If you told USC fans before the season that the eulogy for the Trojans’ College Football Playoff hopes wouldn’t be penned until after the conference title game, their reaction would’ve been euphoric. Though the first year under Lincoln Riley ended in disappointment — you don’t come a win away from the CFP and feel good about a loss no matter how much house money you have on the table — the consolation prize could be a Heisman Trophy for Caleb Williams.
The SC quarterback hurt something — a “popped” hammy — early against the Utes during a slide on a 59-yard run, and all you need to know about his mobility as the game ground along is that he finished with 21 yards rushing. He still finished with 363 through the air, and had the Trojans in striking distance at 27-24 in the fourth quarter — only to watch as the defense failed to tackle Utah ball carriers en route to a 47-24 victory for the Utes.
This was the kind of loss USC skeptics had been waiting for all season. Timely turnovers bailed out a defense that hemorrhaged yards while Williams and the offense had been literally perfect. In the first meeting between Utah and USC, Utes coach Kyle Whittingham opted to go for two and the win late in the game because they had spent most of the evening in Salt Lake City chasing Jordan Addison and co.
Had QB Cam Rising not run in that conversion, we would be talking about whether the Trojans still deserve a bid. That didn’t happen though, and as soon as Oregon lost to Oregon State, a rematch between the two seemed inevitable.
As someone who gets nauseous at the thought of Ohio State and Alabama showing up in every CFP, I was immediately concerned. Utah isn’t afraid of any program in the Pac-12 — the Utes are the defending conference champs after all — and it showed in the way it didn’t flinch when the Trojans got out to a 17-3 lead early.
Utah tied the game at the half and never trailed again after scoring early in the third quarter. Even after getting blasted on a legal hit that sent his helmet flying in the heat of the second half, Rising kept coming. Utah finished with 533 total yards, 223 of them on the ground, to USC’s 419 with only 59 in the trenches.
Southern Cal’s effectiveness in the run game wasn’t the same after the injury to running back Travis Dye, and it’s small discrepancies like depth that can be the difference between a CFP appearance or a mundane bowl game. Riley-led squads routinely overcame defenses that ranked somewhere in the 60s at Oklahoma, and the Trojans were right around that number before Friday’s 47-point, missed tackle fiasco.
With Williams ineligible for the draft until 2024 and more than enough buzz to attract another round of top recruits and transfers, USC’s timeline is ahead of even the biggest homer’s schedule.
While that homer is definitely in his feelings after taking the L on Friday, those who despise the Trojan fight song, “Fight On,” and all that bullshit better enjoy this now because if Riley got this close in his first go-round, the only real football fans in L.A. aren’t going to be tolerable for too much longer.