If USC’s loss to UCLA on Saturday was indeed Caleb Williams’ last game as a college football player, it’s hard not to feel like Lincoln Riley and the Trojans wasted the career of one of the best quarterback talents in recent memory.
It was a game like so many others for the Trojans this season. Williams, despite taking an abundance of hits and getting no help from his defense, did everything he could to keep USC in the game. He threw for 384 yards, including a highlight-reel 74-yard touchdown to Brenden Rice. But it just wasn't enough as the Trojans fell 38-20 to close out the regular season with an inexplicable 7-5 record.
Williams, after following Riley to USC from Oklahoma, won the Heisman Trophy last year and nearly led the Trojans to the College Football Playoff in Riley’s first season running the program. Expectations were sky-high when the 2023 season began, so a 7-5 record was a shocking conclusion for the team being quarterbacked by the potential No. 1 pick in next year’s NFL Draft.
Entering the season, the thought was that the return of Williams in Riley’s offense plus a defense that was upgraded via the transfer portal would allow USC to ascend to the top of the sport. But the defense, which last year ranked 124th out of 131 FBS teams in yards per play allowed and looked like it hadn’t spent a single drill practicing tackling, only showed marginal improvement despite having better talent, and the team’s unsustainable turnover rate that helped them win so many games in 2022 just did not carry over to 2023.
Despite that, Williams and the offense were able to do enough to propel the Trojans to a 6-0 start. But things fell apart when the schedule got tougher. The defense just failed Williams again and again.
The downhill spiral began with an ugly road loss to Notre Dame (in which Williams wasn't blameless as he threw three first-half interceptions) and was followed up by a home loss to an injury-plagued Utah team starting a former walk-on at quarterback.
The Trojans got back in the win column the next week at Cal, but they needed 50 points to do it and only escaped with a 50-49 victory by stopping a two-point conversion in the final minute. USC returned home to face undefeated Washington a week later, and the defense that gave up 49 points and 500-plus yards to Cal had no chance against the undefeated Huskies. Dillon Johnson ran wild for UW, racking up 256 yards and four touchdowns in a 52-42 win.
It was only after that loss — the ninth time USC had allowed 500-plus yards and 40-plus points in the last two seasons — that Riley finally decided to fire defensive coordinator Alex Grinch, who he had brought with him from Norman.
It was way too late. Riley could have replaced Grinch after the 2022 season. But by the time Riley fired his buddy, USC’s chances of getting to the CFP were already dashed, and the loss to Washington effectively ended the Trojans’ hopes of returning to the Pac-12 title game even as Williams put up video game-like numbers on a weekly basis.
USC was then beaten soundly on the road by Oregon, but there was at least a glimmer of hope that Williams could go out with a rivalry win at home. UCLA had just lost 17-7 to a bad Arizona State team and rumors were swirling that coach Chip Kelly could be on his way out.
But it was the Bruins who came out motivated and the Trojans who looked downright uninterested in a 38-20 game that was more lopsided than the final score would indicate.
Now, unless Williams pulls a shocker and decides to play in USC’s bowl game, he has played his final college football game, leaving Riley at an unfamiliar crossroads early in his tenure with the Trojans.
USC is 7-7 in its last 14 games and Riley has major questions to answer as the Trojans transition into the Big Ten. When he arrived, Riley had to overhaul the roster to get the Trojans competitive in 2022. Looking back, the Trojans over-achieved relative to their talent level thanks to Williams and the offense.
The deficiencies USC won in spite of from last year were on full display all season long and this all feels like a major opportunity wasted with Williams moving on to the NFL without having won a conference title or making a single CFP appearance.
And now Riley may have to make some significant adjustments to his program. The Oklahoma program he inherited from Bob Stoops had won at least 10 games in 14 of the previous 17 seasons before he became head coach. Riley did not have to do any of the foundational rebuilding that often comes with becoming a head coach.
Riley is in a different situation at USC, and won’t have Williams to bail him out moving forward. Riley’s ability to develop excellent offenses won’t suddenly disappear without Williams, but a more wholesale audit of his program — and how he operates it — may be in order this offseason.
- Sam Cooper
These 2 former Power Five coaches deserve some props
A pair of ex-Power Five coaches are leading their schools to heights they haven't seen in decades.
We’ll start with New Mexico State coach Jerry Kill as the Aggies pocketed nearly $2 million while drubbing Auburn 31-10 on Saturday.
The Tigers scheduled NMSU as an easy opponent ahead of their annual season-ending Iron Bowl matchup against Alabama. Instead, the Aggies led for nearly the entirety of the game and almost doubled up Auburn’s total yardage output. In the win, New Mexico State ran for 213 yards and held Auburn to just 65 yards on the ground.
The victory was New Mexico State’s seventh straight as the Aggies are 9-3 and heading to the Conference USA title game in their first year in the conference.
Until 2023, New Mexico State hadn’t won nine games in a season since an 11-0 campaign in 1960. That New Mexico State team was a member of the Border Intercollegiate Athletic Association along with Arizona, Arizona State and UTEP and beat Utah State in the Sun Bowl.
That 1960 season was also the last time New Mexico State had been to back-to-back bowl games. The Aggies went to the Sun Bowl after both the 1959 and 1960 seasons and then failed to make the postseason again until an Arizona Bowl win in 2017.
The Aggies made the Quick Lane Bowl a season ago after winning their final two games to get bowl eligible. If NMSU beats Jacksonville State to get to 10 wins ahead of a rematch with Liberty in the CUSA title game, it should get a solid bowl slot against a good opponent in 2023.
It's a remarkable turn of events for NMSU, which won seven games combined in the four seasons before Kill's arrival. The Aggies have more than doubled that since, going 16-9 under Kill.
Kill has won wherever he's been, whether it was Saginaw Valley State, Southern Illinois, Northern Illinois or Minnesota. But Kill hadn't held a head-coaching role since 2015, when he had to step away from the Minnesota job due to health issues. He has mainly held off-field roles since then, but didn't forget how to coach. He just needed another opportunity, and New Mexico State was there to provide. It has paid off.
At UNLV, former Missouri coach Barry Odom has the Rebels on the precipice of their first 10-win season since 1984 after a 31-27 win on the road at Air Force in Week 11. The Rebels are alone atop the Mountain West at 6-1 in the conference and freshman QB Jayden Maiava threw for 339 yards against the Falcons as UNLV scored the final 17 points of the game.
Odom is in his first year in Las Vegas after he was Arkansas’ defensive coordinator for three seasons following his firing from Missouri. One of his first moves at UNLV was to hire Bobby Petrino as his offensive coordinator, but the former Arkansas coach left for the same position at Texas A&M less than a month after Odom hired him.
That has worked out OK for UNLV. Texas A&M is looking for a new coach in 2024 after firing Jimbo Fisher and UNLV’s offense has been great this season under new coordinator Brennan Marion.
The Rebels are averaging 36 points per game and have failed to break 30 points just three times this season. UNLV averages over six yards a play as Ricky White has emerged as one of the best wide receivers in the country. White has 71 catches for 1,197 yards and seven touchdowns.
Odom took over a UNLV program that hadn’t won more than five games in a season in a decade and had been to just three bowl games in the past 30 seasons. And now the Rebels are a win away from their first appearance in the Mountain West championship game.
UNLV faces San Jose State in Week 13 and the winner of that game will likely play the winner of Boise State vs. Air Force for the Mountain West title. If UNLV wins it’ll get to host the MWC title game at Allegiant Stadium and have the opportunity for the first 12-win season in program history.
- Nick Bromberg