.J. Stroud (signed with Ohio State).

Young wrestled with his decision, and he was committed to USC at one point.

“I just wanted to do what was best for me, football-wise. I felt that Alabama was the best fit for me,” Young told USA TODAY in 2020. “It was somewhat difficult facing the fact that I’m not going to be going to school 20 minutes away from my house. But at the end of the day, I just wanted to do what was best.”

If this were 15 years ago, Young probably would have remained home. Coveted California quarterbacks Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart and Mark Sanchez became USC stars during the Carroll era.

SEC programs enjoy plenty of advantages, including strong institutional support, a rich media rights deal and the Southeast’s fruitful recruiting terrain.

Add in recruits like Young and Bowers choosing Alabama and Georgia, and it’s a total mismatch.

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Whether Riley can fix that talent exodus will play a big role in his success or failure.

“Obviously we’re going to sign players from all over, but the majority are going to be from this part of the country,” Riley said after his hire. “I still feel that the majority of players around here want to play at USC, but the flip side is that USC has to provide a reason for them to want to follow through with that. And that is our job.”

In the absence of that, Young and Bowers played awfully well throughout 2021 with the SEC emblem on their uniform.

Blake Toppmeyer is an SEC Columnist for the USA TODAY Network. Email him at BToppmeyer@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer. If you enjoy Blake’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY NETWORK: If USC football aims to rival Alabama, Georgia, get the next Bryce Young

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