In the first College Football Playoff rankings of the season, USC opened at No. 9, ensuring that it is squarely in the conversation to reach its first CFP. That Nov. 19 clash against crosstown rivals No. 12 UCLA still looms large in the distance, but the Trojans still need to take care of business in their next two home games before then.
The first of those two matchups is Cal this Saturday at the Coliseum. Like last week’s game at Arizona and next week’s game vs Colorado, USC is heavy favorites against the Golden Bears, by 21.5 points to be exact.
At 3-5 overall and 1-4 in Pac-12 play, Cal is struggling right now, having lost four straight. And if series history means anything, USC, who is now 7-1 overall and 5-1 in conference, shouldn’t be too scared of an upset this weekend.
Additionally, the Golden Bears have lost 22 of their last 23 games overall against AP top-10 opponents, including last week’s 42-24 defeat to No. 8 Oregon. Now in his sixth year at the helm, Cal head coach Justin Wilcox hasn’t ever quite put it all together in Berkeley. But, that doesn’t mean he can’t break recent trends and pull off a signature win of his tenure on Saturday.
The Cal offense has especially sputtered during its four-game losing streak; I mean, the Golden Bears only scored 13 points against Colorado. That’s not the sign of a potent offense. So, USC’s defense could have the chance to figure things out after some dubious performances in recent weeks.
In particular, the Trojans’ pass rush has a very promising matchup against a Cal offensive line that ranks 114th in the FBS in sacks allowed this season at 3.12 per game. In comparison, USC is tied for ninth in the country in sacks with 3.25 per game. Additionally, Stanford and Washington State both rank the same or worse as Cal in sacks allowed; the Trojans had five sacks in each of those games. So, naturally, my prediction of the week is for USC to bring down Cal quarterback Jack Plummer five times, with at least a pair coming from Tuli Tuipulotu.
That is, only if Plummer plays the whole game for the Golden Bears. The senior transfer from Purdue left early last week against Oregon, being replaced by Kai Millner in the fourth quarter. However, Wilcox said earlier this week that Plummer is on track to start against USC.
If Cal is going to keep up on offense, it will probably have to be due to a massive performance by running back Jaydn Ott. The true freshman ran for 274 yards and three touchdowns against Arizona a few weeks ago, though he has struggled since against better defenses. Still, with the USC linebackers still struggling with injuries, this might be a spot for Ott to go off again. After all, the Trojans rank 128th in the nation in defensive success rate against the run.
On the other side of the ball, this is practically a dream matchup for Caleb Williams and the USC offense. While the Trojans rank fourth in the nation in expected points added on offense, Cal ranks 86th in FBS by the same metric on defense. The Golden Bears don’t have the same elite secondary that they’ve typically boasted under Wilcox, as they’ve been particularly bad against the pass.
USC head coach Lincoln Riley should put the ball in Williams’ hands early and often, as only five FBS defenses allow more passing yards per game than Cal. If there’s one thing the Cal defense does well, it’s forcing opposing quarterbacks into mistakes, with 10 interceptions in eight games. The issue is that Williams has shown excellent decision-making ability this season, throwing just one interception.
So like last week, it should only take a couple of stops by the USC defense in order for the Trojans’ offense to carry the team to another win. However, the Trojans’ defense is in need of a good performance to get itself on the right track. After all, style points matter in the eyes of the CFP committee, and a 40-point blowout home win, even over a lousy Cal team, would make USC’s resume look better. Expect the Trojans to win big with good matchups on both sides of the ball.