No one reflects the “what a difference a year makes” phrase more than USC quarterback Caleb Williams.
When the 2021 college football season started, he was a backup quarterback at Oklahoma and a freshman.
As the 2022 campaign launches, he’s the starter at USC, the perceived architect of a massive team turnaround and the subject of Heisman Trophy betting love.
Williams is already third on the DraftKings board to seize the trophy denoting America’s top college football player.
C.J. Stroud of Ohio State is the chalk at +220.
Reigning Heisman winner Bryce Young of Alabama is + 400.
And then comes Williams, a lofty third at +700.
All three contenders are quarterbacks. And with 18 of the past 21 Heisman Trophy winners playing that position, Williams is in a high-profile perch.
He’s also a curiosity.
Williams is a newcomer to USC
Stroud and Young are established at their schools.
But Williams hasn’t played a down for USC, having transferred here from Oklahoma early this year.
What in the name of Matt Leinart and Carson Palmer is going on here? Can Williams take his place among those USC Heisman winners?
That remains to be seen, but he already has the attention, and respect, of sportsbook operators.
Johnny Avello, the director of race and sportsbook operations for DraftKings, told mylasports.com:
“Caleb Williams is the best price of the true contenders. When you look at the guys ahead of him, they are with teams that should be very successful and I feel the same way about him.
“USC always has a group of talented running backs and receivers. He’s going to be set up to do well.”
And team expectations follow.
California, Here They Came
Williams moved over to USC at the urging of coach Lincoln Riley, who also left Oklahoma after last season.
This powerful dynamic vaulted USC, 4-8 last year, to sixth ranking at Draft Kings to win the national championship, +2500.
And a more realistic prop for gamblers is USC as the +220 chalk to win the Pac-12 Championship. Defending champion Utah is +240.
Few teams make the leap USC just did. This team was 3-6 in the Pac 12 in 2021. Now they are favored to beat those same teams.
USC is also tabbed for nine wins, with the over at +105 and the under at -125. Those numbers suggest USC will be right around that total when the season ends.
This breakout campaign won’t be a surprise to the books. In Riley and Williams, the Trojans made game-changing acquisitions.
Riley has already mentored two Heisman winners in Kyler Murray and Baker Mayfield. He also coached Jalen Hurts, thus earning the distinction of mentoring three current NFL quarterbacks.
That elevates Williams, and hopes for the USC program. Avello said:
“The coach is an offensive-minded guy who had a lot of success at Oklahoma and he brought in a quarterback to a team that didn’t really have one.
“No doubt this is why the win total is high and that this team is expected to do well.
“USC does draw its share of money, but there are a lot of good teams in the Pac 12 too. Utah is strong. UCLA finished ahead of USC last year and they have a strong following.
“In the past, USC has been a popular team at the book. If they get going this year, it could be that way again. Williams is going to be a key to that.”
Trojan fans already expect a big September to erase the images of last year.
USC opened at a whopping -32.5 on the DraftKings board against Rice on Saturday. Fans don’t even want this game to be competitive. They’d love to enjoy a slaughter, something different than the four-game losing streak ending last season.
Next up is Stanford, which authored a league-worst seven-game losing streak to complete 2021. And then it’s Fresno State, at home. Oregon State completes the September schedule for USC. That game is important, as Oregon State’s 7-6 mark indicates a mid-pack team USC must climb over to reach the upper echelon of the Pac 12.
In past years, Trojan backers would look at that schedule and say “4-0 in September.” They would like to be able to say that again.
Much of this expectation surrounds Riley, in the long-term, and Williams, right now.
“It’s hard to believe this kid was the backup at the start of last year,” Avello said.
The Launch of the Cinderella Story
It started with one play.
Williams was inserted into the lineup when Oklahoma trailed rival Texas 28-7.
Riley, motivated like a casino gambler down to his final chips, authored the football equivalent of “all in”.
First, he inserted Williams, a freshman, into a game that was getting away from Oklahoma. Next, he lined Williams up to go for it on 4th-and-the-length-of-a-football from his own 39, in the shotgun formation of all things.
Williams got the snap, darted toward the hole and it wasn’t there. The play call had failed. Riley had crapped out.
But Williams rescued the play. He spun away, bounced to the outside, and back in, storming all the way to a touchdown. Had he been stopped on that play, it’s probably game over.
Instead, he motivated the team and also brought them from 18 points down late in the third quarter.
Williams led them to a 55-48 triumph. He had 212 passing yards, two touchdowns, 88 yards rushing and a TD.
One week later, Williams got his first start. He led the Sooners to a 52-31 triumph over Texas Christian University, notching four touchdowns, 66 rushing yards and a rushing TD.
Williams never looked back. He finished his freshman year with 21 passing touchdowns, six rushing touchdowns, and only four interceptions.
But something happened before he could on a Sooners uniform this year.
Riley left Oklahoma and brought Williams with him.
And for USC fans, the celebration began.
Perhaps too much is expected of Williams too soon
But the DraftKings book says otherwise. Based on the numbers, he’s at least expected to be the third-best quarterback in the country.
High praise, and thus high hopes for USC.
A new era begins this week. Fans and bettors expect a prosperous campaign and the start of something big.
Williams may have at least a couple of years to lead this program.