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College Football Preview 2023: 4. USC Trojans

Caleb Williams, USC

4. USC Trojans

If the defense makes even modest improvements, the program's first-ever CFB Playoff appearance is within reach

2022 Review
The Lincoln Riley era started off with a bang, as USC ripped off six straight victories to begin the 2022 campaign, including a 3-0 start within the Pac-12. Going on the road to Salt Lake City, the Trojans were a field goal underdog to Utah and despite holding a lead for the majority of the game, came up short in a 43-42 heartbreaker. Instead of the loss spoiling their season, USC responded with another win streak, with five straight victories capped off by resume-boosting wins over UCLA and Notre Dame. At 11-1, the Trojans were poised to make their first-ever College Football Playoff appearance, as long as they took care of business against Utah in the Pac-12 Championship Game. But again, the Utes had their number and a beat up Caleb Williams wasn't able to muster a comeback, resulting in a 47-24 defeat. The loss sent them to the Cotton Bowl to face Group of Five representative Tulane, in which USC entered as the heavy favorite. The Trojans once more outplayed their opponent throughout the majority of sixty minutes, holding a two-touchdown lead heading into the final minutes. But the Green Wave pulled off a spectacular comeback, securing a safety and scoring a go-ahead touchdown with just seconds remaining on the game clock. In the end, Riley's debut resulted in an 11-3 season, certainly an impressive season, but one that fell flat in the end. As the Trojans prepare for life in the Big Ten in 2024, they're hopeful to rid some of last fall's demons and conclude their time in the Pac-12 with a conference title.

2023 Outlook
Offense: Lincoln Riley succeeded in bringing his high-octane offense to the West Coast in 2023, as the Trojans finished third in the nation with 41.4 points per game. At the heart of the offense was the quarterback he brought with him from Oklahoma, Caleb Williams, who became Riley's third Heisman Trophy winner in under a decade as the head man.

From the moment he stepped on the field at Oklahoma, it was clear Williams was special. His first appearance in college football ended with a thrilling comeback in the Red River Showdown over Texas and he followed it up with a superb second half of 2021. But even so, his progression last fall was extremely impressive, finishing with nearly 5,000 yards of total offense and 52 total touchdowns. The key for him in 2023 will be maintaining the consistency and improved decision-making he showed last, while staying healthy. His legs are such a key component of his playmaking, but last year's Pac-12 Championship Game proved that it can have detrimental long-term effects on the entire team.

Alongside the reigning Heisman Trophy winner in the USC backfield will be former Stanford transfer Austin Jones, who is set to take over feature back duties after the departure of Travis Dye. There's nothing particularly flashy about the veteran tailback, but he's been highly productive throughout his entire career and should have no troubles handling the load in 2023. However, newcomer MarShawn Lloyd looks ready to challenge him for carries, as long he's able to stay healthy. The South Carolina transfer never quite put it together in the SEC, but is a talented ball-carrier who should be able to take advantage of this wide-open offense.

At receiver, Jordan Addison made the expected jump to the pros after a one-year pit-stop in Southern California. His numbers weren't quite as strong as they were during his 2021 Biletnikoff campaign, but he remained an explosive vertical threat that opened up this entire unit. Despite his departure, it's hard to imagine the receiver corps taking too much of a step back in 2023.

Tahj Washington and Mario Williams look more than capable of emerging as the top weapons in the passing attack after finishing second and third in receiving a season ago. Both former transfers, Williams joined Riley and Caleb in their trek to USC last offseason and has proven he's a threat to take it to the house every time he touches the ball. Brenden Rice, the son of football legend Jerry, is also back in town after putting together a productive campaign in his first season since transferring from Colorado.

The trio of Washington, Williams, and Rice is enough to overwhelm any defense, but the newcomers in the receiver corps are what I find most fascinating about this offense. True freshmen Zachariah Branch and Makai Lemon were big-time gets by Riley and staff and are going to be terrorizing defenses for years to come. Branch in particular is one of the most pure athletes you'll find anywhere in college football, and USC is going to find creative ways to get him on the field. There's also Arizona transfer Dorian Singer, who put up 1,406 yards over two seasons on some shaky Wildcat offenses. In a Riley offense, he could be an absolutely potent addition.

One other fresh face to watch is tight end Duce Robinson, who is sure to factor in somewhere. Widely considered the top player at his position in the Class of 2023, it's only a matter of time before Robinson makes his presence felt. Riley has used tight ends creatively in the past while at Oklahoma and at the very least, Robinson's 6'6" frame makes his a red zone threat.

All the attention on Riley-coached teams tend to be on the skill positions and for good reason, but he's typically had strong offensive lines to spring all that talent. That appears to be the case again in 2023, as three starters are back on an offensive line that was a Joe Moore Award semifinalist last fall. Senior center Justin Dedich is the anchor, but guard Jarrett Kingston, a Washington State transfer, and tackle Jonah Monheim are proven pieces who should play a crucial role. 

