There was no way Lincoln Riley would bite, even if the stats gave him a perfect reason to indulge.
“Do you think this team has the chance to be the best team you’ve ever coached?” a reporter asked this week.
“This team has a chance to be a very good team,” said Riley, who is in second year leading USC and took three teams to the College Football Playoff in his first six seasons as a coach. “But we’re three games in. We’re one conference game in with a lot of things we haven’t done yet that we’re getting opportunities to do so. We’ll get our chance, just like we have every year. If we are [one of my best teams], then we’ll prove it here in the next couple months.”
The No. 5 Trojans (3-0, 1-0 Pac-12) cruised into the bye week with blowout wins against San José State, Nevada and Stanford, but opening the season with three consecutive games of 50 points or more for the first time in school history won’t count for much on USC’s final resume. For a team with championship aspirations, the wins were only the beginning.
Here are three good trends and three bad trends USC faces during its bye week:
Williams’ Heisman hopes
Some of his numbers aren’t as gaudy as other contenders, but Caleb Williams is still the Heisman favorite for a reason.
The reigning winner is executing with ruthless efficiency: He leads the country in pass efficiency while ranking modestly in total offense (16th, 313 yards per game) and passing yards (16th, 292.7). Despite playing 25 of USC’s 36 drives, Williams still leads the nation in passing touchdowns with 12. He is averaging one touchdown for every 5.8 passes.
With Williams leading the charge, USC’s offense is on pace to be the highest-scoring team of Riley’s coaching career. The Trojans averaged 59.3 points per game through three weeks.
Vibes in the receiver room
In a position group as deep as USC’s receivers, the best ability is humility.
“Being too selfish breaks teams,” receiver Brenden Rice said. “You see this group of guys knowing that everybody and anybody wants to be that big playmaker, but everybody’s going to support each other and that’s what makes the Trojans a really good team.”
Different players lead the Trojans in catches (Mario Williams, 10), receiving yards (Tahj Washington, 233) and touchdowns (Washington and Rice, three). The group is so deep that preseason camp MVP Kyron Hudson has struggled to find a place, earning three catches for 42 yards. Freshman phenom Zachariah Branch has nine catches for 110 yards and two touchdowns but is making his biggest impact on special teams, where he’s already scored on kickoff and punt returns.
Pressure in the backfield
USC is not just stacked at the skill positions. The coaching staff’s offseason transfer portal raid is paying off on the defensive front, where the Trojans are thriving with a variety of pass rushers.
The balanced approach is a key improvement from last season when the Trojans averaged 5.6 tackles for loss behind Pac-12 defensive player of the year Tuli Tuipulotu, who notched 22 of USC’s 79 tackles for loss.
Diversifying the defensive pressure was a priority for the Trojans. Five of the team’s 15 new transfers were defensive linemen or rush ends.
“Everyone’s just out there trying to eat,” said freshman rush end Braylan Shelby, who has two tackles for loss and one sack. “We try to feed each other. If we stay in our rush lanes, good things are going to happen.”
Sophomore Domani Jackson soon could be battling Christian Roland-Wallace for a starting spot. The Arizona transfer was working as the No. 2 nickel during camp after Jackson grabbed the starting cornerback spot, but Roland-Wallace seems to be moving into a larger role. He played the most snaps of any defensive player against Stanford, according to Pro Football Focus, and spelled Jackson at cornerback.
The unforgiving position has magnified the pressure on Jackson as he returns from a knee injury suffered during his senior year at Mater Dei. The former five-star prospect's untapped potential comes in contrast to the veteran Roland-Wallace, who led Arizona in tackles last season while starting all 12 games at cornerback.
Although his experience could give him an advantage, the redshirt senior said he has no problems rotating with Jackson and fellow cornerback Ceyair Wright.
“I trust in the staff,” Roland-Wallace said. “I trust in Coach Riley, Coach Grinch, Coach Donte [Williams]. However it happens to play out, I am completely fine with it. I know they’re doing what’s best for the team.”
USC is the most-penalized team in the Pac-12, tied with Arizona and Oregon with eight per game. Half of the team’s 24 penalties have been for holding.
“Some of the penalties just make you want to pull your hair out,” Riley said.
Holding penalties negated two touchdowns against Stanford. The Trojans made up for the call that wiped out MarShawn Lloyd’s 29-yard touchdown in the first quarter by scoring four plays later with a three-yard rush from Austin Jones, but Michael Jackson III didn’t get another chance after his 74-yard punt return was called back for holding by Duce Robinson.
While Riley can forgive the occasional aggressive penalty, “careless” penalties continue to irk him.
“Good teams don’t do that, good players don’t get dumb penalties,” Riley said. “And for us, I told them, it’s really simple: If we get some of the penalties like we did, those guys aren’t going to play. I mean, there’s no player that’s so good that they’re worth that. We’ll get it corrected.”
It’s easy to look good against USC’s early schedule. There still are more unanswered questions about the team than sure things, and the upcoming slate will show who the Trojans really are.
USC has three of its next four games on the road and six of its final nine games against teams in the Associated Press top 25. Three of those games — No. 18 Colorado, No. 9 Notre Dame and No. 13 Oregon — are on the road. The strength of the Pac-12 (yes, really) means the Trojans don’t need an undefeated run to secure a playoff berth, but they still can’t afford two losses. The College Football Playoff never has featured a two-loss team.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.