Editor’s note: Saturday Out West’s annual Crystal Ball prediction series will preview every team in the Pac-12. Today: USC.

Already covered: ArizonaArizona StateCalColoradoOregonOregon State | Stanford | UCLA

* * * * *

USC stands on the doorstep of history, the only thing separating the Trojans from certain lionization being a defense that last year was an Achilles’ heel. A year after shocking the college football world by leaving Oklahoma to head west and taking the biggest transfer in college football history, Lincoln Riley surprised folks in 2023 by standing pat.

Riley chose to stick with much-maligned defensive coordinator Alex Grinch, even after a leaky defense cost the Trojans a chance at their first College Football Playoff berth in program history and perhaps a national championship. USC has all eyes on a title this year and the talent to back up those hopes, Caleb Williams above all. The returning Heisman winner enters the season as the favorite to bring the trophy back to Heritage Hall for a second straight year, but the Trojans would be better off if the defense gives him a little cushion to downshift late in games.

USC does have some cause for concern, though. The offensive line lost some major players, the defensive backfield retooled around transfer and untested talent and Riley again brought in several key transfers who will see major time.

But that’s nitpicking. Despite a schedule with 4 big speed bumps, it’s full steam ahead, CFP or bust.

Can Caleb Williams do what only 1 player has done?

Coming off maybe the best season for a USC quarterback regardless of era, CW13 could chase 5,000 yards and 50 touchdowns if all goes right for the Trojans. Actually, no, that wouldn’t be everything going right.

Going right would be closer to 300 yards per game, with some 4th quarters on the bench. The USC defense let far too many vastly inferior teams stick around much later into games that any great team would. As a result, the Trojans were forced to turn to Williams far too many times for his heroics, and he had 4,537 yards and 42 touchdown passes with 5 picks, plus 10 rushing touchdowns. A dude can only do so much. At some point, you’re facing the law of diminishing returns.

If Williams maintains — or somehow improves — his accuracy and dynamic plays, he’ll get a fair shake at joining Ohio State running back Archie Griffin as just the 2nd repeat Heisman winner in history.

Will the defense clean up its act?

USC ranked 8th in the Pac-12 in total defense (423.93 yards per game), 8th in scoring defense (29.21 points per game), 8th in rushing defense (159.79 ypg), 8th in pass defense (264.14 ypg) and 9th in pass defense efficiency (140.90).

In other words, they were equal-opportunity offenders. The pain was felt all over the field, particularly in the fundamentals — tackling, gap discipline, angle of pursuit.

And speaking of opportunistic — the unit’s one saving grace was a shocking knack for betting right, as they forced 29 turnovers, including a conference-best 19 interceptions. It’s hard to imagine USC forcing that may turnovers again, so the unit will simply have to shore up many of its weaknesses.

Getting transfers like DL Bear Alexander (Georgia), edge rusher Anthony Lucas (Texas A&M), linebacker Mason Cobb (Oklahoma State), DL Jack Sullivan (Purdue), DL Kyon Barrs (Arizona) and DB Christian Roland-Wallace and adding them to returning stars Calen Bullock, Shane Lee and Eric Gentry could take the Trojans up a notch.

Is this the year?

It’s hard to believe, but USC has yet to appear in a Playoff game. The Trojans were dealt crippling sanctions just as the Lane Kiffin Era began. The Playoff format started in 2014, just as Steve Sarkisian arrived, but he could not get them out of quicksand. Clay Helton had a couple close years, going 10-3 and 11-3 in his first 2 seasons that ended with top-10 rankings, but then the wheels came off.

Enter Riley, a Playoff veteran at Oklahoma. What the young former Sooners coach did in his first year with the program was nothing short of astounding, an 8-win improvement that had USC once again the talk of the town.

But after a pair of losses to eventual repeat Pac-12 champion Utah, as well as a Cotton Bowl crash against Tulane, USC plenty for which to fight in 2023, and the Trojans are the conference’s best hope for its first CFP berth since Washington in 2016.

Game-by-game predictions

Week 0: vs. San Jose State (W)

This is the perfect kind of launching pad for Williams and the Trojans, a mid-tier Mountain West squad with a solid quarterback in Chevan Cordeiro, the Mountain West preseason offensive player of the year. The Spartans are just good enough to give USC a look — one that will come into play when the Trojans play the Arizona and Arizona States of the world. Williams should be good for 300-plus yards and a few TDs, and it’ll be fun to see how he hits it off with new wideout Dorian Singer.

Week 1: vs. Nevada (W)

The Wolf Pack, like the Spartans a week prior, have only 53% of their production returning. They are not a threat in any way to the Trojans, but again a solid enough early season test before conference play begins in Week 2. Unlike Cordeiro and SJSU in Week 0, Nevada is not going to test the USC defense. If it does, Grinch’s collar will get tight.

Week 2: vs. Stanford (W)

USC start its season a week earlier than its Pac-12 competitors and kicks off league play 2 full weeks early. The Trojans take on a Stanford team still transitioning to new head coach Troy Taylor, and it would be a surprise if the Cardinal can learn Taylor’s language that quickly. Would it matter, though? Stanford hasn’t been at a talent disadvantage this stark in this rivalry since the mid-2000s, when USC was ruling college football. The Cardinal are breaking in a new quarterback, still to be determined, and have holes on both sides of the ball.