USC has a storied history of incredible offenses, led by living legends of the collegiate game like Matt Leinart, Reggie Bush, Marcus Allen, and more. Yet, it feels like this 2023 offense could go down as the best in school history, assuming all the major pieces stay healthy. Caleb Williams appears ready to go for a grand encore and the skill position talent around him is not only talented, it's deep. Add in a quality offensive line, the Trojans are going to keep scoreboard operators busy all of 2023.

Defense: The pressure is on for defensive coordinator Alex Grinch, who has long been considered a rising name in the college coaching world but is coming off a rough 2022. In his first season at the helm of the Trojan defense, Grinch watched the defense surrender nearly 424 yards per game (106th nationally) and 29.2 points per game (94th nationally). However, the Trojans are hopeful several big-name transfers can help the unit take a major leap forward after such an underwhelming campaign.

Losing edge rushers Tuli Tuipulotu and Nick Figueroa puts significant pressure on the D-Line, which was generally their top unit throughout 2022. Tuipulotu finished as the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year after notching 13.5 sacks, forcing the Trojans to dig through the transfer portal to replicate his lost production. Anthony Lucas comes over from Texas A&M and converted quarterback Jamil Muhammed from Georgia State, both who could be heading for starting spots. USC also remains hopeful Korey Foreman can finally put it all together at end after two quiet seasons. Foreman was the nation's top recruit coming out of high school and certainly has talent, but there's been something missing. He's now draft eligible, so should be able to find ample motivation this fall.

The interior defensive line was also bolstered through the portal, as Bear Alexander comes over from Georgia, Kyon Barrs from Arizona, and Jack Sullivan from Purdue. Alexander is the most important get, a former five-star prospect who wasn't able to separate himself in Georgia's front seven, but brings immediate playmaking ability to 'SC. Barrs brings proven Pac-12 experience and should be in line for a starting job after making 23 starts over four years with the Wildcats.

The losses along the defensive line will put outsized pressure on a linebacker corps that struggled mightily at times in 2022. However, there's hopes for major improvements, thanks to one more year of experience for the youngsters, along with a valuable transfer in Mason Cobb. Cobb notched 96 tackles for Oklahoma State a year ago and will slide into a leadership role at middle linebacker, while the Trojans are also hoping for more from Shane Lee and Eric Gentry, two former transfers themselves. Lee flashed potential in 2022 and could be even better with another year in the program, while Gentry has the build (6'6", 205 pounds) to evolve into a feared pass rusher off the edge.

Much like the defensive line, it's a mixed bag in the secondary, as the Trojans bring back plenty of talent but will be without their top piece in the unit, corner Mekhi Blackmon. Blackmon was a crucial component of the 2022 defense, consistently taking on opponent's No. 1 receiver and finishing with 67 tackles, 12 pass deflections, and three interceptions. 

With Blackmon moving on, USC will be forced to rely on a talented, but unproven, trio of sophomores at cornerbacks. Domani Jackson was a five-star prospect who didn't quite make the impact that was expected of him in 2022, but has significant breakout potential. Instead, Ceyair Wright was the impactful freshman corner, making 11 starts, and will be make once again, while Prophet Brown should also factor into the rotation. Add in Arizona transfer Christian Roland-Wallace, another veteran who came over from Arizona, the cornerback position feels like it's in a much better spot entering 2023.

Both starting safeties, juniors Calen Bullock and Max Williams are back, as is nickelback Jaylin Smith. There's also former Ohio State transfer Bryson Shaw, giving this unit plenty of options, and plenty of reasons to believe the pass defense can continue to take steps forward.

USC doesn't need a shutdown, Top 10 defense to achieve their goals of a Pac-12 Title and College Football Playoff appearance. But they do need some semblance of consistency from this side of the ball and more importantly, the unit to show up in their biggest games. There's no shortage of talent and the transfers have had time to gel; it's on Grinch and staff to put it all together into a strong, cohesive group.

Special Teams: After an uneven year for the Trojan special teams, there is hopes this is another group that could be in store for a resurgent 2023. Kicker Denis Lynch returns after going 15-22 on field goals last fall, while Arizona State transfer Eddie Czaplicki could an improvement at punter. The return game is still looking for someone to emerge, although Raleek Brown flashed at several points a season ago.

