USC will spend its final year in the Pac-12 hoping to go out on top.

Year 1 under head coach Lincoln Riley was about turning around the culture of the program and instilling a winning attitude in the locker room. USC went 4-8 the year before Riley and then played in the league’s title game once he came to town.

The burden of getting that good that fast is it warps perspective a bit. From a program-building standpoint, Year 1 was a success, even if it ended with back-to-back losses. The Trojans had a long way to go in terms of overhauling the roster and getting this new group of players to believe they were going to win every time they stepped on the field.

Riley and his staff hit homers in the transfer portal, particularly on the offensive side of the football. Caleb Williams won the Heisman Trophy after a dazzling season. Riley kept everyone involved and Williams engineered a devastating offensive attack.

Defensively, USC had issues, some of which weren’t going to be fixed by one recruiting cycle. And it was because of those defensive issues that USC fell apart in the Pac-12 title game and collapsed in the Cotton Bowl.

Year 2 is a big one for Riley’s defensive coordinator, Alex Grinch, who faced intense calls for his job after the loss to Tulane. The Trojans should be a contender in the Pac-12, but whether or not they’re a legitimate College Football Playoff threat depends on the play of Grinch’s unit.

Because it’s USC, and because Riley came in embracing the expectations that come with those three letters, and because the Trojans field the presumptive No. 1 pick in the 2024 NFL Draft, anything short of a Pac-12 title will feel like a disappointment.

At A Glance

Coach Lincoln Riley

  • Years with program: 2
  • Career record: 66-13
  • Home record: 36-2
  • Bowl record: 1-4

Players to know

  • WR Brenden Rice: The son of a legendary wide receiver who needs no introduction, Rice transferred from Colorado to USC ahead of the 2022 season and was a coach’s dream. The Trojans were loaded at wideout, so egos needed to be checked at the start of fall camp. Rice clearly had the talent to flourish in Riley’s offense, but he waited his turn. The 6-foot-3 wideout had only two targets in the first two weeks. But when the top-line receivers missed time and Rice was called upon to step up, he produced in a major way. He had a 72-yard performance against Arizona State; a 62-yard, one-score performance against Arizona; a 70-yard, one-score day against Colorado; and then a six-catch, 174-yard, two-score explosion in the bowl game. Rice has a huge frame, plenty of skill, and now has experience with Riley’s scheme. Duce Robinson and Ja’Kobi Lane are the only receivers on the roster who can match Rice’s physical profile and they’re both newcomers, so there’s an opportunity for a huge season as Caleb Williams’ most-trusted.
  • DL Korey Foreman: Development is rarely linear, and Foreman still has all the tools to become a productive player. Foreman has moved from the rush end spot to the defensive line, and he’s down 10 pounds from where he was listed at on USC’s official roster last fall. Trojan fans will remember the game-sealing interception in the UCLA game, but he has just 24 career tackles in 23 career appearances at this point. Mindset seems to have been the biggest barrier to playing time so far, with consistency in practice a major talking point last spring and fall. This spring, Foreman was said to have been better. The Trojans aren’t waiting around, hitting the transfer portal hard for instant-impact defensive linemen. If Foreman gets on the field and stays there, he could be a difference-maker.
  • LB Eric Gentry: A freshman All-American while at Arizona State, Gentry transferred to USC for his second season and was a very important piece of the defense. He posted 71 tackles to rank third on the defense, and he added four tackles for loss, three pass breakups, two forced fumbles, and an interception in 11 appearances. A late-season injury led to ankle surgery and put him on the shelf for spring ball, but if he’s healthy he’s going to have the chance to post a massive junior season. Gentry is listed on USC’s official roster at 6-foot-6, 205 pounds but told reporters during the team’s local media day he’s up to 6-foot-7, 223 pounds. If he’s the starting Will linebacker (Mason Cobb going to Pac-12 Media Day would seem to signal he’s the starting Mike), that’s a very unorthodox frame for the position but he could be an incredibly disruptive roamer.

Numbers to know

  • 19-2: Lincoln Riley’s record in November games. It was perfect until the 2021 season; Riley began 14-0 in the decisive month of the college football calendar — a stretch that featured ranked Bedlam clashes three out of the four years and a total of six games against ranked opponents. The 2021 Sooners lost road November games to ranked Baylor and OSU teams. Then Riley landed on the West Coast and posted another perfect November.
  • 14-0: Caleb Williams threw 14 touchdowns and zero interceptions when pressured. According to Pro Football Focus, he had the best passing grade of any quarterback in the Power Five when pressured. It was part of what made the Heisman season; Williams turned into a video game character when pressure came down on him, firing off absurd passes from improbable angles.
  • 0: The Trojans posted a nation-leading plus-23 turnover margin last season. Williams was magnificent in protecting the football, and the defense was incredibly opportunistic. USC was plus-23 in wins. It was even in losses, creating only three takeaways in the three defeats. And that was the rub. If the Trojans were forcing mistakes on the other side and generating extra offensive possessions, they had enough to win. When they weren’t doing that, they couldn’t overcome their weaknesses.


What USC did well

When the ball was in Caleb Williams’ hands, there wasn’t much the Trojans struggled to do on the offensive side of the ball. The Trojans ranked third nationally in success rate (51%) and fourth nationally in passing yards per play (9.1). Throughout the regular season, the Trojans averaged 0.61 points per play.

