For the USC Trojans, a 2022 season that began with hope and promise ended with a nasty thud. USC arrived at Allegiant Stadium last Friday night seeking its first PAC-12 title since 2017 and its first-ever trip to the College Football Playoff.
All they had to do was avenge the Utah Utes. Instead, the Trojans left Sin City with nothing but disappointment. After jumping out to a 14-3 lead in the first quarter, the Utes outscored the Trojans 44-10 in a dominant victory.
Everything that could’ve gone wrong did. Now, instead of a New Year’s Eve trip to Atlanta or Phoenix for a shot at a national title, the Trojans will be heading to Arlington to play Tulane in the Cotton Bowl the day after New Year’s.
So, does this fall from grace instantly mean USC’s season was a “failure?” Well, yes and no.
The Utah dud
It’s a failure in that they failed to make the necessary adjustments in their rematch against Utah. It’s a failure in that an offense with so much talent couldn’t answer the bell when it mattered most. And it’s a failure in that a defense that was clearly flawed and highly dependent on takeaways never really improved. And once the takeaways stopped flowing, they got exposed.
But to deem Lincoln Riley’s first season at USC as a failure is a short-sighted approach. College football fan bases too often view the state of their programs in a vacuum. Expectations are unrealistic and the quest for instant gratification reigns supreme. Heck, some Ohio State supporters want coach Ryan Day fired after he suffered just his fifth loss in as many seasons last weekend.
To be disappointed in the results is a natural feeling. But the modern standards for an elite college football program are too high for even Nick Saban and Dabo Swinney to meet on an annual basis. And by the way, neither of those coaches will be in the CFP either.
Even if it ended on a sour note, USC’s 2022 campaign was a clear sign that the program is back among the sport’s best under Riley. And while a PAC-12 title or CFP trip would’ve been the dream, USC fans should just be thrilled to see their program back in the national conversation.
USC’s recent history
The Trojans haven’t been relevant in the national title picture since 2008. Quarterback Caleb Williams could be the program’s first Heisman Trophy winner (and finalist) since Reggie Bush and Matt Leinart both made the trip to New York in 2005. And while the Cotton Bowl might be deemed as a consolation, it’ll be USC’s first New Year’s Six bowl appearance since 2017 and its third BCS bowl appearance since the glory days ended at the end of the 2000’s.
There’s also plenty for the program to look forward to as Riley really settles in. The Trojans have the No. 14 recruiting class in the country in 2023 and landed the third and fourth-best recruits in the country. The 2024 class could be even brighter with three four-star prospects already committed.
Caleb Williams will also return and should only improve with another year of experience in Riley’s system under his belt. Defensive coordinator Alex Grinch should also benefit from a full offseason to bolster his defense with his own recruits. The 2023 schedule is also very manageable. The Trojans will travel to Notre Dame and Oregon, but will host Utah, Washington and a UCLA team that could be rebuilding without Dorian Thompson-Robinson.
For the first time in what feels like forever, the USC Trojans actually met our expectations. They shouldn’t be penalized for failing to exceed them. Ultimately, the 2022 season could be remembered as the year that set the table for USC’s return to national prominence.