2022 Pac-12 Football Preview: USC has Questions Up Front
Posted on July 11, 2022
This USC preseason football preview is the sixth of 12 to appear over as many weeks as we count down the days to the start of the 2022 Pac-12 season on September 1st.
Each preview consists of nine sections: Overview, Best-Case Scenario, Worst-Case Scenario, What Should Happen, What Must Happen, Greatest Strength, Biggest Concern, Deciding Factors, and Schedule Analysis.
Nothing is set in stone, however, as rosters and depth charts continue to evolve over the summer.
All of the coaching changes, transfers, and conference realignment moves appear to have caused a bit of amnesia within national college football media when it comes to USC Football.
The 4-8 record from last year has been swept under the rug, discarded, and replaced with a shiny new image. The offensive line problems? Irrelevant. The defensive struggles? Big deal.
The old-as-time preseason hype surrounding the Trojans is back. Reality be damned.
Don’t think about the fact that Lincoln Riley has never won a Playoff game and comes from a league that has zero National Championships in the Playoff era.
Don’t ponder the fact that USC was 96th in the nation in sacks per game last year, 103rd in scoring defense, and 104th in third-down conversion defense.
Disregard the 408.9 yards per game the SC defense gave up in 2021 and the 114th ranking in tackles for loss per contest.
None of that matters because there’s a new offensive mastermind at the helm and a slew of highly rated transfers.
Or so the national narrative goes.
The reality is the defensive issues remain and have not been magically fixed in one offseason.
There’s no doubt the USC offense has the firepower it needs to win games, but the glaring problems on the other side of the ball make an eight-win season far more likely than a gangbusters year that some are predicting.
Riley’s offensive system translates perfectly to the Pac-12 as Caleb Williams dominates the league with a wide receiver corps that’s unmatched in the Conference.
Mario Williams and Jordan Addison combine for over 2,000 yards receiving, while Travis Dye, Austin Jones, and true freshman Raleek Brown create a respectable three-pronged ground game.
The offensive line takes a step forward under the more balanced system, resulting in fewer sacks allowed per game and more time for Williams to get the ball to his deadly wideouts.
The defense is revitalized under new defensive coordinator Alex Grinch, generating punts and turnovers at a higher clip than last season.
Known as “Speed D,” Grinch’s system matches seamlessly with the talents of Arizona State transfer Eric Gentry, Alabama transfer Shane Lee, and returning starter Ralen Goforth.
Five-star freshman corner Domani Jackson starts every game and leads a secondary that eclipses the 14 interceptions forced last year.
The result is a 10-2 season with the lone defeats coming on the road to Utah and at home to Norte Dame.
Grinch’s new system isn’t able to address the problems along the defensive line and the talent lost in the secondary.
Riley’s offense scores points, but the USC defense is consistently porous without generating the same amount of INTs as last season.
All the talent picked up through the portal is negated by the complete lack of attention to the D-Line, with returning stalwarts Tuli Tuipulotu and Nick Figueroa unable to do it on their own.
Korey Foreman doesn’t make a significant jump in his sophomore season, and the Trojans feel the sting from losing three of their four leading tacklers for loss from a team that already was one of the worst in the country at securing TFLs.
The defensive problems lead to an 8-4 season with losses coming to Utah, UCLA, Norte Dame, and a shocking upset to either Stanford or Oregon State.
What Should Happen
USC’s offense should shine.
Riley’s system has proven effective in the Big 12 and he has more weapons to utilize than any other team in the Pac-12.
The depth at wide receiver rivals that of any team in the country.
Highlighted by Addison and Williams, the unit features Colorado transfer Brenden Rice and dangerous returning players in Tahj Washington, Gary Bryant Jr., and Kyle Ford.
Mix in four-star true freshman C.J. Williams, and SC arguably has the deepest wide receiver corps in the nation.
With such a strong unit to throw to, the offensive line should give Williams enough time to get the ball out. Led by Andrew Vorhees and Brett Neilon, the O-Line figures to take a step forward with an offensive scheme that emphasizes a healthy run-pass balance.
The balanced attack should play into the hands of Dye and Jones, who utilize their speed and grit to gash defenses preoccupied by the threats on the outside.
