No one really knows what to do with this USC team and that’s fine right now.

Pollsters and people who make the “way-too-early top 25” lists are placing the Trojans almost unanimously among their 25 best teams heading into the spring. It feels a little “Texas is back!” like. Meanwhile, you have a statistical model built by one of the smartest people covering college football right now that places the Trojans firmly in the middle of the mushy Pac-12 midsection and at No. 64 nationally. Oklahoma ranked seventh in case you were wondering.

Which is an interesting segue!

“I don’t want to limit it by saying well, it can’t happen (competing for titles) until you’re three or four (years in). I don’t know that I necessarily believe that,” Lincoln Riley said Tuesday during an appearance on The Herd with Colin Cowherd.  “We would not have left what we left unless we felt like this could be something very, very elite. And I think every person that we brought in—every staff member, every player—feels that right now.”

Riley is talking a big game so far. On signing day, he said the USC program is one of the best all-time programs in the country and the bar should never be lowered from championship expectations. He doesn’t leave what he built at Oklahoma if he has an inkling this rebuild process at USC is going to drag on. There are reasons to legitimately believe this can be a pretty quick turnaround.

But the Trojans enter into the spring and summer months ahead with quite a few questions that need answering. And they’ll be looking at what’s likely to be a full six months’ worth of pub about how Utah is the class of the conference.

How does this collection of players, who were and still are one of the most talented teams in the country on paper, rebound from a 4-8 season? How do they balance attacking areas of necessary improvement with reading about how their new coaching staff makes them an immediate dark horse playoff team?

I’m not convinced USC was quite as bad as its 4-8 record. There are some things in the Trojans’ profile that inspire some confidence moving forward: they had a pretty strong margin for error, were almost 1.5 games below their expected win total (based on point differential), were really good at turning takeaway opportunities into actual takeaways, and finished top-30 in offensive success rate. But, at the end of the day, you are what your record says you are and the Trojans record last season was among the worst in a down Pac-12. USC shouldn’t go 0-3 against the other California schools.

Maybe we’ll set that as the baseline for 2022.

What worked in 2021

It seems like we need to have a conversation about the offensive line.

USC was one of the most pass-happy teams in the country during the 2021 season. It had a pass rate of 57%, the 11th-highest mark of any FBS team. They threw it more than they ran it in eight of 12 games. Now, some of that had to do with playing from behind, but not to an overwhelming degree. Stanford would be the only game where they were really out of it early and had to climb back. They fell down 42-17 to Oregon State at one point in the fourth, but still had 23 pass attempts to 10 runs in the first half of a 21-17 game.

They threw the ball. And it largely worked. On first downs, they were throwing it on 56.6% of their plays, a much higher rate than you’d expect from a team that ranked 25th nationally in success rate on standard downs. Between Kedon Slovis and Jaxson Dart, the USC offense averaged 8.2 yards per pass attempt on firsts and posted a sack rate of only 3%. The national average for yards per pass on all pass attempts last season was 7.5. The national average for sack rate was 6.8%.

On passing downs—downs where the defense has the advantage—USC posted the 11th-best sack rate in the country. On all downs, USC posted the ninth-best sack rate in the country.

Yes, strong offensive line play is about much more than just keeping your quarterback free of sacks. Using PFF’s tracking data, the Trojan line gave up 20 quarterback hits and 61 hurries. That all adds up to a pressure rate (sacks plus hits plus hurries, divided by pass snaps) of 16.7%, the 13th-best mark among the 64 Power Five programs and Notre Dame. Average was 20.8%.

I just don’t really see where I’m supposed to be doom-and-gloom about their o-line. Numbers can lie, but not like this. They were top-30 in line yards per run (defined here) and top-20 in both opportunity rate (use the same link as before) and short-yardage success rate.

Keaontay Ingram averaged over 5 yards a carry in seven of his 10 appearances. In the two games he didn’t play, Vavae Malepeai averaged 5 and 6 yards a carry.

USC had three of the six highest-graded qualified linemen in the Pac-12, per PFF. They were Andrew Vorhees, Brett Neilon and Justin Dedich. All three return for 2022 to give USC perhaps one of the stronger interior line pairings in the conference. Combined, they have nearly 6,000 collegiate snaps logged on the line.

It will be interesting to see how Riley’s scheme meshes with everything once we get rolling with spring practices. It seems a given that he’ll be an upgrade over the previous coach when it comes to fitting guys into what he’s trying to do.

What didn’t work in 2021

The defense.

This will be short and as painless as possible.

The Trojans gave up 4.6 yards per run faced, a mark that ranked 96th nationally. They gave up nearly 9 yards per pass play faced (122nd) and a completion rate (65.3%) that was among the 30 worst at the FBS level.

