When you have an offseason as productive and prolific as the USC Trojans did, it’s understandable to be wildly optimistic. USC did more than make a splash this offseason. The Trojans pretty much drained the pool with several cannonballs.
It started with prying away Lincoln Riley from Oklahoma. Riley brings instant credibility to a program that desperately needs it after the embarrassing Clay Helton era. Riley also took his star quarterback with him, as Caleb Williams left Norman and arrives in L.A. as the next budding star to don the cardinal and gold. Pitt transfer Jordan Addison, the 2021 Biletnikoff Award recipient, soon followed, along with Oregon tailback Travis Dye and former Oklahoma recruit Mario Williams. In total, Riley added a whopping 20 players via the transfer portal.
Naturally, these upgrades have resulted in sky-high expectations for the Trojans in year one of the Riley era. Vegas currently has the USC projected 2022 win total at 9.5. They’re the consensus favorite to win the PAC-12, with FanDuel Sportsbook listing them as low as +170 to win the conference.
Oh, and they have the fifth shortest odds to win the national championship, with some books listing them as low as 20/1.
Describing USC’s expectations as sky-high actually might be an understatement. But entering the first year of the Riley era, cautious optimism might be the best approach for fans and prognosticators.
Sure, college football is a sport where fortunes can change overnight, and those reversals have only been accelerated by the transfer portal. But often the best teams in college football have continuity, something the Trojans can’t really claim.
No program in the country can match USC’s star power on offense. However, it’ll take time for all of these new offensive playmakers to gel with Williams while learning a new offensive system. USC will also replace a couple of starters along the offensive line and have questionable depth in the trenches.
USC’s lack of continuity is particularly apparent on a defense that returns just three starters. After allowing 410 yards and nearly 32 points per game, the Trojans’ defense is clearly the biggest question mark this team has.
Could the USC defense be a weak link?
To no surprise, USC will rely on transfers to help shore up that side of the ball. The headliner is Colorado transfer Mekhi Blackmon at cornerback, who will supplement a secondary that loses all four starters from last year. Riley also brought in a trio of transfers along the defensive line and linebacker groups.
Can these pieces gel together under new defensive coordinator Alex Grinch to become a respectable unit? That question will likely determine the fate of USC’s season.
Because if USC’s defense can’t progress into at least a top-50 unit, then it might not matter how many points the offense puts up. Matchups against explosive offenses from Stanford, Fresno State, Oregon State, Washington State, Utah and UCLA will test this unit throughout the season.
Overall, USC’s schedule is manageable, ranking 49th in the country according to Phil Steele. The Trojans avoid Oregon and Washington in PAC-12 play and draw bottom-feeders Arizona, Cal and Colorado in consecutive weeks.
USC’s PAC-12 hopes will likely hinge upon how they perform against the Utes and Bruins. However, early conference road trips to Palo Alto and Corvallis will be tricky tests, as will a non-conference showdown with Mountain West favorite Fresno State sandwiched in between. And let’s not forget USC’s regular season finale at home against Notre Dame.
All of this is to say that there are more unknowns regarding USC than we may think. The Trojans are the definition of a high variance team. If everything comes together, they have the talent to vie for a conference title and playoff berth. But if the offense struggles to build chemistry and the defense only improves marginally, then an eight-win season could be more realistic.
USC fans should hone in on the first month of the season, as that could tell us everything we need to know about this team. If they cruise past Stanford, Fresno St. and Oregon St., then a special season could be on the horizon, as the middle of the schedule lightens up aside from the trip to Utah. But if the Trojans stub their toe in September or the defense struggles mightily, then expectations may need to be tempered.
One thing USC fans should expect is plenty of shootouts. But as far as a record goes, a 10-2 campaign feels just right.