No matter the conclusion, USC’s football season will be assessed in the extreme.
Weeks before the college football season begins, it is abundantly clear that rational USC commentary will have no place come Week 1.
Given the arrivals of head coach Lincoln Riley, quarterback Caleb Williams and wideout Jordan Addison, perhaps it’s understandable. After a decade of “meh,” a program with endless potential finally found a spark. And yes, the betting markets have reacted. Caleb Williams is + 700 to win the Heisman, behind only CJ Stroud and Bryce Young. USC is the favorite to win the Pac-12 at + 220. The Trojans are also 25/1 to win the national title, ranking behind only four teams. (This last one is particularly staggering.)
I’m going to level with you: I am completely torn what to do with this team.
Long term? I’m buying. Recruits will flock to play in Riley’s offense, and the roster should be overhauled in the years ahead.
Short term? I’m conflicted.
On one hand, Williams could end up becoming the best quarterback in the sport. He is surrounded by superb offensive skill talent, and he already has a good feel of Riley’s system from their time at Oklahoma.
This team will be instant fun and will score points. From a sheer watchability standpoint, this team should be unrecognizable from what we’ve seen in recent years.
On the other hand, this team still must play defense, and the Trojans ranked No. 103 in scoring defense last year. That said, there are still former four- and five-star recruits across the depth chart.
New defensive coordinator Alex Grinch will have his hands full, although things should be better.
If they’re much better, USC could be transformed. Where this conversation becomes complicated, however, is the expectation that the Trojans will go from 4-8 to conference champion in less than a year.
The betting markets have spoken. And soon, when the games begin, reasonable takes will be hard to find. USC will either be a massive disappointment or the biggest story in the sport.
It feels difficult to find a middle ground. If USC is unbeaten when it plays at Utah in the middle of October -- a possibility given the early schedule -- the buzz will become deafening.
Farewell, rational assessments.
The Appetizer: Football Tidbits and Observations
1. USC isn’t the only football team giving me fits. NC State is another program I have struggled with all offseason. The Wolfpack are currently + 800 to win the ACC, tied with Pitt as the third selection in the conference. That feels like great value when you consider that Devin Leary, the team’s starting QB, is back. Leary was superb last year, and he could be better. Still, this feels like the team every college football sportswriter is going to tell you to look out for. The hype is significant, which makes sense after the success of last season, but there are a lot of pieces to replace, including Ikem Ekwonu. A ton to like, but I am torn.
2. I had a chance to watch Wisconsin running back Braelon Allen work out a few months back as he prepared for the season. I was truly blown away. Although he’s still just 18 years old, Allen is the closest thing to Derrick Henry I have ever seen -- a 235-pound back blessed with incredible speed, vision and burst. He’s also incredibly juicy from a Heisman perspective at 60/1 after running for more than 1,200 yards as a true freshman.
3. I love the fact that there are multiple significant bets on Utah State to win the national championship resting comfortably before the season begins. (To be clear, this is not an endorsement of the bet.) The Aggies can still be had around 800/1 after topping out at 1000/1 earlier this year. If you are one of the brave souls holding this ticket, I have good news. Utah State opens with UConn in Week 0, and the Aggies are a four-touchdown favorite in that game. The bad news? They play at Alabama in Week 2, and a loss likely eliminates them from national championship consideration. Consider that an early playoff game, I suppose.
4. Nick Saban called last season a “rebuilding year.” Given the fact that Alabama made the national championship game and won its conference, such a comment can sound a bit absurd. He’s probably right, though. Given the enormous roster holes the Crimson Tide had to fill last season, it did feel that way at times. Regardless of what last year was, Alabama returns a Heisman-winning QB (Bryce Young), the best defensive prospect we’ve seen in quite some time (Will Anderson) and a ton of talent. Oh, and the Crimson Tide loaded up in the transfer portal. At + 175 to win the title, it’s clear this is not a rebuilding situation.
