Bill Plaschke Column: 12-0? Believe it. USC should sweep through its regular season
They have the best college football player in the country.
They have the best offensive football coach in the country.
They have the best offensive analyst in the country.
They play in the most fertile name, image and likeness market in the country.
There’s not one moment that should be considered too big, not one trip that should feel too far, and not one game in which they won’t be favored.
They have the star, the smarts, the savvy, the salesmanship and the schedule to own the autumn and dominate into winter.
The conversation around the 2023 USC Trojans football team’s regular season should begin with one word.
If the Trojans play up to their potential, they should be perfect during their 12-game regular season, setting themselves up for a wild crapshoot of a postseason.
Unfair expectations? They lost to only one team on last year’s regular-season schedule and should be noticeably better.
Too much pressure? Lincoln Riley and Caleb Williams are paid handsomely to handle the heat.
Still can’t tackle? The defense added several transfer giants who should prevent any more Tulane-sized collapses.
Unrealistic to expect an unbeaten regular season two years after they won just four games? Hey, Riley’s honeymoon is over, the opportunity to celebrate last year’s improvement is past, these are his players, this is his program, this is his moment.
Nobody would dare predict the playoffs, but their journey to that point seems clear.
USC, 12-0 or bust.
“Listen, we got a great opportunity in front of us,” Riley said last month at Pac-12 media day. “I think everybody within our program, every player, senses that and wants to do a great job of taking advantage of this. These windows are short. You only get so many shots at this.”
USC indeed has to take that shot because the window truly is closing fast. This will be the last season with Williams and could be the last season with Riley. With several big NFL jobs possibly coming vacant this winter, the quarterback genius could tire of another post-Heisman rebuild and decide it’s finally time to take the leap.
Williams is gone, he’ll be the No. 1 pick in the draft. Riley could be gone, living the dream, from Muleshoe, Texas, to the Dallas Cowboys. Suddenly, strangely, for a program that is just getting started, this almost feels like a last stand.
“This day and age, it’s been talked about a lot, you can build rosters faster than you could before, but you still can’t do everything in one year,” Riley said. “It can’t happen. You can make dramatic changes, but not everything. … We were proud of what we did in Year 1, but certainly very focused on what we felt like Year 2 could be.”
And what a year it should be.
They should sprint out to comfortable wins in their first six games — San Jose State, Nevada, Stanford, Arizona State, Colorado and Arizona. Only Arizona State and Colorado are on the road, and those teams were a combined 4-20 last season.
This leads to their first big test, Oct. 14 at Notre Dame, with the Irish probably being a nine-win team. But note, they were a nine-win team last season and USC dominated them at the Coliseum, the 11-point margin appearing close only because of a late Irish touchdown. In this new NIL and transfer portal era, the Irish just don’t have access to the same great athletes that are available to USC, and it shows.
The week after visiting Notre Dame, the Trojans return home to host Utah and, even if lovable quarterback Cameron Rising has fully recovered from his knee injury, there’s no way the Utes beat a Lincoln Riley team three times in one calendar year.
After what will be essentially a bye week at California, the Trojans face the three-game meat of their schedule — home against Washington, at Oregon and home against UCLA.
The Huskies and Ducks have decent quarterbacks — Michael Penix Jr. and Bo Nix, respectively — but neither is the caliber of Williams. The game at Autzen should be the Trojans’ toughest of the regular season, but if you believe the well-stocked and revamped Trojans defense will be at full speed by then, you believe USC will survive.
That leaves just a season finale against UCLA and, while it’s always foolish to attempt to predict this game, it feels like the Bruins will be in a bit of a rebuild and the Coliseum will be rocking.
There it is, 12-0, an unbeaten team set for the Pac-12 title game in Las Vegas and perhaps a national semifinal game at the Rose Bowl, and at that point, anything is possible.
Of course, for all that to happen, two seemingly predictable things have to happen.
First, Caleb Williams has to be Caleb Williams.
He’s already the best Trojans quarterback that this observer has ever seen. Now he has a chance to be the best quarterback in college football history if he can become the first to win consecutive Heisman Trophies. Not to mention, he can become the most NFL-ready quarterback to enter the draft since Andrew Luck more than a decade ago.
Williams lost favorite target Jordan Addison but still has a bevy of experienced receivers bolstered by kid phenom Zachariah Branch. And, oh yeah, and Williams now is being tutored by quarterback whisperer Kliff Kingsbury.
Williams should be able to have a starring second act. But, then again, everyone knows how poorly this town does sequels. Everyone knows how Hollywood can get into somebody’s head. Whatever happens, Williams clearly understands the magnitude of the moment.
“We got a lot to go get this year,” he said at media day. “Everyone has the same goal and mindset this year, whatever-it-takes kind of mindset to get all of what we want. It’s going to be a good year. Can’t wait. Really excited.”
Second, Alex Grinch cannot be last year’s Alex Grinch.
He won’t be. He can’t be. The defense can’t be any worse, right?
The Trojans’ defensive coordinator was fortunate he didn’t get bounced after USC allowed 37 points per game in the final eight games of the season and allowed nearly 2,000 yards in its final four games, capped by that amazing collapse against Tulane.
Despite the screaming for Grinch’s ouster. Riley backed his buddy. He kept him employed. It is a gamble that could define a season.
“I’ve been through it enough with that guy to know, don’t bet against him,” Riley told reporters of Grinch. “I know what he’s made of. I just do, and I know it’s getting ready to happen defensively, and so I just have a confidence and a belief there. … I know we have the right person there.”
Speaking of the right people, check out these names: Mason Cobb. Bear Alexander. Anthony Lucas. Kyon Barrs. Those are just some of the new talented hitters that the Trojans hope will add toughness to a team that couldn’t tackle.
Earlier this summer, Riley told reporters that new faces don’t necessarily mean instant success. It was as if he realized the potential power in this roster and wanted to immediately temper expectations.
“Individual guys here and there, that’s great, but you gotta get them to coexist and to work together and act as one and on all three sides of the ball, that’s the fight right now,” Riley said. “The narrative is all these things return, everybody thinks you pick up where you left off and that could not be further from the truth. It’s — everything’s different, we’ve got so many different faces and I think just the group coming together and learning to not just be a group of some talented guys but be a group that plays very well together, we’ve gotta close that gap there.”
Nice, noble try, coach. But everyone knows the exact truth. This is a city of champions, folks recognize a special season when they see one, and for Trojans football, this should be that season.
Nobody’s perfect. But beginning on the last Saturday in August, and continuing for a dozen occasions across three memorable months, USC should be.