Spring ball is over. The dog days of summer are upon us. That means it’s talkin’ season. Time to make predictions that will be laughably wrong and go out on completely unnecessary limbs all in the name of giving Freezing Cold Takes more Twitter fodder. 

Here are seven predictions about the 2022 USC Trojans. Please save them for future enjoyment. 

Teams already covered: Oregon, Utah, Washington

The offensive line’s perception starts to match reality

For someone like myself who didn’t play on the offensive line and isn’t in the USC offensive line meeting room to know what’s being asked of each player on each play, evaluating the offensive line is a crapshoot. In general, that group is one of the hardest to evaluate in the sport. For me, I rely on analytics to help. That’s not for everyone. That’s fine. But that’s how I do it. 

And the picture the numbers paint of USC’s offensive line is significantly different from the general public’s perception. Numbers can lie. Plenty of Smart Guys™ have said as much. But numbers don’t tend to lie this much. 

  1. USC returns three of the six highest-graded Pac-12 offensive linemen from the 2021 season, per PFF.
  2. Andrew Vorhees was the only player in college football last year, qualified or not, to earn a 90-plus grade from PFF as both a pass-blocker and a run-blocker. 
  3. USC ranked 9th in sack rate (3.7%), according to Football Outsiders. It’s simply a function of non-garbage time sacks per pass plays.
  4. USC ranked 11th in passing downs sack rate (4.4%), according to Football Outsiders. 
  5. USC ranked 13th among Power Five programs (65, including Notre Dame) in allowed pressure rate (16.7%), according to PFF. The overall average last season was 4.1 percentage points higher than USC’s average.
  6. USC ranked 19th nationally in opportunity rate (53.6%), according to Football Outsiders. It’s a metric that looks at the percentage of carries that gain 4 yards when 4 yards are available.
  7. USC ranked tied for 19th nationally in power success rate (76.5%), according to Football Outsiders. It’s a metric that looks at a team’s success rate on third- or fourth-down runs with 2 yards or less to go that gain the necessary yardage.
  8. USC ranked 38th nationally in average line yards per carry (2.8), according to Football Outsiders. It’s a metric that attributes partial rushing success to the line opening up yardage.
  9. USC ranked 54th nationally in stuff rate (16.9%), according to Football Outsiders. It’s a metric that looks at the percentage of running back carries stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage.

Again, numbers can lie. But that picture painted above is that USC had, at the bare minimum, an above-average offensive line with a few bright spots. USC was a pass-happy team—one of the most pass-happy teams in college football—and its pressure stats are pretty decent. It’s important to note that Football Outsiders’ sack rate numbers filter out garbage time, so the “USC was getting drilled so teams weren’t pressuring them” arguments get filtered out with it.

With a bit of reworking on that unit this offseason—and a massive upgrade to the scheme and skill talent around it—USC is going to prove one of the two sides right one way or another. The offensive line is going to shine and validate the numbers it posted a year ago, or it’s going to struggle and the perception will catch up with reality.

This team is going to win or lose games at the line of scrimmage. Its statistical profile last season showed a group that won more often than it lost, and the Trojans won just a third of their games. With a better scheme, we should get more clarity in 2022.

USC is going to drop 50 in its opener, and the wheels will come off the hype train

From 2015 to 2021, Lincoln Riley had control of the Oklahoma offense. During that span, the Sooners played 13 non-P5 opponents in the non-conference schedule. OU averaged 50.8 points in those 13 games, topping 55 points six times and failing to reach 40 only twice—a win over Army in 2018 and a loss to Houston in 2016.

Now to Rice… The Owls went 4-8 last season thanks in part to a defense that gave up touchdowns on more than a third of all drives faced (a rate that ranked 115th nationally, per Football Outsiders) and a secondary that gave up 8.7 yards per pass attempt (120th). 

And that defense, which returns only 55% of all tackles from a season ago, gets to face Lincoln Riley in his official LA Coliseum debut.

It feels like the Trojan offense is going to shred the Rice defense. Caleb Williams will be fired up. Jordan Addison and Travis Dye will be men on missions. The rest of the skill talent will be itching to get involved in the action. The emotion of the day will propel USC to a strong showing. 

How it handles business from then on will speak to the culture Riley has worked tirelessly to establish since getting to town. 

Shane Lee leads the defense in tackles

The former Alabama linebacker is likely to be a leader of the defense in more ways than one. 

