The highly-anticipated Lincoln Riley era at USC gets underway this weekend, when the USC Trojans host the Rice owls at the Coliseum. Believe it or not, both Rice and USC had matching 4-8 records in 2021. And the Trojans will look to put that disastrous season fully in the rearview mirror starting Saturday.
While this won’t be the biggest game on USC’s schedule, it could mark the beginning of a return to the golden ages for the program. Here are three things USC fans should keep an eye on in the 2022 season opener.
USC Trojans vs. Rice Owls
- Kickoff time: Saturday, Sept. 3, 3 p.m. PT
- How to watch: PAC-12 Network
- Spread: USC -32.5 (Last updated Friday, Sept. 2)
- Total: 61.5
Does Alex Grinch’s defense dominate?
Obviously, when you think about the 2022 USC season, your mind first goes to Riley’s offense. And we’ll get to that. But against Rice, points should pretty much be implied.
What will be more important when gauging this team’s potential is how the defense performs. Grinch left Oklahoma with Riley and brings his “speed,” scheme to Los Angeles. That scheme is predicated on – you guessed it – speed and effort. But more so, it’s predicated on defensive linemen attacking a single gap, winning those gap battles, causing havoc for the quarterback and forcing takeaways.
This scheme had mixed results during Grinch’s stint at Oklahoma. The Sooners ranked 76th in total defense a year ago and ranked 109th against the pass.
What’s more concerning is USC doesn’t bring back a ton of production from last year. Just three starters return on defense, leaving the unit highly reliant on 10 transfers to pick up the slack.
So to recap, USC is installing a new defensive scheme, has very little production returning on the D-line and in the secondary, and is reliant on 10 transfers.
Rice isn’t going to be the team that exploits all of USC’s moving parts on defense, as they’ll be working in a new starting quarterback Saturday. But that’s even more reason to expect USC’s defense to dominate. If USC allows Rice to sustain a few drives early in the game, then this unit could be an even bigger concern.
How does the offense spread the wealth?
You may have heard that USC brought in quarterback Caleb Williams, running back Travis Dye, Biletnikoff Award winning receiver Jordan Addison, and highly-touted Oklahoma transfer Mario Williams. Now it’s time to see how Riley deploys and uses all of these new weapons.
The Trojans should have no trouble moving up and down the field against the Owls. But it’ll be interesting to see how often Riley draws up designed runs for his quarterback, or who Williams goes to most often on third downs and red zone trips.
It’ll be tough to glean a ton out of the offense considering the caliber of the opponent. And we know the offense will primarily go through Williams, Addison and Dye. But we could get some clarification as to how the depth shakes out and where receivers like Williams, Colorado transfer Terrell Bynum and holdovers Tahj Washington and Gary Bryant shake out in the pecking order.
Do the Trojans cover?
The old adage goes good teams win, great teams cover. But this spread has actually moved down from over five touchdowns to the current number of -33 at most sportsbooks. In other words, bettors are skeptical that USC will be able to win by such a wide margin.
Covering isn’t everything for the Trojans in game one. But it could be a reassuring sign for a program that still needs to make good on its preseason hype.
Again, the fate of this season won’t be determined by this Week 1 contest. But it certainly could show some early signs of what to expect when the competition stiffens up.