Lincoln Riley believes USC is “three or four” plays away from being 10-1 this season, rather than its actual 7-4 record. But if the Trojans had managed to win some of the tight games that haven’t gone their way this year, Riley thinks it would have masked some of the flaws of the team.

USC has struggled down the stretch this season. The Trojans entered the year with an expectation they would compete for a spot in the College Football Playoff. Instead, they’ve lost four of their last five games. Riley is in the midst of his worst November as a head coach and coaching out a season that has featured more defeats than any other in his coaching career.

He was asked during his weekly appearance on Trojans Live Monday night if this kind of season can be beneficial for the program long-term.

“We’re probably three or four plays away from being a 10-1 football team right now,” Riley said. “Would that mask, in some way, some of the areas that we still have to really grow and progress as a program? Maybe in some ways, it would.

“If we were sitting here 10-1, probably the attitude of everyone would feel just a little bit different. That’s the nature of this game. … I knew even after 11 wins last year and all the good stuff we still had a ways to go. There’s still steps you’ve got to make.”

Riley has said several times this season he felt the Trojans overachieved in Year 1. He has also said the weight of expectations on this year’s group has been felt at times.

USC has lost to Notre Dame, Washington, Oregon, and Utah — all the caliber of teams Riley was brought to Southern California to beat. To many, the season has felt like a major disappointment. Riley’s recruiting — which has slowed since the summer — has been a topic of conversation. The defense has obviously been a consistent pain point.

Riley believes USC is still getting what it bargained for.

“Two years ago, if you would have asked anybody involved with this program, ‘Hey, we’re gonna go through two years, we’re gonna be in championship-type games latest in both years, one year we’re gonna be right on the doorstep of the College Football Playoff,’ from where this thing was, hell, everybody would have taken that. Everybody,” he said.

“We forget that now. But everybody would have taken it.”

So much of this year’s team has fallen on the shoulders of the reigning Heisman Trophy winner. If Caleb Williams has a bad game, like he did against Notre Dame, USC gets blown off the field. If Williams makes a few critical errors, like the fumble against Washington, USC loses.

That’s not conducive to the kind of success USC hopes for with Riley at the helm. And he knows that.

“The longer-term vision is to be able to put out a group that has an opportunity to really separate in more games and be more dominant and (have) the strengths of the team more evenly distributed across the board,” Riley said. “And we’re going to get there. We are absolutely gonna get there.”