“I’ve just been so impressed with him and his growth and his maturity and how invested he is in not just himself becoming an elite player but also in this team winning championships,” Riley said this spring. “In such a short amount of time he’s had a huge impact. It reminds me a lot of when we brought Jalen Hurts to Oklahoma a few years ago and we had him for one year but his impact, you could feel it immediately. Shane’s had a very similar impact for this football team in the first 100 days.”

Lee played right away as a first-year man for Alabama in 2019, stepping in as the team’s starting MIKE linebacker following injuries to guys ahead of him on the depth chart. He finished that season with 86 tackles (second on the team) and was named a Freshman All-American by ESPN and the FWAA. He was more of a reserve from then on. 

It feels like the pathway to major playing time is right there for Lee at USC. The Trojans have options on the edge, but he seems to have the MIKE spot locked down at the moment. Development in coverage will be key, but he’s going to play a ton regardless. 

Jordan Addison and Mario Williams are both going to eat well

In 2017, Oklahoma had three pass-catchers each haul in at least 45 receptions and gain at least 800 yards. In 2018, Oklahoma had two pass-catchers each cross the 1,000-yard mark and haul in double-digit touchdowns. In 2019, Oklahoma had a 1,300-yard receiver and a 700-yard receiver.  The last two seasons in the Sooner State have seen a decline in receiver production, but it’s also fair to question if either of those two teams had the kind of receiver talent this 2022 USC team now possesses. 

With Addison and Williams, USC has two complementary kind of pass-catchers who can line up beside one another and torture defenses. If a secondary commits all its resources to slow them down, USC has a bevy of high-ceiling options for the No. 3 wideout. If USC’s defense struggles and the offense has to light up scoreboards to win games or claw its way back into games, the wideouts are going to eat. If USC’s offense proves too much to contain for the majority of its schedule, the wideouts are going to eat. 

One way or another, it’s easy to envision a scenario where USC has multiple wideouts putting up major numbers. If Caleb Williams is the quarterback everyone thinks he is, the Trojan offense is going to be a productive one.

Will there be two 1,000-yard wideouts? Maybe. Maybe not. Could another 2019-like season happen? Absolutely. 

The defense takes some time…

A new defensive coordinator has to rebuild a defense with an entirely new secondary and an entirely new front seven and major questions about where the pass-rush is going to come from. Does USC have talented potential edge rushers? Absolutely. Romello Height is on my All-Bang the Drum Team. Is there a ton of young talent in the secondary? You bet. But we have more questions than answers with the USC defense at this point, specifically along the front. 

While the new offensive skill talent is bonkers, the defensive line has added a pair of Big 12 reserves and a Wyoming defensive end. Surely more is coming, as the bulk of USC’s post-spring portal attention has been paid to the defensive side, but DC Alex Grinch will have worked a small miracle if this group is playing up to snuff right out of the gates.

Height will have more responsibility than he’s had to this point in his career. A guy like Latrell McCutchin will be playing a new position. Are the young guys like Raesjon Davis and Korey Foreman ready to take that next step? Is Brandon Pili healthy and ready to roll? What about Domani Jackson? How will the summer arrivals fit in?

There are a ton of moving pieces here, and significantly more ground to be made up than on the other side of the ball. USC ranked 96th nationally in yards per carry allowed and 119th nationally in havoc rate produced. Those are key areas and very poor showings. It’ll take time to right that ship.

… but it, and USC, will be ready for Oct. 15

A trip to Salt Lake City to take on the defending Pac-12 champion Utah Utes in mid-October is already looking like one of the best games on the 2022 college football calendar. 

Utah has a powerful run game and a surgical quarterback. It has one of the best coaches in the country. It has continuity. 

At this current moment in time, it’s a little like Flash vs. Substance. USC is all hype. Obviously, that’ll change when it gets on the field, but the point is we know more about Utah than we do USC, and that makes this game all the more intriguing.

Did the Pac-12 conference title game restructuring change the significance of this game? Sure. USC can lose it and still play for the Pac-12 championship, maybe even against Utah in a rematch. Still, expect the entire country to circle this game as USC’s biggest test. USC will be ready for that test. It’ll be a tremendous game that comes down to the final few possessions.

Caleb Williams takes a late-season trip to New York City

If USC wins nine games, he’ll be there.