Caleb Williams’ first season at Southern California was a massive individual success, as evidenced by his Heisman Trophy and his status as the consensus top prospect in the next NFL draft.
But Williams has some decidedly unhappy memories of last season, simply because the Trojans fell short of their team goals during their exciting debut under Lincoln Riley.
As a quarterback who stands out both for his talents and for his embrace of a leadership role over his entire team, Williams is determined to lead No. 6 USC into national championship contention when he gets a second chance this fall.
“We’ve got a lot to go get this year,” Williams said. “Everyone has the same goal and mindset this year. A whatever-it-takes kind of mindset to get all of what we want. It’s going to be a good year. Can’t wait.”
The Trojans have taken on another wave of talent as they begin their second season under Riley, whose remarkable rebuilding project still needs plenty of work despite that impressive 11-3 record last year. Riley’s first team stumbled only against Utah, which beat the Trojans twice to win the Pac-12 title, and in the Cotton Bowl, when Tulane rallied from a 15-point deficit in the final five minutes for a stunner.
“We knew that it was going to be a little bit of a journey, right?” Riley said. “This day and age, it’s been talked about a lot, you can build rosters faster than you could before, but you still can’t do everything in one year. It can’t happen. You can make dramatic changes, but not everything. We were proud of what we did in Year One, but certainly very focused on what we felt like Year Two could be.”
The Trojans didn’t have to play Oregon or Washington last season, but both powerhouses (and future Big Ten opponents) are on this year’s schedule. The challenges are bigger, but so are the rewards for a program confident it’s ready to join the College Football Playoff for the first time.
As the world knows, this season is the Trojans’ last in the Pac-12. Their decision in June 2022 to leave for the Big Ten in 2024 precipitated the apparent destruction of the West Coast’s premier conference, putting a melancholy mood on every Pac-12 event in the meantime. USC won seven consecutive Pac-10 titles under Pete Carroll in the 2000s, but has won the league only once in the ensuing 13 years. USC is the consensus preseason pick to wear what’s likely to be the final Pac-12 crown.
Williams is the 12th player to have a chance to win back-to-back Heismans since Archie Griffin accomplished the feat in 1975. Only one of the previous 11 winners even finished as high as second in the voting the following year. Williams is a betting favorite to repeat, but past Heisman winners are typically held to a lofty standard by voters in their repeat attempts, so it’ll probably take a spectacular 12-game run for an injury-free Williams to make history.
USC’s obvious weakness in Riley’s debut was a defense that yielded a whopping 423.9 yards per game and got shredded in big games despite its impressive knack for takeaways. Riley ignored calls for the dismissal of his longtime defensive coordinator, Alex Grinch, and restocked the roster instead.
The Trojans added a wealth of talent in the transfer window, including defensive tackles Bear Alexander (Georgia), Kyon Barrs (Arizona) and Jack Sullivan (Purdue), defensive end Anthony Lucas (Texas A&M) and linebacker Mason Cobb (Oklahoma State). The secondary also was bolstered by Tre’Quon Fegans (Alabama) and Christian Roland-Wallace (Arizona). The pressure is now squarely on Grinch to turn this talent into stops.
Riley’s offense was uniformly outstanding last season while finishing third in the FBS with 506.6 yards per game, and this group appears to be even more talented. Williams is throwing to four of last season’s top six receivers along with vaunted Arizona transfer Dorian Singer and tight end prospect Duce Robinson. South Carolina transfer running back MarShawn Lloyd joined the backfield alongside Austin Jones. The offensive line could have a new look, but should still be anchored by Justin Dedich and Jonah Monheim.
The second half of the Trojans’ schedule is exponentially tougher than the first. The gauntlet starts with their trip to No. 13 Notre Dame in mid-October, followed by a visit from 14th-ranked Utah. The Trojans then face No. 10 Washington, No. 15 Oregon and UCLA in consecutive weekends in November. The biggest flaw in their slate is the second bye, which falls on Thanksgiving weekend after they’ve already played their entire regular season. That’s only a good thing if USC makes the Pac-12 title game the following week — but the season will be a disappointment anyway if the Trojans don’t earn that spot.