Injected into the top four of the latest College Football Playoff Rankings are stories of redemption, turnarounds, sacrifice and -- in the case of Georgia -- a possible national championship defense. No one is talking about the cold calls.
That would be the one TCU coach Sonny Dykes placed to Garrett Riley in January 2020. If Riley's last name sounds familiar, well, it should. As the Horned Frogs offensive coordinator, Riley is the lesser-known younger brother of USC coach Lincoln Riley.
They are linked by more than DNA. They are twins in philosophy, both significant branches on Mike Leach's Air Raid tree.
"Just kind of always [glad to be] a part of Leach's tree, kind of being associated with him," Garrett told CBS Sports. "Coach Dykes was looking for a guy at SMU, and I was at Appalachian State [in 2019]."
There was also the cold call that former Kansas coach David Beaty made to Garrett four years earlier. At the time, Riley was East Carolina's wide receivers coach.
"I was actually looking for an Air Raid guy, so I called [Lincoln]," Beaty recalled.
At the time, Lincoln Riley had just completed his first season as Oklahoma's offensive coordinator and was still a relatively unknown assistant.
"After we went through a few guys, Lincoln said, 'All those guys are good, but the best one you could hire, honestly, is my brother.' … We hired [Garrett] the next day," Beaty explained.
Speak on the phone with Lincoln and Garrett, each of whom have helped guide their respective teams to within a game of a College Football Playoff berth, and you can't tell them apart. The brothers speak with a clipped, no-nonsense West Texas accent. They both get right to the point without much elaboration.
Heck, speak in person with Lincoln and Garrett, and they might as well be twins despite actually being separated by six years. Garrett, 33, is in his third year as an offensive coordinator; Lincoln, 39, is the architect behind four Big 12 championships, three playoff appearances and now one of the most significant turnarounds in recent memory at USC.
Come Sunday afternoon they might be game planning against one another.
"I know there is a possibility in this deal. Who friggin' knows?" Garrett said. "We're not wasting any energy on that."
Nor should they. The Rileys are not the latest to carry the Air Raid forward. The 'spread' is spread all over the country. Still, they might be the most high-profile utilizers of it at the moment.
The Rileys are the first brothers to refine the Air Raid to this level while chasing a playoff berth in the same season, and their path to this point is uniquely parallel. Both were Texas Tech quarterbacks. Both were assistants at ECU. Both were FBS position coaches in their mid-20s. Lincoln became a head coach at 34; Garrett's career is trending that way.
On Saturday, Garrett will join Lincoln as having coached in a Big 12 Championship Game.
"My wife and I were talking [about it] after our last game," Garrett recalled. "When you actually start to think about it, I went as a spectator just to support Lincoln [when Oklahoma was in the Big 12 Championship Game]. I was thinking, 'Damn, it'd be cool coaching in this one day.'"
USC and TCU have rebounded from sub-.500 records in 2021 to playoff contention in 2022. USC is third in average scoring; TCU is fourth, also leading the Big 12 in total offense. The top-rated quarterbacks in the Pac-12 (Caleb Williams) and the Big 12 (Max Duggan) are coached by the Riley brothers.
USC's Williams is the Heisman Trophy frontrunner; Duggan is on track to get a Heisman invite, at least. Their seasons have been so solid, it's possible TCU and USC could lose and still end up in the CFP (less likely for the Trojans).
"I was just talking to a guy the other day and realized how incredible it is that these two coaches have their first-year teams about to make the College Football Playoff," said Beaty, now an assistant in the USFL. "By the way, the world better take notice of the young one because he is special just like his brother."
At Kansas, where Garrett worked his way up from analyst to quarterbacks coach to tight ends/fullback coach, he facing his brother three times when the Jayhawks battled the Sooners. Then Beaty and his staff were fired following the 2018 season. After a year at App State, Garrett joined SMU. There he found unlimited freedom. Dykes does not hover. He is not a helicopter head coach.
What you've seen is unprecedented creativity at TCU. Duggan is having a career year. Running back Zach Evans was lost in the portal to Ole Miss, so up stepped Kendre Miller with a 1,200-yard season. Quentin Johnston came out nowhere to become the Big 12's third-leading pass catcher with 49 receptions.
"Sonny is kind of the master of being even keel, not making things too big," Garrett said of his boss.
