College football Top 25: No. 5 USC aims to win the Pac-12 before it heads to the Big Ten

With the 2023 college football season fast approaching, Yahoo Sports is rolling out our annual Top 25. We revealed Nos. 11 through 25 in three parts and are now counting down from No. 10 to No. 1 in the days leading up to the official start of the season on Aug. 26.

Previously: 25-21, 20-16, 15-11, No. 10 Texas, No. 9 Florida State, No. 8 Clemson, No. 7 Penn State, No. 6 LSU

No. 5 USC

  • 2022 record: 11-3 (8-1 Pac-12)

  • National title odds: +1400

  • Over/under: 10 wins

USC enters the second year of Lincoln Riley’s tenure with a Heisman favorite at quarterback, lofty preseason expectations and questions about the defense. For Oklahoma fans, that’s quite the familiar scenario.

Caleb Williams came to USC with Riley and was the best quarterback in college football a season ago on the way to the Heisman Trophy. Williams continued to be the dual-threat QB he showed he was in his freshman season at Oklahoma and scored 52 total touchdowns. He’s aiming to be the first player since Archie Griffin in 1974 and 1975 to win back-to-back Heismans.

Williams is the preseason favorite to win the Heisman and USC scoured the transfer portal to find help for him once again.

USC signed former Arizona WR Dorian Singer and ex-South Carolina RB MarShawn Lloyd to help replace Jordan Addison and Travis Dye. Singer had 66 catches for 1,105 yards and six scores a season ago while Lloyd had 111 carries for 573 yards and nine rushing TDs over nine games for the Gamecocks. Lloyd joins Austin Jones in the USC backfield after Jones served as the No. 2 to Dye in 2022 and ran for 705 yards.

The offensive line was boosted with the transfer additions of Washington State's Jarrett Kingston, Florida's Michael Tarquin, Wyoming’s Emmanuel Pregnon as it looks to replace three starters.

Wide receivers Mario Williams and Brenden Rice are also back after arriving via the transfer portal in 2022, and so is Tahj Washington. Williams had 40 catches for 631 yards and five scores while Washington had 50 catches for 785 yards. Rice grabbed 39 passes for 611 yards. With an acclaimed group of freshmen also in the mix, Caleb Williams will have plenty of options to throw to.

USC QB Caleb Williams could be the first back-to-back Heisman winner in nearly 50 years. (Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images)
USC QB Caleb Williams could be the first back-to-back Heisman winner in nearly 50 years. (Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images)

Making the defense better

USC’s early season success was unsustainable because of the defense’s turnover rates. USC won games as its turnover margin skyrocketed; Trojans opponents committed 15 turnovers over the first five games while USC had just one.

The defense forced just 14 more turnovers the rest of the season and its performance slipped as a result. Utah’s 43-42 win over the Trojans on Oct. 15 was the first of three consecutive games that opponents scored 35 or more points against USC as the Trojans allowed 35 or more in six of their final eight games.

Defensive coordinator Alex Grinch arrived in Los Angeles with Riley from Oklahoma and the struggles of the USC defense resembled many of the struggles that Grinch’s units had in Norman. Improving the unit’s physicality and tackling are musts heading into 2023. Utah simply mauled USC in both of their meetings.

USC also added talent through the transfer portal on defense. Ex-Georgia DL Bear Alexander arrived and said he decided to transfer to the Trojans because he saw a path to more playing time. Arizona’s Christian Roland-Wallace could start right away at cornerback and former Oklahoma State LB Mason Cobb will also likely see the field a lot in Week 1.

Linebackers Eric Gentry and Shane Lee return along with safety Calen Bullock. They were rare bright spots for the Trojans' defense last year. If things don’t get significantly better on defense, USC won’t be in the College Football Playoff no matter how good Caleb Williams is.

Biggest game: Oct. 21 vs. Utah

USC’s schedule to open the season is extremely manageable. The Trojans host San Jose State in Week 0 before games against Nevada and Stanford and then a bye week. The Pac-12 schedule then includes games against Arizona State, Colorado and Arizona before things pick up.

The Utes visit USC a week after USC comes back from a trip to a Notre Dame team that could and should be in the top 15. Utah ripped apart the USC defense in its two wins in 2022. The Utes threw for 424 yards in the regular season before rushing for 305 yards in the Pac-12 title game. A win against this Utah team sets USC up well for a tough closing stretch that includes games against Washington, Oregon and UCLA over the final three weeks of the season.

Impact player: WR Tahj Washington

Washington became more dependable as the 2022 season went on after he had two games without a catch in the first half of the season. He established himself in back-to-back wins over Arizona and Cal when he had 14 catches for 230 yards and three TDs before scoring again against Colorado on Nov. 11. Washington then had six catches for 93 yards in the Pac-12 title game and had five grabs for 109 yards against Tulane in the Cotton Bowl.

Washington could end up as USC’s No. 1 receiver in 2023 and has a very good chance to post a 1,000-yard season.

ARLINGTON, TX - JANUARY 02: USC Trojans wide receiver Tahj Washington (#16) runs up field during the Goodyear Cotton Bowl game between the USC Trojans and Tulane Green Wave on January 02, 2023 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, TX.  (Photo by Matthew Visinsky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Tahj Washington returns to anchor a very good USC receiving corps in 2023. (Photo by Matthew Visinsky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)


  • Pick: Over 10 (-110)

The push is probably the right play here given the presence of Notre Dame, Utah, Washington and Oregon on USC’s schedule. But we aren’t going to chicken out and will go with the over since we have the Trojans at No. 5. Assuming the defense makes a few steps forward, USC should be the best team in the Pac-12 in 2023 and an 11-1 regular season will make the Pac-12 title game a play-in game for the College Football Playoff.