Two weeks into the 2023 season, the USC Trojans are an emphatic 2-0 having outscored their opponents 122-42 and looking every bit the part of being a definitive invitee to college football’s Final Four at the end of December. But as the Trojans will undoubtedly rev their engines in two more tune-up games with a possible ESPN College GameDay visit in Boulder to follow, the question begs if the 2023 Trojans have yet to reveal themselves to be better than their 2022 version.
How We Got Here
Are they deeper? Absolutely. 16 players have caught at least one pass and nine players have had at least one rushing attempt over the first two games. The defense has also experimented with permutations of athletes all over the field that last year’s team simply didn’t have the bench strength to do. But are they better? After all, there are only 11 guys on the field at a time, and being elite at the very top of your rotations ultimately is what matters over how deep your rotations are.
In assessing the team’s first two games, the Trojans beat San Jose State by 28 and the Spartans followed up that performance by losing to Oregon State by 25 this past week, where the Beavers scored 11 fewer points and had 117 fewer total yards than against the Trojans.
Nevada came in with a 10-game losing streak and was arguably the worst FBS team in America. The talent discrepancy was evident, as on the eight Trojan offensive touchdown plays, a Wolfpack defender touched a USC player a grand total of once en route to the end zone.
The Trojans have had scrimmages more competitive than that game and recall, USC beat Rice by the exact same 66-14 score in last year’s season opener, including three defensive touchdowns. And we all know how last year’s defense finished.
Hard to gather any definitive conclusions from the season’s first two weeks.
Who’s Got Next?
Outside of Caleb Williams, who is as spectacular as he’s ever been, the 2022 team had four linchpins: Jordan Addison, Travis Dye, Tuli Tuipulotu, and Calen Bullock. Addison as the unquestioned WR1 on last year’s team, was instrumental in the Trojans’ two best road victories of the year over Oregon State and UCLA. His game-winning touchdown catch with less than a minute to play secured the win over the Beavers and his masterpiece 11-catch, 178 yards, one-touchdown performance over the Bruins highlighted by surgically precise route running consistently bailed out the USC offense when deep in its own territory. Furthermore, it was Addison’s injury in last year’s first Utah game that prevented Caleb Williams with the security blanket he needed on that final drive.
When the games get more adverse, the venues get more frenzied and the competition gets stiffer, having a go-to receiver will be paramount. So far, the Trojans leading receiver is Tahj Washington with five catches for 160 yards and three touchdowns, while Zachariah Branch will be an explosive gadget player for USC all year. But can Washington truly take the mantle from Addison as THE GUY or should Williams be spending more time in these games building chemistry with the likes of Dorian Singer, Mario Williams, and Brenden Rice? The Trojans have 8-9 all-world talents at receiver, but there’s only one ball at the end of the day. After a certain point, it doesn’t matter how long your positional snake is if the head of that snake doesn’t have the same venom.
For the first part of last year, Dye was the team’s most valuable offensive player outside of Williams given his ability to run inside, run outside, catch in the flat, catch from running routes inside the opposing front seven, and block. After Dye’s injury, the Trojans finished the season 1-2 even though they had a very productive backup in Austin Jones.
This year the question will be if Marshawn Lloyd will take the baton and over the first two games, his 16 carries for 118 rushing yards and one touchdown, along with three receptions for 71 yards have shown flashes. Jones seems to have shed too much weight in the off-season to productively run power over the course of a 12-15 game schedule this year, while he never had the speed to burn the top off a defense. Thus, it will come down to Lloyd, who showcased brilliant moments as a runner, receiver, and blocker against Nevada. The Stanford game will be a key barometer to assess Lloyd’s game over a complete four quarters as I anticipate Lincoln Riley will go to a tighter, more traditional rotation with this being a conference opener.
On the defensive side last year, Tuipulotu and his 13.5 sacks along with Bullock and his five interceptions led to All-American honors for both. These two enabled most of the havoc and chaos incurred on opposing offensives to get just enough stops for the Trojans to be victorious in most games, courtesy of their sublime offense.
This year, we have yet to see the Trojans defense secure an interception over the first two games, and of the team’s six total sacks, only the one by Jamil Muhammad, where he shed a double team to come off the weak side on third down early in the Nevada game, took place in a non-garbage time, non-coverage induced situation. Furthermore, versus San Jose Stare, the defense once again was dominated by a single weapon, Nick Nash, who went off for 6 catches, 89 yards, and three touchdowns. The memories of Dalton Kincaid still raw and now revived.
The front seven and secondary are loaded with athletes, most notably Muhammad in a hybrid capacity and Bear Alexander in the interior. But without two stalwarts captaining the defense again this year at an All-American level, it’s hard to imagine simply a depth play will suffice against the likes of Michael Penix Jr., Bo Nix, Cam Rising, and Sam Hartman.
For the 2023 team to be better, they need to combine their depth with another four true alphas in these roles. It will be fascinating to see how that evolution takes place over the next few weeks. Deeper? No question about it. Better? To be determined.