The USC Trojans and California Golden Bears will finish up their seasons with a delayed matchup on Saturday night in Berkeley. Neither team is going to a bowl game, but for USC the focus at this point is on what happened off the field earlier this week.
For the first time since Pete Carroll led the Trojans to the Orange Bowl with Carson Palmer and signaled that the program was back and ready to dominate, USC has hired a big-name coach and expects him to produce success in a short time. In one of college football’s most stunning and unexpected hires ever, the Trojans poached Lincoln Riley right out from under Oklahoma's nose the day after the Sooners lost to Oklahoma State in Bedlam, which eliminated OU from a return trip to the Big 12 Championship Game.
Now Riley and his staff get an even bigger head start because they’ll officially be on hand to watch USC play a makeup game against California that was postponed from Nov. 13 due to COVID-19 issues with the Golden Bears. The Trojans (4-7, 3-5 Pac-12) can’t make a bowl, but can they impress their new coach with an eye towards 2022? Time will tell, but the recruits are already flipping to USC.
Likewise, Cal (4-7, 3-5) also is playing its final game of the 2021 campaign. Besides looking to end a challenging season on a positive note, the Golden Bears look for a second victory in the last three matchups with the Trojans after USC rattled off 14 in a row in this series from 2004-17.
Meanwhile, for the Trojans what once looked like a throwaway game now appears to be a contest that will be well attended because of the excitement surrounding Riley's arrival. At least that will give the fans in attendance at California Memorial Stadium in Berkeley something to cheer about, even if the on-field action leaves plenty to be desired.
USC at California
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 4 at 11 p.m. ET
Spread: California -4.5
When USC Has the Ball
The Trojans haven't had much success this year regardless of who has been at quarterback. Given that Saturday is probably the last time in a long time that USC will have mediocre play from the position and offensive play-calling, it honestly doesn’t matter who starts. If we're trying to be fair to those who have given the school their everything, Kedon Slovis probably deserves the start as he’s the most unlikely to benefit from the new regime, with stud Jaxson Dart fitting what Riley does a lot better than Slovis. Slovis also has stepped in wherever the Trojans needed him and Saturday could be a great opportunity to give him a “Senior Day” moment as he likely won’t be around for his actual Senior Day.
Whoever gets the nod will need to do a better job of taking care of the football while moving the chains. Dart has played okay in his last two starts. He threw for 248 yards and a touchdown against BYU while also rushing for 28 yards and a score. Mobile quarterbacks always give you a little bit more and Dart seems to understand when to throw and when to tuck and run. Hopefully, the starting quarterback gets some help from the ground game, which hasn’t had a 100-yard rusher since Keaontay Ingram posted 186 in the boat race against Arizona on Oct. 30.
When California Has the Ball
The Golden Bears are coming into this game having had the same disappointing year the Trojans had, but for much different reasons. The Golden Bears haven’t had any major changes, head coach Justin Wilcox just isn’t taking his team to that next step. While he’s been able to secure several key victories for Cal in his tenure, including beating Stanford in The Game two weeks ago and USC in his second year (2018), snapping a 14-year losing streak against the Trojans. A win on Saturday would make Wilcox the first Cal head coach to beat USC twice in a good long time.
Chase Garbers cannot have the same week he had against UCLA. Only 125 passing yards and two interceptions will not beat too many teams. If he can play closer to what he gave the Bears against Stanford, then Cal has a good shot to win this game. They probably want it more than USC, who knows that next year is when the fun really begins. But could the new hire at USC suddenly make the Trojans care more than Cal? It’s hard to say. But neither of these teams is going to a bowl regardless of the outcome, so it could come down to whichever one wants it more.
Most of USC’s coaching staff will be gone after Saturday. They know it, the players know it, the whole world knows it. So, it’s really hard to bet on a staff that is all but checked out. Cal's staff still have jobs to fight for, Wilcox still has a chance to salvage this season with a chance to score wins against both Stanford and USC. That will help take some of the sting from a losing campaign, and could help with job security. But don’t be shocked if the excitement created from Riley's arrival carries over to the Trojans playing with a lot of energy and reckless abandon on Saturday. If that happens, USC might be tough to beat. But that's a huge if.
Prediction: California 23, USC 15
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— Written by Josh Webb, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @FightOnTwist.