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USC Football: Ranking the Toughest Games on the Trojans' Schedule

USC Football: Trojans 2021 Schedule Analysis

USC embarks on the Lincoln Riley era with a critical home date against historical rival Notre Dame and several challenging Pac-12 road tests.

Once every three years, we like to take a look at the toughest games on the schedule for various teams across the college football landscape. I did this with USC first in 2016 and again in 2019. Three years have passed and in 2022, the wise sages at Athlon have come calling again, only this time there is hope, my friends. The last couple of times we were here, hope was not on offer. Today, hope is being given out in bulk. So, settle in and let’s take a brief look at why there’s hope and then get to the rankings.

Related: USC Trojans 2022 Season Preview and Prediction

Why hope? Clay Helton is finally gone. After far too many years of dwelling in mediocrity, USC stunned the entire college football landscape not once, not twice, but thrice this offseason. First they shook up the entire landscape by hiring away Lincoln Riley from Oklahoma, who brought with him Caleb Williams and Mario Williams among others. Then they convinced Jordan Addison to join Caleb Williams from Pitt in the second shocker. The third and final shocker was delivered when USC announced they were done with the Pac-12 and had, behind everyone’s back, joined the Big Ten starting in 2024 with UCLA.

You won’t find me complaining about any of these moves. USC has long outgrown the Pac-12 and had tried for years to convince the powers that be to make a change with Larry Scott and the conference. Once it had passed the point of no return, the Pac-12 finally made a move and then that’s been it. They’ve been quiet since. No new TV deals, no announcements of revenue being increased or the gap with other conferences being closed ultimately left USC in a position to look out for No. 1 and leave the Pac-12 after playing in from the start

This upcoming campaign is just the start of a very exciting time for the Trojans. The offense has changed. The expectations have changed. The landscape has changed. It’s all up to USC from here on in and you can bet they plan to make the most of their final years in the Pac-12.

12. Sept. 3 vs. Rice

The only question here is how much USC wins by and how long before they bench Caleb Williams out of caution. No mystery here. Rice is coming for the check, USC is looking for the rout.

11. Oct. 8 vs. Washington State

The Cougars have really had a rough go of it lately. They had hired Nick Rolovich to be their new head coach, but he just turned out to be a pain in the ass that they had to unceremoniously fire when he pretended he knew better than science during the pandemic. The Cougs have largely been playing catch-up since then and this is gonna be another year where the firing of Rolovich hurts them, if only due to the transfers they’ve had to endure as a result.

10. Sept. 17 vs. Fresno State

It’s hard to believe how many chances Fresno had to take down an incredibly mediocre USC during years where they were actually a fairly potent team in some regards. It would be humorous as all hell if they pulled the win off now, but it does seem like a tougher ask now. Even if USC struggles on defense, the amount of points they should be able to put up on offense will be more than enough to take care of a Mountain West team with a brand new coach.

9. Oct. 1 vs. Arizona State

If we’re being totally honest right now, I’m not even sure how Herm Edwards is still employed there. You have to think that if this was ANY other coach, he would been thrown out like a baby with the bathwater. The allegations, the coaches they’ve literally had to fire for cheating, the news stories, etc… It’s a lot more than most coaches tend to survive, especially coaches who have had the success Edwards has had at Arizona State, which is to say not much at all.

8. Oct. 29 at Arizona

However bad Arizona State has been, Arizona has been worse. The only reason Arizona is higher on this list is that I do believe they’ve finally made a competent and sound hire in Jedd Fisch. It might not be sexy and it might not have the name value of a Mike Tomlin, per se, but we saw how that turned out. Fisch has hit the ground reaching out to alumni and bringing them back into the program. Honestly, this is a great step toward taking that next step as a program, but it’s still very early.

7. Nov. 5 at California

The last time I wrote about Cal in this column, they’d just beaten USC for the first time in 15 years and were hoping to take that next step under Beau Baldwin. Well, Baldwin is now the head coach at Cal Poly and Cal never did start that winning streak against USC. Justin Wilcox is still there, but this is probably his final year unless his team manages to win at least eight games, something he’s only done once since taking over at Cal.

6. Nov. 11 vs. Colorado

Colorado is still reeling from the loss of Mel Tucker to Michigan State. Karl Dorrell is getting a second chance with the Pac-12 and is determined to make it work. He was off to a strong start as he was named Pac-12 Coach of the Year in his first year, but last year brought him back down to earth a bit with a 4-8 season.

5. Nov. 19 at UCLA

The Bruins seem to grasp what Chip Kelly is asking of them a little more every year. Last year the Bruins were able to defeat USC at their own game, this year will feature two of the most prominent offensive coaches of the college football world for the last two decades facing off in what will probably be a damn track meet. I have no idea where USC’s defense will be by this time of year, but I am guessing somewhere between hurting and broken. This should be one of the more fun games of the year.

4. Sept. 24 at Oregon State

Oregon State this high? You’re probably wondering if I am high. The truth is that Oregon State has looked extremely competent under Jonathan Smith and even took it to Oregon last year, ruining any chance they had of being in a Playoff. The Beavers aren’t always good, but they are when they are and right now they’re pretty good. If Smith has another strong year, I wouldn’t be surprised if he were at a much better job in 2023.

3. Sept. 10 at Stanford

Stanford always seems to give USC problems, but we’re about to find out if that was a result of Stanford being well-coached, USC being poorly coached, or some combination of the two. David Shaw isn’t exactly the hot name he once was, but he’s an extremely respected coach and he always manages to get the best out of his players. He’s going to need their best against USC as this isn’t the USC he’s used to facing.

2. Oct. 15 at Utah

The Utes are a strong favorite to win the Pac-12. They’re probably still the favorite ahead of USC, if only because they have the depth. Kyle Whittingham has boosted his reputation as a coach that couldn’t win the big games with his recent Pac-12 title. But that’s only placed more expectations on him and with USC leaving the Pac-12, Utah and Oregon will be expected to be the conference standard bearers.

1. Nov. 26 vs. Notre Dame

Both premier programs changed head coaches this past year, making it only the third time both coaches had changed programs (2009; 1941). Marcus Freeman takes over for Brian Kelly, who suddenly developed a Cajun accent overnight when he took the job at LSU. The weight of the world might appear to be on the shoulders of these two coaches, but the reality of the situation is that they appear to be right at home in their new gigs.

— Written by Kane Webb, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @FightOnTwist.