Too late, perhaps. Lincoln won the Broyles Award as assistant coach of the year in 2015. Garrett is a finalist in 2022. As mentioned, if the CFP Rankings change just a little, current No. 4 USC could be playing current No. 3 TCU in one of the national semifinals. Or if you want to dream, they could meet for a national championship.
This storyline would blow up bigger than both teams' offenses.
USC has ascended to its rightful spot in Los Angeles, the Pac-12 and on the national scene. TCU is the upstart. Its last outright conference championship came in 2011 as members of the Mountain West. Its one and only national championship came in 1938.
That's a long way from the coaches' native Muleshoe, Texas, where the options were few.
"You kind of have two choices," Garrett said. "You were going to work, be in some [agriculture] somehow, or you were going to play sports."
And so they did -- together, apart, one following the other to Texas Tech. In 2002, Lincoln was a Red Raiders walk-on QB. Garrett followed in 2008-09 before transferring to Stephen F. Austin.
"I was just an OK high school player," Garrett said. "My decision was to go to a small school and probably have a better chance to play. Texas Tech was on the cutting edge at the time.
"Coach Leach certainly taught me a lot about the game. His way of thinking was just awesome. Things that aren't anything about football -- the schematics and simplicity, the way we operate, the way we practice."
Garrett called Lincoln "kind of a mother hen a little bit, kind of an old soul. … Obviously a guy I looked up to."
That's where more than bloodlines merge. The coaching part of the story traces its roots back to around 2009. Leach had just been fired at Texas Tech. At the time, veteran assistant Ruffin McNeill was elevated to interim coach. Donnie Duncan then interjected himself.
You probably don't know Duncan, a wonderful, beautiful, thoughtful man. He was the long-time Oklahoma athletic director who, at the time, was Big 12 director of football operations. Duncan saw a budding talent in Lincoln, Texas Tech's WR coach at the time. He was already close to McNeill, who became ECU's head coach in 2010 and took Lincoln with him as offensive coordinator.
Duncan died in March 2016, 15 months before Riley was named as the replacement for legendary Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops.
"Donnie told [Oklahoma AD Joe Castiglione], 'You better not lose Lincoln Riley. He's going to be one of the best,'" recalled John Underwood, a former Big 12 assistant commissioner.
After Duncan's death, Riley's OU visor featured the stitched initials, "D.D."
"That's how much respect they had for each other," Underwood noted.
Lincoln is known most recently for having the transfer portal wired.
"I remember having a conversation with someone before the season started," Lincoln told CBS Sports. "'Do you think some people view this [transfer initiative] as an experiment?' Probably so. If I was on the outside, not a part of it, I'd be watching it and kind of seeing how it unfolded."
So far, it has resulted in USC grabbing the No. 1 transfer class (20 new players) to power the West Coast's best program back into the big time. Watch out: The next transfer window opens Monday.
The best explanation for all of it may be Lincoln telling CBS Sports over the summer that he always had a hankering for the West Coast. His decision to leave Oklahoma for USC shocked the college football world, but his brother saw the signs.
"He's always had an inkling with just a little bit of curiosity for the West Coast," Garrett said. "I always gave him crap when we were kids. It made me mad. It kind of still does. He would pull for the Lakers. I'm like, 'We're in Muleshoe, Texas, and you're pulling for the Lakers?!'"
Meanwhile, Garrett has play-calling wired.
At SMU, he had coached quarterbacks Shane Buechele and Tanner Mordecai to a combined 7,118 yards passing and 64 touchdowns across two seasons. Duggan lost the TCU QB battle in the fall to Chandler Morris. Well, there is that connection again. Both Mordecai and Morris transferred from Lincoln's Oklahoma. Then Morris was injured in the TCU opener and Duggan, a veteran of 32 appearances with the Frogs, easily slid into place.
TCU has come from behind to win seven of its 12 games. The season kicked into another gear on Oct. 1 when the Frogs smacked Lincoln's old team, 55-24. Duggan threw 11 TDs this season before tossing his first pick against Kansas.
"You've got the initial wave when you go through spring and fall camp and you're like, 'Well, we got some really good dudes. ... Shoot, we could pretty good. Probably the first real glimpse of that was after the OU game."
The Riley brothers have let us in for this season's brief look into their lives and careers together. The end of the their story is nowhere in sight.