They couldn’t get off the field on third down (43% allowed, 105th), couldn’t keep teams from reaching the red zone, and then couldn’t keep them out of the end zone once they got there (72% touchdown rate, 120th).

The biggest problem was USC’s inability to generate negative plays as a defense. They ranked 119th in havoc rate (tackles for loss, passes defended, forced fumbles).  That encompasses everything. And new defensive coordinator Alex Grinch will have his work cut out for him transforming this defensive crew into one that plays with the kind of attacking, all-hats-to-the-ball mentality he wants. At the height of the Oklahoma ‘Speed D’ days under Grinch, the Sooners ranked ninth nationally in havoc rate produced. Grinch can surely replicate that same success at USC given the talent available moving forward, it’s just a question of how long it’ll take.

Where should expectations be for 2022

The addition of Caleb Williams at quarterback changes everything. If USC had undergone the skill position reformation it did but wound up missing on the quarterback, not as many folks would be nearly as excited as they are. Williams with all those new skill position players makes for a much more flavorful offense.

But Williams is still growing and developing as a passer. He uses his legs maybe sometimes too quickly. He has a ton of confidence in his ability to make any throw, which can be good but also got him into trouble at times.

But if it doesn’t show significant improvement defensively, the Trojans will be in a bunch of shootouts and some of that scheme stuff might not matter as much. Riley will tell you publicly USC’s expectation is to compete at the highest level every year.

But maybe only wager on the Utah game if you’re feeling antsy; maybe hold off on those College Football Playoff (or even Pac-12 title) plans. It’s better to be in wait-and-see mode with this team than to go all-in too early. Then again, all those way-too-early polls are screaming USC is back before we even start spring practices so you do you.

What’s coming back

Using returning production numbers posted Tuesday by ESPN’s Bill Connelly, the Trojans will have 59% of their 2021 performance back for 2022, good for 93rd nationally. Quite a bit left on offense given the departures of Slovis and Dart at quarterback, Ingram and Malepeai at running back, and Drake London at wideout.

But even more left from the defense. Drake Jackson departs, leaving the team in dire need of a playmaking edge rusher. USC also loses linebacker Kana’i Mauga (its leading tackler in 2021), cornerbacks Chris Steele and Isaac Taylor-Stuart, safety Greg Johnson, and defensive lineman Jacob Lichtenstein. Eight other defenders have entered the transfer portal.

But, Riley has added key pieces everywhere.

Travis Dye was a big get. In his final season with the Oregon Ducks, he rushed for 1,271 yards and 16 touchdowns, adding 46 receptions for another 402 yards and two scores. He’ll be joined in the backfield by former Stanford starter Austin Jones and 5-star 2022 signee Raleek Brown.

Wideout was overloaded with talent to the point it’s easy to forget the Trojans are bringing back Tahj Washington and Gary Bryant Jr. from last year’s team.

Former Alabama linebacker Shane Lee, Oklahoma corner Latrell McCutchin, and Auburn edge Romello Height highlight the transfer additions made on the defensive side of the ball, and they all could prove to be rotational players or regular starters next season. Tuli Tuipulotu and Korey Foreman are really high-upside players at the front of the defense.  There’s talent. It’s young and inexperienced, but it’s talent.

What’s on the schedule

  • vs. Rice (Sept. 3)
  • at Stanford (Sept. 10)
  • vs. Fresno State (Sept. 17)
  • at Oregon State (Sept. 24)
  • vs. Arizona State (Oct. 1)
  • vs. Washington State (Oct. 8)
  • at Utah (Oct. 15)
  • at Arizona (Oct. 29)
  • vs. Cal (Nov. 5)
  • vs. Colorado (Nov. 11)
  • at UCLA (Nov. 19)
  • vs. Notre Dame (Nov. 26)

Your eye immediately goes to that clash with the Utes in Salt Lake City on Oct. 15. That’ll be a measuring stick game for Riley and his Trojans. Regardless of what the record is to that point, that’ll serve as a barometer for where this team is at and how far away it is from what it wants to accomplish. But don’t completely overlook those first six weeks out of the gates.

USC will need to be in full-on “prove it” mode and it’ll face four straight opponents after Stanford that finished 51st or higher last season in Sagarin ratings. Stanford returns everything and should probably be expected to be tough week in and out. Fresno still has a strong quarterback. Those three conference games before Utah are against good teams that deserve USC’s respect. It’ll help ASU and Wazzu come to Los Angeles.

The preview series so far has hit: 

The schedule going forward:

  • UCLA ( Sunday, Feb. 13)
  • Oregon State (Wednesday, March 2)
  • Cal (Sunday, March 6)
  • Arizona (Wednesday, March 9)
  • Colorado (Sunday, March 13)
  • Washington (Wednesday, March 16)
  • Stanford (Sunday, March 20)