Saturday firmly starts the next age in the long history of USC football. A new coach on the sideline, a lot of fresh talent on the roster, a rediscovered confidence in winning, a new conference (soon), a restored faith from fans, and a changing vibe in Los Angeles.
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t still questions.
Well, sort of.
There isn’t really much doubt that USC will defeat Rice at the Coliseum on Saturday afternoon. Even though both teams are coming off of 4-8 seasons, the programs couldn’t be in much more opposite states of mind. After all, the Trojans are 32.5-point favorites for a reason.
Still, all that overhaul listed earlier means that a lot of people have to get comfortable in their new environment —playing under new coaches; blocking, communicating with, and catching passes from new teammates; directing new players.
Not only that but also, as revealed in USC’s soft launch of its 2022 depth chart, figuring out who the heck is going to start for the Trojans.
As you can see, that’s a lot of ORs, a staple of head coach Lincoln Riley’s depth charts during his time at Oklahoma. There are a couple of ways to view that lack of decisiveness: either USC lacks top-end talent at those positions that can separate to become obvious starters, or the Trojans simply have a ton of starter-caliber players thanks to our new friend, the transfer portal.
We should start to find the answer to that debate, particularly on the defensive side of the ball, in the Trojans’ season-opener against Rice. Some notable places on the depth chart that are still yet to be decided include starting nods at running back, left tackle, tight end, outside linebacker, and practically the whole defensive line.
As much fun as the USC offense will be to see in action for the first time in a real game, the defensive line is a really important area to keep an eye on throughout the game. Rice does have a fairly experienced offensive line, returning 92 total starts, so this unit won’t be a pushover at the line of scrimmage. The Owls will rely on their run game to try and keep this one close, so this will be an important first game for USC’s interior defensive line, an area of worry heading into the season.
The outside edge of the Trojans’ defensive line is just as interesting, as the USC pass rush has probably the highest ceiling of any defensive position group. Tuli Tuipulotu has the potential to be the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year at defensive end, and former top recruit Korey Foreman is finally back healthy at edge rusher after a summer battling injuries.
“We envision it being a rotation,” defensive coordinator Alex Grinch said of the competition between Auburn transfer Romello Height and Foreman. “Certainly [Foreman] is a guy that should see some significant playing time on Saturday.”
“Korey has great potential,” added Height. “He’s going to be a monster.”
Additionally, in the defensive backfield, Max Williams will be an interesting player to watch. He moved from nickelback to free safety following a knee injury that forced him to miss all of last season. Colorado transfer cornerback Mekhi Blackmon will need to step up early as a veteran amongst a somewhat inexperienced group of defensive back starters.
On the other side of the ball, there’s still plenty to be ironed out as well in the talent-packed skill positions.
“The competition has been great…everybody gets a good, fair share of the rotation in practice,” Stanford transfer Austin Jones, who shares the top spot on the running back depth chart with Oregon transfer Travis Dye, said Wednesday. “There’s no jealousy or anything like that — we all just come out here and compete.”
Riley added on Thursday that all four running backs on the depth chart, also including TCU transfer Darwin Barlow and true freshman — and five-star recruit — Raleek Brown, will see plenty of snaps against Rice.
With temperatures at the Coliseum on Saturday expected to hit the low-to-mid 90s, don’t be shocked if USC slows this game down and matches the Owls’ run-heavy tempo.
But that doesn’t mean the Trojans won’t also be able to exploit a fantastic matchup for its passing offense. Rice has consistently had one of the worst secondaries in the nation under current head coach Mike Bloomgren, and USC is loaded three spots deep at each receiver position. Going back to the heat, expect plenty of rotations between those wide receivers as well to keep everyone fresh. After all, when Gary Bryant Jr. is battling to just be a second-string option, you’re doing pretty well in that position group.
“I think we could live up to the hype. I think we are the top receiver room in the nation,” said Brendan Rice confidently after Wednesday’s practice. And he’s got a case.
Finally, who won’t be excited to see Oklahoma transfer quarterback Caleb Williams for the first time in true game fashion at the Coliseum? He was named a team captain this week, something he said had been a dream for him after his final year of high school football was canceled due to COVID.
“[Rice] is a good group, and I can’t wait to get out there and play against somebody else other than Calen [Bullock] and Korey and all of them,” Williams said. “That’s what I’m really excited to see, is all of us out there fighting for that one goal…to win.”
Saturday is a game for USC to have fun. There’s no need yet to worry about immediately living up to the hype. Instead, this is a game to let out all of the built-up excitement of the offseason, and dial in the fundamentals as a unit against an easily inferior opponent.
If you’re the betting type, 32.5 points is a lot for the Trojans to cover, but expect them to roll over Rice comfortably to begin a new era in Los Angeles.