It's already Week 5 of the college football season, and No. 6 USC (4-0, 2-0) takes on Arizona State Saturday night at the Los Angeles Coliseum.
The Trojans opened as 26-point favorites and should handle the 1-3 Sun Devils the way a playoff-contending team does. Without sugarcoating it, Arizona State is one of the worst teams in the Pac-12 and probably the entire Power 5.
The most important factors for success in college football are quarterback play, recruiting, coaching, and culture - not necessarily in that order.
ASU’s quarterback last season, Jayden Daniels, left to play at LSU, and he was replaced by Florida transfer Emory Jones. He transferred - after playing four years at Florida - because Anthony Richardson beat him out for the starting spot. Last season he threw for just over 2,700 yards and 19 touchdowns to 13 picks.
As far as recruiting, ASU ranked last in the Pac-12 for the 2022 class and isn’t necessarily on the right path given the status of the last two factors. Head coach Herm Edwards was fired after four seasons at the helm following a two-possession loss to Eastern Michigan, which is 22-40 under current coach Chris Creighton.
Edwards’ tenure at ASU wasn’t bad overall; the team went 8-5 in 2019 and won a bowl game over Florida State.
However, recruiting violations during the COVID-19 dead period triggered a recent investigation from the NCAA, which, combined with several other factors, led to several coaches and a large group of players leaving the program, including Daniels, and USC linebacker Eric Gentry, who was a freshman All-American last season.
So, ASU is down a quarterback, a recruiting class, a head coach, and a combination of other coaches and players in just the last few months. That defines the culture of an organization that is not heading in the right direction, perhaps most recently exemplified by a home loss to such an inferior opponent as Eastern Michigan.
Last week, the Sun Devils suffered a 21-point loss at home to Utah, and USC will likely hand them a similar fate. Still, every week is important for the Trojans, who will need to focus on shoring up some of last week’s shortcomings in their 17-14 win over Oregon State.
Here are a couple of areas of improvement to look for in Saturday’s confidence-boosting matchup:
CALEB WILLIAMS WILL BOUNCE BACK
USC quarterback Caleb Williams was on the Heisman Trophy watch list for a reason. And he's still one of the Heisman favorites. Saturday against Oregon State, Williams played the worst game of his collegiate career. That’s not going to happen again against ASU.
Williams completed 74.4% of his passes through the first three weeks of the season and accounted for 10 touchdowns and 947 yards. He also has yet to turn the ball over in 2022. Pump the brakes on any concerns about Williams’ play, and expect him to return to his Heisman form this week.
THE PASS PROTECTION WILL BE BETTER
Lincoln Riley expressed this week that one of his frustrations offensively was with the pass protection. He wasn’t necessarily defending Williams, but it is true that the quarterback’s job could have been easier against Oregon State.
On the bright side, the run blocking has been excellent from this group in the last two games, and the Trojans can lean into the run game to open up the passing attack, as they should have done more of last Saturday. Plus, the offensive line did make arguably the biggest play of that game when Brett Neilon gave Williams "The Push."
Still, the offensive line hasn’t been the most consistent group, although it has been holding its own thus far. The run blocking has already improved tremendously, so maybe the pass blocking will make the same leap.
RUN GAME SHOULD CONTINUE TO EXCEL
Running back Travis Dye was probably the most underrated addition the Trojans made this past offseason. Last year at Oregon, Dye went for over 1,600 scrimmage yards and 18 touchdowns, so such a high-production player should have made more noise when choosing to transfer for his final season.
Nonetheless, he has not disappointed for the Trojans. Dye has notched over 100 rushing yards in each of his last three games and is averaging 7.3 yards per carry on the season, not to mention the 20+ receiving yards he gives USC on a weekly basis.
We might see some more of freshman Raleek Brown Saturday if the Trojans amass a comfortable lead. Brown had a highlight-reel touchdown in Week 1 but hasn’t seen too many touches since. Granted, he has been nursing an ankle injury he sustained in that first game but should be close to full health by now.
Brown is one of the most exciting new players on the roster that did not arrive through the transfer portal. He’ll likely be a huge playmaker for USC in upcoming seasons, but hopefully he can showcase some of that talent this year, and this week in particular.
HOW MANY MORE TAKEAWAYS FOR USC'S DEFENSE?
The Trojans are averaging 3.5 takeaways per game right now, a third of the way through the regular season. That’s the best in college football, and easily the best amongst top contenders. No. 11 Penn State ranks fourth in the country, and they average two.
Who knows if the turnovers are sustainable. But they make the defense look better than it probably is, and they won the game against Oregon State, so Trojan fans aren’t complaining.
At the least, it’s fun to watch and try to predict who will be the next Trojan to come down with an interception. Given the talent imbalance in this matchup, USC is bound to keep up its takeaway streak.