It took a pile of cash and perks for USC to lure Lincoln Riley to Los Angeles, and the first-year coach has proven worthy of superstar treatment. The Trojans are getting everything they paid for and more.
To fully appreciate the good Riley has accomplished this season by lifting USC (9-1) into the College Football Playoff picture, it’s imperative to remember how bad the Trojans were last season. It was ugly.
USC finished the 2021 season with a 4-8 record that included six losses in the final seven games. The worst beating was handed down by UCLA, 62-33, in what was the highlight of coach Chip Kelly’s first four years with the Bruins. There was no quick fix with Kelly, who needed a lot of time to rebuild the program.
The past sets the scene for the present. USC and UCLA meet at a sold-out Rose Bowl on Saturday night with a spot in the Pac-12 championship game on the line. The Trojans are alive for a playoff spot. This high-stakes game could have been even bigger, but the Bruins (8-2) are trying to bounce back from a loss to 20-point underdog Arizona a week ago.
The key to Riley reviving USC’s program has been Caleb Williams, the sophomore quarterback who left Oklahoma with Riley. Williams has passed for 3,010 yards and 31 touchdowns with just two interceptions. He triggers the nation’s third-ranked scoring offense at 42.4 points per game.
Dorian Thompson-Robinson is a fifth-year starting quarterback for UCLA with 45 starts in Kelly’s offense. Thompson-Robinson has totaled 27 touchdowns (20 passing, seven rushing) for the nation’s 10th-ranked scoring offense (39.5).
The running back position could be the difference in the game. The Bruins’ Zach Charbonnet (1,145 yards, 7.5 per carry) is headed for the NFL. Trojans star Travis Dye went down with a season-ending leg injury last week. While Williams slices up the UCLA defense through the air, Charbonnet and Thompson-Robinson have a variety of ways to wear down a USC defense that recently surrendered 43 points to Utah, 37 to Arizona and 35 to California.
It’s not great to hear Thompson-Robinson talk trash this week about dropping another 60-point bomb on his rival, but at least he’s confident and hopefully he backs up the bravado. Circa Sports opened USC -4 with a total of 82.5 before sharp money showed on the underdog and the Under.
Pick: UCLA +2.5
Six more plays for Saturday (HOME team in CAPS):
Illinois (+18) over MICHIGAN:
The Fighting Illini need the nation’s leading rusher on the
field, and Chase Brown is trending in that direction while recovering from a leg injury. Brown, who has 1,442 yards, was held under 100 rushing yards in a game for the first time this season in a loss to Purdue last week. The Illinois defense ranks No. 3 by allowing 12.5 points per game. While the Wolverines have the firepower to turn this into a blowout, coach Jim Harbaugh has something bigger on his mind. With a trip to Ohio State on deck, Harbaugh is likely to sit on a lead, run the clock and start looking ahead to the Buckeyes.
Northwestern (+18.5) over PURDUE:
Lookahead spots are a common handicapping angle at this time of the season. The Boilermakers, eyeing a shot at the Big Ten West title with a trip to Indiana next week, will not be interested in passing 50 times and rolling up the score on a cold, windy day in West Lafayette. Purdue has developed a surprisingly effective ground attack with the emergence of freshman wrecking ball Devin Mockobee, who has 457 rushing yards in the past four games. Boilers coach Jeff Brohm is a junkyard dog on the road but 0-3 ATS in conference games at home.
KENTUCKY (+22.5) over Georgia:
With a top NFL quarterback prospect (Will Levis), a star running back (Chris Rodriguez) and a coach (Mark Stoops) who builds strong defenses, the Wildcats have underachieved at 6-4. A motivated underdog might catch the Bulldogs, who have locked up a spot in the SEC title game, asleep at the wheel in their second straight road game.
KANSAS (+9) over Texas:
The Jayhawks have dropped four of their past five, so the thrill is gone around what was once America’s team. Still, Kansas blew out Oklahoma State 37-16 in its most recent home game, and Lance Leipold has a coaching edge against Steve Sarkisian. The Jayhawks were 31-point dogs in a win at Texas last year. The Longhorns have lost five of their past six on the road, are 0-5 ATS in the past five in this series, and quarterback Quinn Ewers is slumping.
Stanford-CALIFORNIA (Under 46.5):
Instead of laying the points with a Golden Bears team on a six-game losing streak, bet against points. The Cardinal did not score more than 16 points in any of their past five games. Cal’s Justin Wilcox is an outstanding defensive coach, but his offense stinks, too. The Bears totaled 10 points and 156 yards in a loss at Oregon State last week.
HAWAII (+11.5) over UNLV:
The Rebels were double-digit road favorites twice in the past 20 years and lost outright both times. Hawaii coach Timmy Chang is 5-1 ATS since the beginning of October, and his offense totaled 541 yards against Utah State a week ago. The Warriors have hit three times in a row as Honolulu dogs, so let’s stick with the trends and take the points in the Saturday nightcap.
6-1 against the spread