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

Already covered: Utah, Oregon


Welcome to College Football 2.0.

This isn’t a college football season, it’s a chemistry experiment.

USC’s Lincoln Riley might as well be a mad scientist, testing an entirely new way of doing things. We’ve been taught for ages that a successful college football team is composed of home-grown talent, that a transfer or two here or there are complementary pieces, not the entire furniture set.

In come Caleb Williams and Jordan Addison, Mario Williams and Terrell Bynum, Travis Dye and Austin Jones, Shane Lee and Eric Gentry. Can this random collection of all-stars come together and form a cohesive unit? That’s the biggest question facing the Trojans this season.

But it also might be the most resounding answer. If USC succeeds with this recruiting strategy, college football is flipped on its head.

We should be able to find out if this is a success in a hurry. The Trojans face Stanford, Fresno State, and Oregon State in the first month. If they survive unscathed—ESPN favors them in each game—then they’ll head into the meat of the conference campaign on a roll and ready to take chances.

How will this chemistry experiment play out? Take a look below…

Can Lincoln Riley rally the troops?

Anyone who watched USC during the Pete Carroll era remembers a confidence bordering on braggadocio, swagger that puts Alabama’s to shame.

But last year, and for the previous several years, the Trojans have appeared all-too-human. Even in recent winning seasons, USC hasn’t played the type of USC football we’re used to.

That presents a challenge for Riley and the new Trojans coaching staff. It’s one thing to forget how to win. That can certainly happen to a program. It’s another thing when it’s USC, and we’re so used — and more importantly, they’re so used to — watching them steamroll lesser opponents.

Will Caleb Williams contend for a Heisman Trophy?

One player certainly not missing an ounce of swagger? New quarterback Caleb Williams. Heck, he and his family have had visions of No. 1 overall picks since Williams was just a young boy.

Now, it’s not too far off. Coming off one of the best freshman seasons for a quarterback in the modern era, Williams took advantage of his opportunity at Oklahoma to seize the starting role. He joins USC with that role a certainty, and with a chance for much more.

With fellow impact transfers Jordan Addison, Mario Williams, and Terrell Bynum, Williams has the supporting cast to make a run for it.

Can USC’s former 5-star recruits live up to the billing?

The Trojans have not recruited as they once did, but Clay Helton reeled in some massive talent over the years. Problem is, a lot of that talent hasn’t delivered up to expectations.

Guys like Korey Foreman and Raesjon Davis, Gary Bryant Jr., and Kyle Ford. Huge things were expected out of them before they came to USC, but their stars have fizzled just a bit.

If Riley can tap into the latent talent just ready to burst at the seams, the Trojans will be mighty good.

Game-by-game predictions

Week 1: vs. Rice (W)

The question is not if USC will beat Rice. The question is, how much offense can Riley’s Murderer’s Row offense put up in its first game? The Trojans redefined college football free agency this year, and it’s sure exciting to see if they can gel early.

Week 2: at Stanford (W)

From 1958 to 2008, the Trojans won 39 of 48 matchups. Since 2009, the Cardinal has won nine of 14. Not exactly turning the tide, but a nice start. Stanford has been one of the few teams to truly benefit from USC’s demise, so the Trojans’ rise this offseason has to have shaken the Cardinal to the core. Last season, Stanford toppled USC, 42-28. But the Trojans have retooled and have the offense to take it right to the Cardinal. Unless Stanford’s running game is vastly improved, this one will be over early.

Week 3: vs. Fresno State (W)

A more courageous version of me would’ve projected an upset here. Fresno State was great last year under Kalen DeBoer and the Bulldogs return enough firepower that I expect them to contend for a Mountain West Conference title. Jeff Tedford is back in the saddle, and he will work wonders with Jake Haener. The Bulldogs return 78% of their overall production, including 81% of offensive production.

But ultimately, Riley will play to the Bulldogs’ weakness and mix it up with Travis Dye, Austin Jones, and Raleek Brown out of the backfield.

Last year, Fresno State lost all three games in which the opponent rushed for 180 or more yards. Riley won’t forget that.