5. Two weeks from now, it will be game week. Yes, the Week 0 slate is, well, light. It doesn’t matter. We will be celebrating the best games of that week and every week here at VSiN each and every Sunday. I am giddy that football is on our doorstep and look forward to going on that ride with you all season long.
Camp Battles Worth Watching
1. Michigan: Cade McNamara vs. J.J. McCarthy
Both players showed flashes of brilliance last season, although McNamara did much of the heavy lifting at QB. Jim Harbaugh hasn’t tipped his hand when it comes to his starting QB, and he might not sincerely know yet. McCarthy likely has greater upside; McNamara is likely safer. The Heisman odds are worth watching and maybe a bit telling. McNamara is 150/1; McCarthy is 90/1. Once a starter is announced, the odds will shift drastically for both.
2. Clemson: DJ Uiagalelei vs. Cade Klubnik
On this very website last year, I told you why I thought Uiagalelei was primed to win a Heisman at Clemson. I’m here to tell you that this proclamation was deeply flawed. The result is a fascinating quarterback battle a year later. Uiagalelei, now a junior, seems poised to start the season as the starter. But after struggling mightily last year, especially with his accuracy, Clemson will not hesitate to make a change. Klubnik, a true freshman and one of the top young throwers in the country, is just waiting for his moment. Despite not taking a collegiate snap, Klubnik is 60/1 to win the Heisman while Uiagalelei is 45/1. I imagine Uiagalelei gets things going, but Clemson won’t wait long to make a switch.
3.Texas A&M: Haynes King vs. Max Johnson vs. Conner Weigman
Given the emerging talent on A&M, the quarterback battle is, without question, one of the most intriguing decisions in all of CFB. It also features a mix of options: last year’s starter who was lost early to injury (King), a promising transfer (Johnson) and a supremely talented freshman (Weigman). Johnson and King are positioned to win the job, although Weigman might be the most talented prospect. King and Weigman are 100/1 to win the Heisman; Johnson, who had some incredible moments while at LSU, is 70/1. It might be a year too early to bet any of the three, although the young talent around the eventual victor is robust.
Hot Seat Watch
This part in our weekly pieces is typically reserved for football games. With no games on the docket, however, I’ll be taking a look at various storylines heading into the season.
This week, we look at coaches who need to win big and some interesting odds attached.
1. Scott Frost
The fact that he still has a job is somewhat amazing when you consider a) the new and exciting ways Nebraska found to lose last year and b) the fact that he’s 15-29 heading into his fifth year. Now, Nebraska did compete with some exceptional teams last year. The product was improved. And I really do feel like this team is trending in the right direction after so many acquisitions during the offseason. Nebraska is 22/1 to win the Big Ten and + 340 (second choice) to win the Big Ten West. The schedule is set up for a fair amount of wins, which is good for Frost. He probably needs at least eight wins, and perhaps nine, to keep his job.
2. Herm Edwards
It has been a rough stretch, and that’s putting it mildly. Between an underperforming football team and an NCAA investigation, Arizona State has watched a good chunk of its roster, including its talented starting QB from last year, enter the transfer portal. And while we weren’t sure if Edwards would make it to the year, he’ll get at least one more crack. It won’t be easy, though. Arizona State is 28/1 to win the Pac-12, and frankly that feels generous.
3. Bryan Harsin
On the topic of disruptive off seasons, enter Harsin. The Auburn head coach nearly lost his job after only one season, and it was an adventure to reach this point. He was 6-7 in his debut season, and there was friction between players and coaches along the way. Rather than pay Harsin $18 million to go away, however, Auburn decided to stick it out. The Tigers are 150/1 to win the SEC, which puts them ahead of only Missouri and Vanderbilt on the odds board. Woof. The schedule includes road trips to Georgia, Ole Miss and Alabama along with games against Penn State, LSU, Arkansas and Texas A&M. Godspeed, Mr. Harsin.