Halfway through the 2022 season, USC is 6-0 with a 4-0 mark in the Pac-12. The Trojans lead the nation in interceptions and sacks, not to mention an offense that ranks 15th nationally in points per game.
For their efforts, the Trojans are ranked No. 7 in the Associated Press poll. With most of the six teams ahead of USC scheduled to play each other, it stands to reason that, to an extent, USC controls its fate when it comes to the four bids for the College Football Playoff.
Which begs the question, is USC performing at a playoff level through six games?
Asked this, and USC head coach Lincoln Riley chuckles.
“Oh, I’m way too experienced for that question,” he says.
Riley led Oklahoma to the playoff three times during his time as the Sooners’ head coach. In that time, he watched pundits declare Oklahoma’s chances over due to a midseason loss, only to see the Sooners find their way into the top four.
So he knows there’s little one can do to predict these sorts of things, especially with a month left until the committee releases its initial rankings.
But there’s one thing he knows all playoff teams have in common: They find ways to win games, no matter the circumstances.
“Teams that make the playoff have an ability to stay focused and truly do their best every week, find ways to win games and just keep progressing,” Riley says. “The reality is if you take care of business on Saturdays and keep winning, all that stuff takes care of itself.”
So far, USC has done just that. When the defense was a liability against Stanford, defensive backs made interceptions and the offense created an insurmountable advantage. When the offense struggled against Oregon State, the defense held firm and kept the game within reach for the game-winning drive.
This week comes the Trojans’ greatest challenge, No. 20 Utah (4-2, 2-1).
It’s USC’s first ranked opponent of the year. You can argue Oregon State and Washington State deserved to be ranked at the time USC played them, but that’s a story for another day.
In the Pac-12, opportunities against ranked teams don’t come around every day, and it’s one that USC has to seize if it’s going to be considered for the playoffs, a goal Riley has not shied away from since coming to Los Angeles.
“This is a big game,” USC right guard and captain Justin Dedich said. “You cannot come into it thinking anything other than you have to play your best.”
“We haven’t met our potential as a team yet,” Riley added. “We’re going to have bigger and better challenges as we go on, certainly starting with this week.”
When USC has the ball
The last time the Trojans went on the road, USC had to burn all three first-half timeouts to avoid delay of game penalties as the offense struggled to adjust to the Oregon State crowd noise.
That’s a lesson USC is holding onto as it heads into what should be a deafening environment at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City.
“It’s tough to always simulate an away crowd in practice,” Dedich said. “We did appreciate that first half and learning how to properly communicate when you can’t hear the guy next to you.”
When Utah has the ball
Utah quarterback Cam Rising made everything look effortless against USC last season when he completed 22 of 28 passes for 306 yards and three touchdowns in a 42-26 win for the Utes.
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But what really concerns USC is Rising’s ability to make plays with his feet. The former Newbury Park High star can break tackles and separate with his speed if he escapes a tackle.
“You have to make sure, as best you can, it’s not one guy trying to get him down,” USC defensive coordinator Alex Grinch said. “Similar to how you would describe a running back going through the hole. It can’t just be solo tackles.”