To put that in perspective, from 2000-21, there were only 75 total instances in which a team cleared 0.600 points per play in a single season. That regular-season number would have put the 2022 USC into the 97th percentile in terms of offensive efficiency.

Adding in the Pac-12 title game and the bowl game dropped USC to 0.58 points per play. Still excellent. Not quite as historic.

Something happened in those last two games. USC turned it over three times. In the 12 previous games, USC turned it over a combined four times.

When you already have an elite offense, you’re going to win a ton of games if you’re that protective of the football. Only five qualified FBS quarterbacks had a lower interception rate than Williams, who threw five picks in his 500 attempts. None of the other five passers cleared 400 attempts. Williams had a dream season in terms of protecting the ball.

And USC enjoyed one of the best seasons you’ll see in terms of fumbles. The Trojans put the ball on the deck 13 times all year, but they only lost two of them. Fumbles are a statistical coin flip; posting a near-85% recovery rate is incredibly fortunate.

Is that repeatable? We’ll see.

Where USC struggled

The offensive line was vulnerable, and it put Caleb Williams on the move far more often than Lincoln Riley would probably prefer. No one used play-action more than Williams last fall, but he was too often flushed.

USC ranked 42nd nationally in sack rate (5.1%). It allowed an 8.5% sack rate on passing downs (70th nationally). North Carolina’s Drake Maye and Washington State’s Cameron Ward were the only two quarterbacks in the country who faced more total pressures than Williams, who was pressured on a third of his dropbacks, per Pro Football Focus.

Some of that is explainable, of course. Teams aren’t going to sit back and let Williams survey the field. And, as noted above, Williams was exceptional when faced with pressure.

But as USC seeks bigger things in 2023, it needs another clean bill of health from its quarterback. Williams needs to be kept upright. His injury in the Pac-12 title game was more of a random occurrence than the result of poor line play, but he was hammered in that game by a Utah line that got to him seven times.

Justin Dedich and Jonah Monheim return from last season’s line, but they’re both moving to new spots. Dedich will move from guard to center. Monheim is moving from right to left tackle. The other three spots look like they’ll belong to transfers. Florida’s Michael Tarquin is penciled in at right tackle. The two guard spots could go to Jarrett Kingston (Washington State) and Emmanuel Pregnon (Wyoming).

How quickly does the group coalesce? And can the top-line unit stay healthy throughout the year? That wasn’t the case for USC’s front line last season.


What USC did well

The Trojans were as opportunistic as any team you’ll see. They recorded 30 takeaways to rank third nationally. USC picked off 19 passes and recovered 11 fumbles. In sort of the same way USC was overly protective of the football, being this active at taking the football away looks more like good fortune than anything.

Teams can expect to recover 50% of opponent fumbles and intercept about 20% of the passes they defend. USC recovered 79% of opponent fumbles and picked off 30% of the passes it defended.

Calen Bullock returns as a leader in the secondary after recording five interceptions last fall. Does USC feel the loss of corner Mekhi Blackmon? He had three picks and was one of the better cover corners in the conference last fall.

Where USC struggled

Lincoln Riley’s roster rebuild was swift, but it was never going to be completed in a single season. There was too much work to be done in the front seven on defense.

Tuli Tuipulotu had an individually strong season, leading the country in sacks and ranking second nationally in tackles for loss. He couldn’t cover everything, though. As a unit, the Trojans ranked 127th nationally in defensive success rate (48%) and 117th in run defense (5.0 yards per carry allowed).

USC gave up 29.2 points a game — a mark that was tied for 93rd nationally. Six of the Trojans’ final eight opponents cleared 35 points. Three of the last four cleared 40.

They were a poor tackling group, particularly late in the season. The second half of the Pac-12 title game saw the more disciplined Utah team just run over USC’s front and the performance in the Cotton Bowl against Tulane was unsightly. A month between the title loss and the Cotton Bowl was said to have benefitted the USC defense, but then Tulane ran 52 total plays and scored 46 points.

USC wasn’t big enough at the point of attack last season. It wasn’t deep enough in the front seven to withstand the injuries that will always happen throughout the course of a 12-game campaign. Defensive coordinator Alex Grinch faced intense scrutiny over his bend-don’t-break approach.

Riley backed him, though, and has expressed confidence throughout the offseason that the defense will be stronger in 2023.

Tuipulotu is gone and that hope for improved play at the point of attack rests almost entirely on a crop of transfers. Bear Alexander (Georgia), Kyon Barrs (Arizona), Anthony Lucas (Texas A&M), and Jack Sullivan (Purdue) were all brought in this offseason to fill roles on the defensive line. Former Oklahoma State standout Mason Cobb will take one of the two linebacker spots. Rush end should get back Romello Height after his debut season was derailed by an injury, Solomon Byrd is back, and Jamil Muhammed joins the fold from Georgia Southern.

When you struggle to the degree USC did last season, new faces all over the field are to be expected.

2023 Schedule

  • Aug. 26: San Jose State
  • Sept. 2: Nevada
  • Sept. 9: Stanford
  • Sept. 16: BYE
  • Sept. 23: at Arizona State
  • Sept. 30: at Colorado
  • Oct. 7: Arizona
  • Oct. 14: at Notre Dame
  • Oct. 21: Utah
  • Oct. 28: at Cal
  • Nov. 4: Washington
  • Nov. 11: at Oregon
  • Nov. 18: UCLA
  • Nov. 25: BYE