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College football review: Lincoln Riley’s USC Trojans are Pac-12’s best playoff shot

The day after Utah lost to Ohio State in the Rose Bowl, I talked with George Kliavkoff. The Pac-12 commissioner was frustrated by the state of football in his league, and that’s putting it mildly.

As he discussed the challenges of getting his presidents and chancellors to fully buy into a football-first mentality, there was one sparkling glimmer of hope.

USC had finally decided to reenter the fray, hiring Lincoln Riley.

“The immediate change to the recruiting dynamic that USC has clearly benefited from will help other Pac-12 schools,” Kliavkoff told me. “Kids want to play for a guy like Lincoln Riley, and they want to compete against a guy like Lincoln Riley. I think it will elevate everyone for years to come.”

Keep in mind, Kliavkoff said that before star transfer quarterback Caleb Williams picked USC, before Biletnikoff Award winner Jordan Addison decided to finish his college career as a Trojan and before a certain bit of news shook the college athletics landscape on a Thursday morning in late June.

Yes, in a cruel twist, Riley’s arrival in Los Angeles will only be able to turbo boost the Pac-12 for two seasons before USC and UCLA begin their Midwestern migration to the Big Ten in August 2024.

And yes, it stings. The Trojans leaving West Coast football behind just as they got their act together will sting for a long, long time.

But, based on what we saw in USC’s 66-14 blitzing of Rice Saturday at the Coliseum, this could be a very fruitful two years for the Pac-12, which hasn’t had a team reach the College Football Playoff semifinals since 2016 and just watched its two highest-ranked teams lose to Southeastern Conference powers on opening weekend — a familiar refrain.

No. 7 Utah lost a heartbreaker at Florida 29-26 when Cam Rising threw an interception in the Gators’ end zone during the final seconds. If Rising hadn’t made that critical mistake inside the Florida 10-yard line, the Utes likely would have sent the game to overtime.

No. 3 Georgia predictably pummeled No. 11 Oregon 49-3 in Dan Lanning’s first game as a head coach. The Ducks’ playoff hopes were effectively nuked.

USC, ranked No. 14 entering Saturday, will likely receive a bump leading into its prime-time conference opener at Stanford. Sure, it was only Rice, but the Trojans quickly became the most intriguing team in the Pac-12.

With Riley and USC, the unknown of how good they can be together is what is most tantalizing.

USC coach Lincoln Riley pumps up his players before Saturday’s victory over Rice at the Coliseum.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Thanks to three — three! — interceptions returned for touchdowns, the Trojans barely grazed the surface of Riley’s playbook while putting up a showy point total. Williams threw just three incomplete passes and found Addison for two short touchdown passes, letting the former Pittsburgh star do most of the work. Most important of all, especially after last season’s three-month death march to the finish, the Trojans looked like they were having a blast — the same way they used to look when Pete Carroll roamed the sidelines.

Week one overreactions are a part of this sport more than any other. In that spirit, the expectations for 2022 USC should be recalibrated. At a minimum, the Trojans confirmed my sense that they should be 6-0 heading into Salt Lake City on Oct. 15.

The winner of USC-Utah will have a legit shot at the playoff. Even if the Trojans lose, they will have the chance to finish the season with wins over UCLA, Notre Dame and Utah in a Pac-12 title rematch in Las Vegas.

In the preseason, I picked Utah to lose to Florida and roll off 12 wins in a row to take the fourth spot in the playoff, ending the Pac-12’s drought. The Utes didn’t surprise me at all Saturday, good or bad. They didn’t show much new in their arsenal, which is part of what makes them so good under Kyle Whittingham. They know who they are.

In Riley’s debut, the Trojans flashed so much we hadn’t seen before it was hard to keep up. And it feels like they have a lot more up their sleeve going forward.

I’ll be surprised if my hunch holds that Utah is capable of winning 12 in a row. And I’ll be surprised if the Utes improve enough in the coming weeks to twice beat the USC team we met on Saturday.

