No team came into the season with more storylines than the USC Trojans: A move to the Big 10, narrowly missing out on a playoff appearance, an upgraded defense, and, of course, the return of Heisman Winner, Caleb Williams.
But after debuting at No. 6 in the AP Poll, USC has gone backward; narrow victories over Colorado and Arizona pushed the Trojans down to No.10, and are no longer a top choice to make the College Football Playoff.
The reasons against USC competing for a title are making headlines, and you have to dig deep to find reasons to consider the Trojans a threat to win it all. But alas, they are around. For every reason USC isn’t a title contender, there’s a reason it is one.
Why USC is (and isn’t) a title contender
Isn’t: Their defense makes even the worst teams look great
On Saturday, Redshirt Freshman Noah Fifita made his second career start for Arizona. Yet on the road against a powerhouse school, he looked more like Caleb Williams than Williams did.
Fifita got the Wildcats out to a 17-0 lead, stayed composed, and exploited USC’s struggling defense until triple overtime when the Trojans finally got a stop.
USC’s defensive woes date back to last season, and fans want defensive coordinator Alex Grinch gone. The defense did enough to squeak past an unranked Arizona team, but one big stop might not be enough against other juggernauts in college football.
Is: Unstoppable offense
What USC lacks in defense, they make up in offense. The Trojans are top five in the country in total offense, and Williams leads the NCAA in touchdowns.
Those who just check the box scores each week understand this, but what they fail to realize about this offense is what truly makes this the best offense in the country: They’ll always score when they need to.
Even down 17, Williams was able to claw back and eventually take the lead. They’ll hurt you through the air and when a team is lucky enough to take that away, the Heisman winner dazzles with his legs. In an overtime situation, they rarely make a mistake before the other team, which is what led them to victory last week.
To even have a chance at beating USC, an opposing team has to score 40 points. Even if their defense makes that a possibility, there’s no guarantee USC offense won’t score more.
Isn’t: A loss is likely given their schedule
As you’re reading this, the Trojans are headed to South Bend to face No. 21 Notre Dame. Seven days later, the highly anticipated rematch against No.16 Utah. USC rounds out the year with the Cross-town Showdown vs. No. 18 UCLA.
On its own, that’s a tough way to close out the year. Factor in games against No. 7 Washington and No. 8 Oregon, USC could have five ranked matchups in six games to close out the year.
Should USC win all of these games plus the Pac-12 title, there’s no denying they are a contender. But this is not an easy task. Losing on the road against Notre Dame or Oregon might be their downfall.
Is: They have time to figure it out
Well, sort of. A rivalry game across the country is not ideal for the Trojans given their current struggles, but a loss to the Fighting Irish is less important than losing to a conference foe.
Oregon and Washington are undoubtedly the biggest threats — they have the firepower on offense to keep up with USC, and like Utah did last year, score just enough to top the Trojans.
But there are still three games on the schedule before USC faces off against the Huskies and the Ducks, respectively. Using that time to shake off any rust on offense, regain confidence, and maybe even learn some defense, USC has the talent to upset their conference foes.
Isn’t: It’s an uphill battle for the committee’s approval
There are dozens of reasons why the AP Poll is irrelevant, but you can’t deny that it’s a strong reference to predict how the College Football Playoff committee will rank their Top 25. Right now, USC isn’t being taken seriously by AP voters, meaning the committee is probably thinking the same way.
Even if USC goes undefeated and wins the Pac-12, there’s only room for four teams, and there’s a chance every other Power 5 conference also produces an undefeated champion.
More specifically, Georgia, three Big 10 schools (Michigan, Ohio State, and Penn State), Florida State, and Oklahoma all rank ahead of USC. This should stay the same when playoff rankings are released on Oct. 31. Very rarely does the committee shuffle teams around without a loss, so the Trojans would really have to prove something to get the nod over another conference champion.
Is: Caleb Williams
Saying Williams has the chance to win his second Heisman trophy this season is an understatement; He’s making it extremely hard for voters to deny him the trophy once again.
In fact, he’s on pace to have a better season this year than he did last year. With 28 total touchdowns through six games, he has five more than the next quarterback. The biggest “threat” to Williams, Michael Penix, Jr., only has 21 scores on the year.
Williams is getting the job done, whether it’s through the air or on the ground. As evidenced by the Arizona game, even at his worst he is tough to beat. Williams alone makes USC a title contender.