The culmination of strength at every skill position should produce one of the top offenses in all of College Football.
What Must Happen
The defensive line must take a leap forward.
The unit didn’t generate enough sacks or tackles for loss in 2021, and Riley didn’t bring in any head-turning transfers along the line.
Foreman must increase his production during his second season, which shouldn’t be hard considering the former five-star only posted 11 tackles in eight games last year.
His development must take center stage in Grinch’s offseason plans, along with teaching the “Speed D” concepts to Tuipulotu and Figueroa.
The trio could form one of the more potent D-Lines in the Conference, but all three must step up their production.
In the secondary, Colorado transfer Mekhi Blackmon must hit the ground running to help replace the production lost from the departures of Chris Steele and Isaiah Pola-Mao.
Riley’s offense is far and away USC’s greatest strength. The talent at the offensive skill positions is jaw-dropping, with depth and skill that eclipses all other teams in the league.
Williams is one of the top quarterbacks in the nation and should be in contention for the Heisman. The running back room is solid with proven options in Dye and Jones. And the wide receivers are as deep as any Pac-12 team has had in recent memory.
There’s no doubt that the Trojans have the top offense in the Conference of Champions.
The open question in the offensive line will remain until OC/O-Line coach Josh Henson proves otherwise. But the biggest concern is the SC defense as a whole.
The linebacking corps should be solid with Gentry, Lee, and Goforth leading the way. The projected starters figure to comprise one of the top units in the Pac-12, going far to revitalize the defense’s image under Grinch.
Among the DBs, Xavion Alford, Calen Bullock, Blackmon, and Jackson should form a solid unit that holds its own within Grinch’s system.
The focal point, however, will be along the line. There is potential in the unit that might be boosted by Grinch’s coaching, but until the production comes to fruition the concerns remain.
Depth issues could emerge and the D-Line could struggle against the likes of Utah, Norte Dame, and Oregon State.
Games are won and lost in the trenches, and USC has questions to answer up front.
The sole make-or-break factor that could sway USC’s entire season is the play of its offensive line. If the unit doesn’t provide Williams enough time to find his receivers, the efficiency of the offense could come under stress.
Riley may be forced to run the ball more often than he would like, limiting the potency of one of the top QBs in the country.
Mixed with the lack of depth under center, the Trojans could become slightly predictable and one-dimensional if the O-Line underperforms.
There are only so many quarterback hurries and knockdowns that Riley will tolerate, which could result in altered game plans by midseason.
At the same time, the defense’s ability to generate turnovers could go far in shaping the outcome of the year. With an offense expected to be potent, takeaways and additional possessions could be the difference down the stretch.
Fortunately, the SC defense was 45th in the country last year in turnovers forced and shouldn’t fall off under Grinch’s direction.
The Riley era begins with a Buy-Game against Rice at the Coliseum.
But the first test of the year comes on the road against Stanford in Week Two. The Trojans are 5-7 against the Tree since the Pac-12 expanded in 2011, putting this game on Upset Alert. Despite the potential for a loss, SC should win by double-digits.
Week Three features a matchup against Fresno State, which should end with a USC victory.
With an opening slate like that, a 3-0 start is a clear expectation.
The year truly begins with a road game against Oregon State in late September. The Beavers have a strong offensive line, an experienced quarterback, and an offense predicated on running the ball. A defeat wouldn’t be much of a shock.
The following two games are winnable matchups against Arizona State and Washington State in LA. The Sun Devils aren’t as strong this season, and Wazzu has only won twice in the Coliseum this century.
Riley and Company then travel to Salt Lake City to take on Utah in what promises to be one of the top Pac-12 games of the season. A road victory is possible, but the game likely ends in defeat.
A three-game stretch of probable wins follows, with showdowns against Arizona, California, and Colorado. The only opponent during this stretch that could put a scare in the Trojans is Cal, yet USC should overpower the Bears in the second half.
The year ends with two tough games on the road against UCLA and at home to Notre Dame. Both programs have the potential to beat the Trojans and a two-game losing streak to close the season wouldn’t be a surprise.
In the end, eight wins seem to be the floor with a 10-win ceiling. A middle ground of nine victories appears to be a reasonable bet.