Extra Points: Let's stop with the Caleb Williams-Joe Burrow comps, a'ight?
Lincoln Riley made the big, late splash. So naturally, the hype has begun.
Before this nonsense blossoms into full-blown stupidity, let’s state beyond a doubt that the transfer of Caleb Williams to USC is not similar to the transfer of Joe Burrow to LSU.
The obvious difference: Williams, the talented former Oklahoma starter under Riley, isn’t Burrow – who took 2 seasons, not 1 offseason, to produce the greatest single season in the history of college football.
More telling: The USC roster isn’t close to what the LSU roster was when Burrow arrived prior to the 2018 season, nor what it was when he left after 2019.
“That’s ridiculous to put that on (Williams),” an NFL scout told me. “You’re not going to be successful if you don’t have talent around you, I don’t care how talented you are. I’ve been on that field at USC the last couple of years. The talent isn’t close what it could be, or what we’ve seen in the past.
“That LSU team in 2018 was really talented, and the (2019) team was as talented as any I’ve seen in 30 years in the business. There’s a reason why (USC) ran off Clay (Helton). That roster needs a lot of work. The lack of talent and development is startling.”
Meanwhile, we give you LSU, circa 2019-2021.
Burrow led the Tigers to the national title in 2019, and a record-tying 14 players from that team were selected in the NFL draft – including 5 in the first round and 10 in the first three rounds. A year later, 7 players were selected in the draft, 1 in the first round.
That’s 21 players drafted from the 2019 national championship team (so far), including 6 first-rounders. Cornerback Derek Stingley Jr., a freshman starter on that team, is a projected top 5 pick in April’s draft.
USC’s draft prospects this April include wide receiver Drake London and defensive end Drake Jackson. And that’s likely it.
Riley did use the transfer portal and his first recruiting class to support Williams, and will improve on the 4 wins the Trojans had in 2021.
But don’t expect a Burrow-like impact from Williams.
Do as I say, not as I do
Don’t let the complaining overshadow the reality. Alabama coach Nick Saban and Riley, the two biggest voices of discontent with all things transfer portal, have benefited from it as much or more than any coach or program.
It’s not necessarily the idea of player movement that bothers two of the game’s best coaches. It’s the one-time immediate eligibility rule, a unique supplement to the portal that serves as an enticement for players to leave when things aren’t going their way.
In previous seasons, players had to gauge if leaving a program was worth sitting out a transfer season. Now there’s immediate eligibility.
That’s the rub — and frankly, a problem for every coach. Not just Saban and Riley.
But their voices carry weight — with hypocrisy.
Riley took 3 players from Tennessee alone last season while at Oklahoma, and Saban got Tennessee star LB Henry To’o To’o and Ohio State WR Jameson Williams. To’o To’o was an All-SEC selection, and Williams developed into the best wideout in the game.
Riley picked up 2 of the biggest portal prizes this offseason – Williams and Oregon TB Travis Dye – and added as many as 8-9 potential starters from Power 5 programs (including 3 from his former team).
“With the portal right now, and the fact there are really no guardrails, players can leave you 365 days a year if (they) choose,” Riley said. “You can’t predict all of that. You can almost drive yourself crazy trying to. Our standpoint is we’re going to be honest with all parties involved about what we’re doing, and future plans. But we’re not trying to build our roster out of fear that people will leave. You can’t operate that way.”
USC has 12 immediate portal transfers, and had nearly as many portal defections. Alabama, too, had numerous defections, but added 3 legitimate potential All-Americans: Georgia star WR Jermaine Burton, LSU CB Eli Ricks and Georgia Tech TB Jahmyr Gibbs.
The portal madness hasn’t ended. There will be more movement after spring practices, and players have until May 1 to change universities and still be eligible for the 2022 season.
Will Bill O’Brien leave?
The most prominent assistant coaching position in college football could be set for more movement.
Alabama OC Bill O’Brien will likely receive numerous offers to return to the NFL as an OC, maybe even returning to the New England Patriots to replace Josh McDaniels.
“I don’t think Bill’s trying to leave,” Saban said. “I think he likes it in Alabama, and we have an opportunity with some pretty good players at the quarterback position and other positions to maybe continue to grow and develop here offensively. I think he’s looking forward to that challenge.”
Saban says he’s not trying to address something “that might happen” – but you better believe he has an idea already where he will go should O’Brien leave Alabama. One NFL source told me O’Brien’s plan has always been to return to the NFL. Timing is the only question.
“He’s an NFL guy,” the source said.
An obvious move would be hiring former Florida and Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen. Saban spoke at length last season about Mullen’s offenses and how they’re difficult to defend because of their unique concepts and Mullen’s play calling.
Mullen was a guest analyst for ESPN during its Playoff coverage, and there’s a possibility that he’ll use a season as a television analyst before moving back into a head coaching job for the 2023 season.
If Mullen does decide to sit out, Saban could go to a hot FBS offensive coordinator (Phil Longo, UNC; Warren Ruggiero, Wake Forest), or a former assistant (Central Michigan coach Jim McElwain).
McElwain makes $650,000 at CMU, and would likely double his salary and move into a more prominent role – if he’s ready to return to the grind of the SEC. It wouldn’t be unique for McElwain to leave a head coaching job for an OC job; it has happened before in the MAC.
Saban could also look to the NFL for an OC, with numerous options from his connections in the league.