At the midpoint of the 2019 college football season, USC was sitting a middling 3-3 and the Trojans fan base was stuck with the idea of Clay Helton being the head coach for the foreseeable future. National championships were not considered to be in the realm of possibility and Heisman Trophy ceremony invites were mostly ceremonial, with the real candidates replacing those who were just hype. It was a very mediocre time in the program's history.
Fast forward three years and USC is rocking one of the nation’s most prolific offenses while also fielding one of the nation’s premier defenses, all while being coached by one of the best in the business in Lincoln Riley. It certainly has been a new era in Los Angeles in 2022 and while the Trojans are coming off a crushing one-point loss to Utah in Salt Lake City, it was their first loss of the year and the chase for one of the four College Football Playoff spots appears to be as wide open as it's ever been in the history of the format. Not only are UCLA and Tennessee in the top 10, but each team is a legit playoff contender in its own right, especially with the Volunteers coming off a thrilling upset of Alabama in which they hung 52 points on the Crimson Tide.
USC has a real shot of making the playoff, but needs to hit the ground running next week against Arizona when it comes off of its bye. The Trojans appear to have the offense envisioned under Riley while coordinator Alex Grinch's defense has been playing lights out. But neither side of the ball can let up over the last five games of the regular season and then, presumably, in the Pac-12 Championship Game. If USC has one thing going in its favor, it's a very manageable schedule the rest of the way.
Here's a look at how USC got to where it is right now (6-1, No. 12 in the AP Top 25) and what lies ahead.
Offensive MVP: Caleb Williams, QB
Williams has been as advertised since arriving from Norman. He’s done it with his arms and his legs. His ability to stretch the field with his arm has resulted in spectacular plays, like the last-second throw to Jordan Addison that led to the victory in Corvallis against a scrappy Oregon State team. His arm is so strong that defenders can’t afford to give receivers even an inch of space or risk being beaten. Should Williams have a similar second half, he could very well find himself at least invited to New York for the awarding of a certain stiff-armed trophy.
Defensive MVP: Secondary
Giving this award to one person would be a slap in the face to the way the defense has played over the first half of the season. This is the definition of "team" defense, with players contributing from everywhere. If you had to pick one standout portion of the defense, it would probably be the secondary. Not only has this group become a turnover machine with seven takeaways courtesy of defensive backs, but it also is in command of the nation's 20th-ranked passing defense. That's quite the turnaround from former coordinator Todd Orlando’s group which seemed to always be a day late and a dollar short.
Best Moment of First Half: Eric Gentry’s motivational speech
They may have lost the game in the end, but Gentry running off the injury cart with one leg to deliver an impassioned speech to the USC defense during last Saturday's game at Utah before being taken back to the locker really emphasizes the passion and love these players are playing with on a weekly basis. Not every motivational moment comes in victory, Tim Tebow’s famous speech occurred after a similar loss. If the Trojans come out of the bye with renewed determination and vigor, this moment may become one of legend and lore for the program.
Best Newcomer: Travis Dye, RB
It would be too easy to give this award to Caleb Williams with all he’s done. It would be even easier to give it to Jordan Addison for his prolific ability as a receiver. But the newcomer who has had the most impact in my mind has to be Dye. The Oregon transfer has defined grit and determination in the backfield and though he hasn’t gotten the same level of praise, it was his running and receiving ability that gave Williams the chance to hit Addison with the aforementioned game-winning TD against the Beavers. Without Dye’s vision and veteran play, USC may not have been in that spot.
Biggest Surprise: Korey Foreman's disappearing act
Keeping analysis balanced is really important for any journalist. The good must come with the bad. For all the improvements that USC players have made under the leadership of the new staff, one of the things that stand out to me the most is the complete absence of Foreman. This was the former No. 1 overall recruit in the country and through two seasons, he’s been persona non grata. If any player was going to take a giant leap in their development, it seemed like it should be Foreman but he has yet to prove he even belongs on this defense.
Three Things to Watch in the Second Half
1. Can turnover luck continue?
The Trojans have been very opportunistic this season with 16 turnovers forced (12 INTs) through seven games. They've also only turned it over on themselves just once (INT). Their plus-15 margin is far and away the best in the country. Only one other team (Louisiana) is in double digits (+10). Turnover luck is impossible to predict and even more impossible to rely upon. Whether or not this continues is a matter of time, but should it continue the Trojans will have a much easier path to their overall goals.
2. Will the second-half adjustments continue?
One thing USC lacked the ability to do under Clay Helton was address deficiencies at halftime. That has not been a problem for Lincoln Riley and his staff. With the exception of the Utah game – and there are even arguments to be made there – the Trojans have looked like a different team coming out of the half. They adjust to their opponents and give them different looks and reads. Second-half adjustments are extremely crucial but often overlooked and Riley has made sure they’re not an afterthought.
3. Will the front seven improve their run defense?
The defense has been an impressive unit so far. Not only does USC lead the nation in turnovers, but the Trojans also are 20th against the pass and tied for ninth in sacks (24 for 114 yards). If you had to find an area that's been a struggle, it would be against the run. USC is a modest 77th in the nation as a result of allowing 4.54 yards per carry to go along with 14 touchdowns on the ground. This must improve, especially if the secondary is going to remain aggressive in search of a potential game-changing play.
Ranking the Toughest Remaining Games on the Schedule
1. at UCLA, Nov. 19
2. Notre Dame, Nov. 26
3. California, Nov. 5
4. at Arizona, Oct. 29
5. Colorado, Nov. 11
Podcast: Midseason Review, Second-Half Predictions, and Dream Conference Championship Games
— Written by Kane Webb, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @FightOnTwist.