The Trojans are now the league’s best chance for a playoff berth. You are welcome to laugh and save this receipt.

As infuriating as USC taking over the Pac-12 and making the playoff semifinals would be for the 10 schools remaining in the league after 2024, George Kliavkoff would probably find it easier to see the silver linings.

Of course, it would end the drought before the playoff expands to 12 teams. Who cares if the team that put an end to the misery happens to be on the way out?

Plus, the CFP pays a conference $6 million for each team it has in the playoff semifinals. That money is distributed equally among the schools.

Whether Lincoln Riley’s success ends up writing 11 $500,000 checks to the rest of the Pac-12 or not, his new conference brethren might as well enjoy all the excitement and relevance he brings to the league while it’s here.

Georgia should be No. 1

Stetson Bennett IV of Georgia holds the football.

Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett IV looks to pass against Oregon on Saturday.

(John Bazemore / Associated Press)

It’s hard to knock Alabama for beating Utah State 55-0, but anybody who watched Georgia manhandle Oregon — which boasts a roster with top-10 talent across the board — can’t reasonably think the Bulldogs aren’t worthy of the No. 1 ranking.

First off, Georgia is the defending national champion and took Alabama down 33-18 in the CFP title game. Yes, the Bulldogs lost a lot of their ridiculous defensive talent to the NFL draft, but they returned most of their offense, including quarterback Stetson Bennett IV and unstoppable tight end Brock Bowers.

I’m feeling good about predicting Alabama and Georgia to go 12-0 in the regular season, as boring as that sounds. Until the Crimson Tide beat the Bulldogs, Georgia is coming off a 49-3 win over the No. 11 Ducks and deserves the No. 1 ranking.

Ohio State should be happy

CJ Stroud jumps to throw a pass for Ohio State.

Ohio State quarterback CJ Stroud passes against Notre Dame on Saturday.

(David Dermer / Associated Press)

The tendency after No. 2 Ohio State’s 21-10 victory over No. 5 Notre Dame would be to wonder about the Buckeyes’ offense, which was supposed to be the most explosive in the country.

While Buckeye fans would have wanted to see more of quarterback CJ Stroud tossing the ball around to his bevy of five-star wideouts, they should be encouraged they were able to win a game with their much-maligned defense.

Ohio State hired defensive coordinator Jim Knowles from Oklahoma State to produce this very result. How much stock can be put in it against a Notre Dame offense led by Tyler Buchner, a talented quarterback making his first start? That remains to be seen.

Ohio State’s offense will be fine. There’s a better argument for the Buckeyes as a national title contender now than there was before.

Pac-12 positives

Coach Jonathan Smith stands with arms folded and watches Oregon State play.

Oregon State coach Jonathan Smith watches from the sideline during a win over Boise State on Saturday.

(Amanda Loman / Associated Press)

Arizona’s 38-20 win at San Diego State and Oregon State’s 34-17 win against Boise State in Corvallis reversed a recent trend of the best teams from the Mountain West embarrassing the Pac-12 rank and file.

Arizona head coach Jedd Fisch made all the right moves this offseason, getting Washington State quarterback Jayden de Laura and Texas-El Paso wide receiver Jacob Cowing out of the transfer portal. The Wildcats looked like a different team — thank goodness, because it’s been ugly for a while.

Oregon State continued its upward trajectory under Jonathan Smith, its former quarterback. The Beavers’ victory over the Broncos wasn’t near as surprising as the Wildcats’ whipping the Aztecs.

USC plays both these teams on the road this year — and it appears the Trojans better not take them lightly.

A new weekly feature

Just for fun, I’m going to rank the teams that will comprise the future Big Ten:

1. Ohio State

2. Michigan

3. USC

4. Penn State

5. Michigan State

6. Wisconsin

7. Purdue

8. Minnesota

9. Iowa

10. UCLA

11. Maryland

12. Northwestern

13. Indiana

14. Rutgers

15. Nebraska

16. Illinois

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