The USC Trojans finally had enough of mediocrity and jettisoned Clay Helton to the outer orbits of college football, where he truthfully belongs. Helton was a mediocre talent evaluator and an even worse developer of the talent he had.
In this year's draft, USC once again had seemingly little to offer the NFL. A grand total of 33 players were drafted throughout Helton's six-year tenure, and that includes the six that were picked in 2015, the year he took over. So, if you remove that class, he’s only produced 27 draft picks on his watch.
Compare that to Alabama, which had seven players selected in the first four rounds of this year’s draft, or Georgia, the reigning national champions, which had 11, including five in the first round alone. That’s the kind of production you get when you hire a coach that knows what he’s doing year in and year out. That’s how you turn your university into a premier destination and it’s what USC is counting on from Lincoln Riley now that he’s in charge and has elevated expectations.
USC probably isn’t going to compete for a national title this fall. The Trojans simply do not have the depth to compete with the other elite teams. They have the talent on offense, but the other side of the ball is woefully inadequate and definitely shows its failings as you get further down the depth chart. But that’s what Riley is here to address, so off we go, and here’s how the 2022 slate breaks down.
Bye: Week 8
Week 1 — Sept. 3 vs. Rice (Los Angeles)
USC should win this game rather handily, but it’s worth noting that ULM came to Tuscaloosa and beat Nick Saban in his first season, so the Trojans ought to keep that in mind when hosting a program known for being so bad that they entertain the team they’re playing by making fun of their opponents. M.O.B. is basically the Leeland Stanford Junior Marching Band if they made fun of the opponent’s rivals instead of the opponent.
Week 2 — Sept. 10 at Stanford (Palo Alto, Calif.)
This used to be a matchup that USC feared, but Stanford has fallen off in recent years and one has to wonder how much longer David Shaw is going to be around. If you ask me, Shaw is a perfect fit for Stanford but he hasn’t won more than four games in his last three years. In fact, Shaw has won a combined 10 games in that span after totaling 83 in his first eight seasons.
Week 3 — Sept. 17 vs. Fresno State (Los Angeles)
Fresno State pretty much blew the best chance it would ever have of beating USC in the modern era when the Bulldogs let Clay Helton get fired without being one of the primary reasons for his termination. Fresno is coming off of a 10-win season and returns plenty of firepower from that team. Kalen DeBoer is now at Washington but the Bulldogs have a familiar face leading them in Jeff Tedford. He's back for a second tour of duty as the head coach after going 26-14 from 2017-19.
Week 4 — Sept. 24 vs. Oregon State (Corvallis, Ore.)
Oregon State is a program that should be extremely proud of what it has accomplished under Jonathan Smith. Not only is Smith turning things around, but a lot of kids also have grown up with Oregon being shoved in their faces and now want to give the Beavers a shot in recruiting. If Oregon State can parlay its recent on-field success to the trail, Smith may one day be giving Riley everything he can handle.
Week 5 — Oct. 1 vs. Arizona State (Los Angeles)
Herm Edwards had a tumultuous offseason with the investigations into Arizona State, oddly including former USC players. There's no guarantee that Edwards will make it through this season, let alone still be around for this game. A wave of coaches and players has left Tempe, including linebacker Eric Gentry, who joined the Trojans. The end result is a roster full of newcomers and largely unproven options.
Week 6 — Oct. 6 vs. Washington State (Los Angeles)
Remember when Nick Rolovich thought he had a point? The best thing Washington State ever did was get rid of him. He was never going to be a fit in Pullman. Never. That was destined to fail and Wazzu got really lucky that they didn’t have to pay anything to get out from under his contract either. Jake Dickert finally has a full year to settle into his job.
Week 7 — Oct. 15 at Utah (Salt Lake City)
Utah was probably going to be the team to beat in the Pac-12 South before USC hired Riley, so you can expect the Utes to be one of the tougher matchups for the Trojans this season. Is anyone else super interested to see what Riley is going to try and do to exploit that absurdly tough defense? I know I am!
Week 9 — Oct. 29 vs. Arizona (Tucson, Ariz.)
Jedd Fisch is hoping to revive a long-dormant program. He got off to a great start by convincing former Washington State quarterback and last season's Pac-12 Offensive Freshman of the Year Jayden de Laura to transfer. The Pac-12 is more fun when the Wildcats are a great team, I can’t explain the science but I know it to be true.
Week 10 — Nov. 5 vs California (Los Angeles)
Justin Wilcox enters this season at somewhat of a crossroads. While his name was attached to the vacant Oregon opening this offseason, he stayed put and ended up signing a contract extension that goes through 2027 and also came with more money for his assistants. However, it doesn't change the fact that he's posted just two winning seasons during his five-year tenure in Berkeley, so he'll still need to produce results. He has defeated USC twice in the last three meetings but that window of opportunity could be closing with Riley now on the opposite sideline.
Week 11 — Nov. 12 vs Colorado (Los Angeles)
Karl Dorrell is a much better coach than he gets credit for and Colorado did have the benefit of Mel Tucker for a year. Oh, what could have been if Colorado had the kind of cash to throw around that Michigan State does. But wishful thinking aside, Dorrell and the Buffaloes are facing a steep hill to climb coming off of a 4-8 showing in 2021.
Week 12 — Nov. 19 vs. Notre Dame (Los Angeles)
The Fighting Irish and the Trojans will both be under new leadership for the first time since 2010. The last time this happened previously was 1941, which should tell you these two programs don’t change head coaches often. Both Marcus Freeman and Riley will be looking to make a statement in the first years of their respective tenures in a game that everyone will be watching. Especially since this contest also could possibly have significant postseason implications.
Week 13 — Nov. 26 at UCLA (Pasadena, Calif.)
Chip Kelly is the guy who introduced the modern offense to major college football. Riley is the guy whose offenses have modernized the modern era of football. Whatever happens in this game, it should feature plenty of offensive fireworks. We’ll also find out if Kelly has the ability to compete later in the era he helped usher in or if Riley is ready to declare himself the new king of SoCal.
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— Written by Kane Webb, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @FightOnTwist.