Week 4: at Oregon State (W)

This is an amazing stat: USC’s longest win streak over Oregon State is 26 games, from 1968 to 1999; the Beavers’ longest win streak over the Trojans? Two, way back in 1914 and ’16.

But Oregon State handled USC a year ago in all facets of the offensive game. The Beavers had 322 rushing yards, including 158 on 23 carries by BJ Baylor, and Chance Nolan went 15-for-19 for 213 yards and four touchdowns with two interceptions.

They also picked off Kedon Slovis three times.

This one should be a shootout, but USC has more firepower this year.

Week 5: vs. Arizona State (W)

The Sun Devils ran all over USC last year, with Rachaad White stacking up 202 yards on 28 carries with three touchdowns, more than one-fifth of his total production for the year. That helped lift ASU to a 31-16 win, the biggest win in the series since 2017. The previous three matchups had been decided by a total of nine points.

With White off to the NFL and the Sun Devils reeling after a tumultuous offseason, I don’t think this one will be very close, either. Only the Trojans will get the better end of it this time.

Week 6: vs. Washington State (W)

For a moment there, the USC football team looked somewhat respectable last season. The Trojans routed Washington State, 45-14, in Week 3, with freshman Jaxson Dart completing 30-of-46 passes for 391 yards with four touchdowns and two interceptions. Drake London ruled the day with 13 grabs for 170 yards and two scores.

The USC passing game is entirely retooled from last season, but the Trojans still have a marked edge in the passing game and they retooled their running game. USC in a landslide.

Week 7: at Utah (L)

This is one of the games of the season out west, and one of the few games that will decide the Pac-12 season. This should be a high-scoring affair, not unlike Utah’s Rose Bowl slugfest with Ohio State. I think they learned a thing or two from that game, and while I expect USC to score, I don’t think they’ll put up 45 on the Utes.

Ultimately, this one will get decided up the seams, as Utah’s two tight-end offense will be too much for the Trojans to handle.

Week 8: Bye

Week 9: at Arizona (W)

The Wildcats simply don’t have the horses to hang with the Trojans. Recharged off a bye to handle a stretch run that includes UCLA and Notre Dame, USC will air it out against the ‘Cats.

Week 10: vs. Cal (W)

One of the most one-sided so-called rivalries in the Pac-12, USC has won 71 of 102 matchups against the Bears, including 13 straight from 2004-17. Cal, though, has surprisingly won two of the past three matchups, including last year.

USC outplayed Cal in the loss but made numerous mistakes that cost them the game.

This time, the talent advantage is too big for a few mistakes to matter.

Week 11: vs. Colorado (W)

Yet another of the Trojans’ few bright spots last season, USC dominated the Buffaloes 37-14. This is going to be a showcase game for Caleb Williams with the Trojans heading into their toughest stretch of the year with a 9-1 record. USC wins this one by at least four touchdowns.

Week 12: at UCLA (L)

UCLA’s 29-point win last year was its biggest win in the rivalry in almost seven decades. It’s not going to happen again. At least not by 29 points.

But I do see the Bruins winning.

Zach Charbonnet is going to have a day, and while Caleb Williams and Co. get their yardage, the UCLA pass defense will shore up near the goal line. With the Bruins lined up for their best season in years, the Rose Bowl will be rocking.

Week 13: vs. Notre Dame (L)

If the wheels fell off against UCLA, the entire front and rear axles break apart against the Fighting Irish.

The Irish have won four in a row over the Trojans, and last year’s was not particularly close. USC put up a fight at the end, but the Irish picked off Kedon Slovis and forced a fumble.

The Trojans rebuilt their passing game to battle with the likes of Notre Dame, but the Irish defense is still too good.

2022 projection: 9-3 (7-2), third (tie) in Pac-12


USC football players and coaches have maintained throughout the offseason that it’s championship or bust. But that is entirely unrealistic in Lincoln Riley’s first season.

What’s realistic? Doubling up on last year’s four wins. The Trojans will have the offense to hang in every game, despite a difficult schedule. Nine regular-season wins and a 7-2 conference record is nothing to sneeze at, and USC’s stars like Caleb Williams, Jordan Addison, and Travis Dye will be up for postseason awards.

But for Trojans fans who are expecting the moon, falling a little short won’t do.