USC is preparing for a rematch with Utah, the only team to beat the Trojans this season, in the Pac-12 title game. Crosstown rival UCLA, meanwhile, is facing a grim finish to a once promising season. College football reporters Ryan Kartje, Ben Bolch, J. Brady McCollough and Thuc Nhi Nguyen discuss key questions facing the two teams.
What has changed since USC's loss to Utah?
Kartje: The Trojans’ lone defeat under Lincoln Riley happened just last month, but it feels like a lifetime ago considering the confidence USC is playing with right now. Players have said that loss — and the heart-wrenching scene after — changed them as a team, and it’s hard to dispute that given what we’ve seen since. Most importantly, a defense that was torched in Salt Lake City has taken a significant step forward, even holding Notre Dame to under 100 yards rushing last week. Caleb Williams is somehow playing even better right now than he was in October, when he threw for 381 yards and five touchdowns. And this time, he’ll presumably have a healthy Jordan Addison at his disposal. This is a different USC team than the one that left Utah heartbroken, one that presumably wouldn’t leave itself in position for a bad penalty or two to impact the final outcome.
Nguyen: From a personnel standpoint, both teams are without their top running backs as Travis Dye suffered a season-ending injury against Colorado and Utah’s Tavion Thomas announced after the loss to Oregon that a toe injury will end his Utah career. But the biggest change for the Trojans is their defense has finally entered the chat. Along with just 90 rushing yards allowed, USC limited — if you can call it that — Notre Dame tight end Michael Mayer to 98 receiving yards with just five yards after the catch. Dalton Kincaid racked up 105 of his 234 receiving yards after the catch. I’ll also add that the atmosphere was electric in Salt Lake City and a neutral site should help USC.
McCollough: That night in Salt Lake City, under the heat of a tight deadline and having just seen tight end Dalton Kincaid send USC’s undefeated season up in flames, I wrote that the Trojans were not playoff material because of their horrendous defense. USC’s much-maligned unit continued to flail around in the wind for weeks after, but in the two biggest games of the season, they made plays when they had to to keep this playoff dream afloat. We’ll find out against this same Utah team whether Alex Grinch’s group has actually improved since Oct. 15. But it sure seems like they’ve found their footing at the right time.
Bolch: I think the word is swagger. USC just plays like it knows it’s going to win now, even if its defense gives up some points. The Trojans know they will find a way behind Caleb Williams and this generational offense.
Should USC be a lock for the College Football Playoff semifinals win or lose?
Bolch: With apologies to Lee Corso, not so fast, my friends. If everybody agrees that Michigan has the best win of the college football season with that resounding triumph over Ohio State, then let’s give the Buckeyes credit for being in position to boost the Wolverines’ standing. In my mind, if the Trojans stumble Friday, one-loss Ohio State should be in the CFP over a team that would have lost twice to Utah.
McCollough: I will credit the great Dan Wetzel of Yahoo! Sports with this thought, which he presented in a column this week: Georgia, Michigan, TCU and USC should be locked into the playoff, and this championship weekend only counting for seeding. His reasoning, which I agree with, is that if these are the top four after 13 weeks and the two teams behind them in the rankings (presumably Ohio State and Alabama) are not playing this weekend and therefore can’t win their way in, the field should be set. Do I think the selection committee would choose 11-2 USC that is not the Pac-12 champion over 11-1 Ohio State? It’s iffy, but it may depend on how USC loses in that scenario. If it’s another heartbreaking loss to the Utes in the final minutes, there’s definitely an argument the Trojans performed better in the biggest game of their season than Ohio State did in getting throttled at home by Michigan, 45-23. That said, my gut says USC would be out of the playoff if it loses Friday.
Kartje: All due respect to that line of thinking, but I firmly believe a second defeat to Utah should disqualify USC from the playoff conversation. I’d be absolutely gobsmacked if it worked out any other way. Why have the conference title games if we’re conceding that they’re only for CFP seeding? Ohio State made it to the final game of its regular season without dropping a single game, then lost to a much better team than Utah. Both teams beat Notre Dame. Is a win over UCLA better than a win over Penn State? I certainly don’t think so.
All of those hypotheticals aside, none of this matters if USC beats Utah and wins the Pac-12 title. Which it will.
Nguyen: Win and you’re in for USC. But a loss should drop the Trojans out and continue the Pac-12’s playoff drought. A two-loss, non-Pac-12 champion USC shouldn’t be given a spot over Ohio State just because the Big Ten still uses its divisions to decide the championship matchup, thus eliminating Ohio State’s chance for a rematch against Michigan in the conference title game.
When was Caleb Williams’ Heisman moment? When do you think the USC quarterback clinched college football's biggest prize?