Bottom Line
The Trojans arrived earlier than expected under Lincoln Riley in his first year on the West Coast. The transfers clicked right away, Caleb Williams developed into the face of college football, and the offense was among the most exciting in college football. But at the same time, the final two games of the year proved that there was still plenty of work to be done and that USC's return to national relevance was unlikely to be an easy process. As they prepare for 2023, there's reason to believe the Trojans can continue on their upwards trajectory, especially if the defensive transfers acclimate quickly. But, a tough schedule and an improved conference, in what looks to be the final year of the Pac-12, are significant enough barriers to still remain wary about the Trojans chances. I believe they're ready to break through and secure USC's first Playoff berth of all-time, but this will be the year where Riley and his staff will demonstrate their coaching chops.

Program Profile
Coaching Staff
In a decade-and-a-half Lincoln Riley has gone from WR coach at his alma mater, Texas Tech, to one of the best head coaches anywhere in NCAA football. He went 55-10 over five years at Oklahoma after taking over from legendary head coach Bob Stoops and proved he could build things up in a hurry by winning 11 games during his debut season at USC. Riley's chief goal for this fall is bringing the Trojans to the College Football Playoff, but he's also looking fo his resume by winning his first game once he gets there. At offensive coordinator, Josh Henson is back, although Riley will once again handle play-calling duties. Henson joined up with Riley after spending three seasons as OL coach under Jimbo Fisher at Texas A&M. Alex Grinch reprises his role as defensive coordinator, but is under a bit of pressure after such an underwhelming 2022. He joined up with Riley at Oklahoma in 2019 and followed him to 'SC, but first made a name for himself as Washington State DC from 2015-2017. Still just 43 years of age, he's looking to get his career back on track and re-establish himself as a future head coach.

Recruiting Breakdown
Lincoln Riley's first offseason at USC was all about the transfer portal, but both him and his staff followed that up with a stellar showing in the high school recruiting scene. The Trojans brought in the eighth-ranked class nationally, punctuated by a trio of five-star prospects. Those three, QB Malachi Nelson, wide out Zachariah Branch, and tight end Duce Robinson all have bright futures and should wreak havoc on opposing defenses in this Riley offense. Nelson is going to operate as the backup to Caleb Williams for at least a year, but both Branch and Robinson could see immediate playing time. Branch in particular is a freakish athlete from Las Vegas powerhouse Bishop Gorman who USC is going to get the football. Makai Lemon from inside the state could also be in line for immediate snaps; he doesn't come in with as much fanfare as Branch, but is an ultra-versatile that can also be used in creative ways. For all the instant impact offensive pieces, there are numerous defenders who are also going to play a long-term role, namely linebacker/safety Tackett Curtis, who was in for spring. At 6'2", 225 pounds, Curtis has the physique to play at either spot at a high level. He was a statement get from SEC country, coming all the way to Southern Cal from Louisiana.

2023 Schedule Analysis
USC feasted on a buttery soft opening to their schedule in 2022 and this fall isn't much different. The Trojans aren't significantly tested until they go on the road to Notre Dame, although a home game a week prior with Arizona could be tricky. In fact, USC's first three Pac-12 foes are arguably the three worst teams in the league: Stanford, Arizona State, and Colorado. While this soft start should give USC plenty of momentum, it could actually work against them, particularly when you consider they have an early bye in mid-September. It means that they have one of the toughest back-loaded slates anywhere in the country, with a final five games that includes that Notre Dame game, Utah, Washington, Oregon, and UCLA. Fortunately, they do get Utah, Washington, and UCLA all in the Coliseum, but even managing to go 4-1 in that stretch is going to take all the Trojans can handle. 

2023 X-Factor: Bear Alexander, DT
USC's defensive front was pushed around far too often last fall, particularly in their three losses. If they want to compete with the true elites of the college football world, the Georgias, the Michigans, the Alabamas, they need better play in the trenches. Unfortunately, that could be more difficult this fall with the absences of impact edge rushers Tuli Tuipulotu and Nick Figueroa, two players who played a crucial role on this team last season. That means USC is going to lean particularly hard on all the transfers they brought into the defensive line, including Bear Alexander from Georgia. Alexander was one of the top recruits in the country when he arrived in Athens and although he played in 12 games, he wasn't able to quite make his presence felt. With Georgia's losses over the offseason, it looked like Alexander was in line for a breakout campaign, but instead made the decision to enter the transfer portal in the spring and head west. Georgia's loss is certainly USC's gain, as Alexander is expected to come in and play a crucial role at the nose tackle position, setting the tone for this Trojan rush defense. If he's able to come in and make his presence felt, the Trojan front seven has a chance to be much improved but if the transfers struggle to gel, another frustrating season could be on the horizon in Southern Cal.

Team Projections
Projected Record: 12-1 (8-1 Pac-12, Win Pac-12 Championship Game)
Offensive MVP: QB Caleb Williams
Defensive MVP: LB Mason Cobb
Impact Freshman: TE Duce Robinson
Impact Transfer: DT Bear Alexander
Breakout Player of the Year: CB Domani Jackson

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