Week 3: Bye

Week 4: at Arizona State (W)

I like Kenny Dillingham to eventually get things turned around in Tempe, but much like Stanford and its 1st-year head coach, the talent gap at this point is laughable. In fact, ASU should be thanking the Trojans for poaching Barrs and Roland-Wallace from the Sun Devils’ in-state rivals, Arizona. That shrinks the gap in the Territorial Cup, and even if it gives USC some extra horses, ASU wasn’t going to win this one, anyway. This will be a breakout game for some of the Trojans’ young talent.

Week 5: at Colorado (W)

Undoubtedly one of the most intriguing games on the college football schedule, the Trojans travel to Boulder for a matchup with the new-look Buffaloes. It’s impossible to know how Colorado’s upgraded talent will mesh internally, but that is going to be appointment television. There was no bigger splash in the 2022 offseason than Riley and no bigger splash this year than Deion Sanders. If Coach Prime somehow gets his ice-breaking Buffaloes to come together quickly in a 3-2 or 4-1 start, Folsom Field might just collapse in on itself.

Week 6: vs. Arizona (W)

A sneaky good game between an Arizona team with a chip on its shoulder and a USC squad that is treating the Wildcats like a Triple-A team, there should be a ton of fireworks between good offenses. Williams and USC will test a fragile Arizona defense, but Jayden de Laura and Jacob Cowing will make the likes of Singer, Barrs and Roland-Wallace rue the day they left Tucson. Still, the Trojans have too much talent to look ahead.

Week 7: at Notre Dame (L)

Trojans fans aren’t going to like this one. And had the Irish held onto Tyler Buchner, I may have liked the Trojans in this one. But Sam Hartman’s addition to an already talented Notre Dame roster worries me for a USC team facing the toughest month in college football. Notre Dame, Utah, Washington, Oregon — it doesn’t get much worse than that. I have USC losing 2 of them — the road games — because until I see that defense take a big step forward, I’m agnostic. Good, but not great. This game will be an example of that. Hartman will outduel Williams to deal his repeat Heisman hopes a blow.

Week 8: vs. Utah (W)

For so many reasons, this will be a bounce-back game for the Trojans. Utah flummoxed USC twice last year, first in a 43-42 regular-season instant classic, then in a resounding Pac-12 title game win. Simply put, wily ol’ Kyle Whittingham won the head-to-head with Riley. This year at home, I like a swaggy Williams to waltz all over the powerful Utah defense with a snarl on his face all game long. After going off for nearly 750 yards and 8 touchdowns in their meetings last year, I wouldn’t put 400 yards and 4 scores past Williams.

Week 9: at Cal (W)

The Bears are but a momentary speed bump on the way to immortality. If the Trojans sneak by Notre Dame in South Bend, they’ll likely enter this matchup undefeated. They won’t get caught looking past the Bears to a horrific late-season gauntlet, but it wouldn’t matter if they did, anyway.

Week 10: vs. Washington (W)

USC’s next 2 weeks will determine the fate of the Pac-12 and perhaps the look of the entire Playoff. The first of back-to-back top-15 matchups pits Williams against Washington quarterback Michael Penix, another potential 1st-rounder in the 2024 NFL Draft. Expect 1,000 yards of total offense and at least 10 total touchdowns in an epic game. Also expect to see a dozen NFL Draft picks.

Catching the Huskies in Los Angeles is key, as Husky Stadium is none too friendly.

Week 11: at Oregon (L)

Speaking of unfriendly, Autzen Stadium is the toughest home-field advantage in the Pac-12. It’s an SEC atmosphere in the middle of Oregon. If Phil Knight has bought Oregon one thing, it’s never-ending loyalty and adoration. This year, the Ducks are going to give the people of Eugene something to cheer about, as Bo Nix, Bucky Irving and Co. have big plans. Last year, Dan Lanning barely skipped a beat in his first year with Oregon. With Nix back for a big senior year, the Ducks are also saying Playoff or bust.

After a tough run of games, the Trojans will face the music against a good Ducks defense.

Week 12: vs. UCLA (W)

Luckily the Bruins and Trojans are tied at the hip, or one of college football’s great rivalries would be threatened. As it stands, this is just the last time they’ll meet in the Pac-12, not the last time they’ll meet. But before they take it to the Big Ten, they’ll meet in the Los Angeles Coliseum one last time. This could be a fitting goodbye to Williams as he attempts to close out another Heisman campaign.

Week 13: BYE

2023 Projection: 10-2 (7-2)


Part of me wants to believe. USC has so many incredible individual pieces, it’s amazing. It goes so much further than just Williams, but even if he was all they had, the Trojans still would be worth watching.

And USC very well may have added enough defensive transfer talent to take it to the next level.

But I’ve seen enough of Alex Grinch to know a Pac-12 title, and the CFP berth that should come along with it, should not be a foregone conclusion.