Kartje: How much time do you have? Caleb Williams has been dealing out Heisman worthy moments all season, to the point that they’ve become routine. Most will probably remember the Notre Dame win as the day he clinched the award, and how could anyone blame them? It was a dazzling summary of the skills Williams has shown us again and again all season — the stunning escapes, the tight-window throws, the poise in the pocket. But when I look back at this season, I’ll think of the jaw-dropping displays leading up to his coronation last Saturday. Threading the needle for a game-winning touchdown in the final minute against Oregon State. Flipping an Arizona State pass rusher over his shoulder. A record 503 yards against UCLA. He’d done enough to win the eighth Heisman in USC history, even before he darted, danced and dazzled his way to a win over Notre Dame.
Bolch: You mean besides when he struck the pose against Notre Dame? Williams was going to be hard to beat after his masterful showing against UCLA, but he solidified it a week later with another strong performance on the same day that Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud went kerplunk in a loss to Michigan.
McCollough: He clinched when Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud, the presumed front-runner most of the season, lost by 22 points to Michigan on his home field Saturday. With Stroud out of the way, it was Williams’ to win, barring an epic collapse. He delivered his Heisman moment on that insane scramble and run against the Fighting Irish, when he looked like Reggie Bush as a quarterback.
Should Dorian Thompson-Robinson and Zach Charbonnet opt out of the bowl game?
Bolch: Whatever UCLA’s stars decide should be respected given all the factors involved with potential injury risk and preparation for the NFL draft. However, it would leave the season with a hollow feeling if both sit out what would be the Bruins’ first bowl game since 2017, particularly in the wake of that last-minute pullout a year ago in the Holiday Bowl. Leading UCLA to its first bowl win since the Alamo Bowl on Jan. 2, 2015, would be a great way for both players to cap their college careers.
McCollough: Dorian Thompson-Robinson has been talking all year about the legacy he wants to leave and taking UCLA to greater heights. Sure, there won’t be a trip to the playoff, a conference championship or a Rose Bowl berth with UCLA at 9-3, but a 10-win season would put a nice bow on his excellent career in Westwood. I think he plays, particularly because he is not supposed to be picked too high as a quarterback prospect in the draft. If he was, he would not have returned this season anyway. Nobody should blame Charbonnet if he decides to sit. He’s got the chance to be one of the top running backs picked, so why put yourself at risk for a mid-tier bowl win?
Nguyen: After five years and a lot of losing, I find it hard to believe that Dorian Thompson-Robinson would want to give up a chance to play in his first bowl game, especially if the Bruins are picked to play in the Las Vegas Bowl near his hometown. He’s worked and waited for this and deserves a postseason game, even if it’s not the one he envisioned when he signed. Charbonnet might have a different set of circumstances in his more injury-prone running back position, although I’m sure it will be a difficult business decision for both players who would like to celebrate their careers properly.
What’s the future of UCLA under Chip Kelly?
Bolch: The hope for Bruins fans is that Chip Kelly, already as active as any coach in the transfer portal, uses USC as a model to transform his team anew for 2023. The first priority is to find a veteran quarterback (no offense, Ethan Garbers) who won’t have to persevere through half a season’s worth of growing pains as a full-time starter. Some speedy, playmaking wide receivers are a second priority followed by additions at every position on defense. Improving the defense is the last hurdle for UCLA to end its epic Pac-12 title drought.
McCollough: More portal plundering and — hopefully, for Bruins fans — more defense tinkering. Kelly tipped his hand last year when he got a commitment from then-Central Florida transfer quarterback Dillon Gabriel before Thompson-Robinson decided to return. We have to assume he will hit the portal again for a talented playmaker at quarterback, and even with the emergence of Keegan Jones, a replacement for Charbonnet. The biggest issue is the defense. It’s time Kelly went with a young defensive mind to bring some fresh energy and ideas.
Nguyen: T.J. Harden’s performance against Cal signaled that the UCLA running back room has a bright future after Charbonnet. But with Lincoln Riley’s warp-speed rebuild at USC, Kelly is in danger of falling way behind in this race if he doesn’t ace the portal this offseason, especially on defense where the Bruins need replacements up front.
Kartje: Welcome to Lincoln Riley’s long shadow, Chip. Get comfortable. It could be a while.
Who will win the Utah-USC game?
Bolch: The Utes are as tough as they come and nobody gets more out of what he has to work with than Kyle Whittingham. But USC is playing like a team of destiny and has the bonus of wanting to avenge its only loss on the way to the CFP. That’s too much going in the Trojans’ favor for them to lose twice to the same team.
Kartje: The time for doubting these Trojans is over. The stakes are sky high. The revenge factor is real. USC wouldn’t have it any other way. Riley will be lifting the Pac-12 championship trophy soon enough.
McCollough: I’ve learned my lesson after picking the Trojans to lose to UCLA and Notre Dame. Caleb Williams is going to be too much for the Utes to handle on a neutral field, and USC will make its first trip to the College Football Playoff.
Nguyen: Caleb Williams was holding back tears after USC’s loss to Utah and I find it hard to pick against him and the extra-motivated Trojans in this rematch.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.