During the opening week of the college football season, writers Ben Bolch, Ryan Kartje, J. Brady McCollough and Thuc Nhi Nguyen tackled the most pressing questions facing the UCLA and USC football programs.
this season college football playoff The national championship game will be played at SoFi Stadium, so they also addressed which team they think will win the title in Inglewood.
How many wins does USC need to call this a successful season?
card: Honeymoon energy in Troy is still going strong…for now, at least. I think most fans understand that a team usually doesn’t go from a 4-8 meltdown to the precipice of the college football playoff, no matter who their coach is. That said, this team has enough talent — and a fairly easy schedule — to win at least nine games in the regular season, and that should be the expectation. Much depends on the Trojans’ trip to Salt Lake City in October; beat the Utes, and suddenly we’re talking about a Pac-12 title favorite and potential dark horse playoff contender.
screw: Ten. It’s an impatient fan base, and even Lincoln Riley said he expected to win big in Year 1. With so much hype, there’s no room for early stumbles that would be reasonable in more sensible situations.
McCollough: Ben is right. Ten wins is Riley’s mark in Year 1, and he leaves very little room for error considering the Trojans play in Utah and against Notre Dame (each team is in the consensus top 10 of the preseason). In my Power Five picks, I have USC losing to Utah, UCLA and Notre Dame. Bowling is likely to take on a huge importance to Riley’s show in how the first year of it is viewed by the fan base.
Nguyen: It’s not just outside expectations that are setting the bar high for USC this year. Riley has said multiple times that they’re playing for championships this year, and to do that, the team would have to have at least nine wins in the regular season and move toward a 10th with a chance at the bowl.
How many wins does UCLA need to call this a successful season?
Ben Bolch: It’s not the number of wins but what will be the most important in the Bruins’ purse. They will likely need to win two of three games against contenders Utah, Oregon and USC to get to the Pac-12 championship game. That would probably take them to (at least) 10 wins.
Nguyen: Especially with such an easy schedule, the Bruins have to get at least double-digit wins to maintain the steady (but slower-than-desired) improvement of the Chip Kelly era. After several years of low-stakes rivalry games in which UCLA and USC battled it out, this year’s numbers will have some real juice as both teams will theoretically be battling it out at the top of the conference.
McCollough: Like USC, Chip Kelly needs 10 wins to feel good about his program’s trajectory in Year 5. That means beating one of Utah, USC and Oregon and taking care of teams that, at least on paper, should be very beatable for the Bruins. Of course, 9-3 with a victory over the Trojans in the Rose Bowl would be enough to keep Chip’s seat fresh for another year.
card: It is absolutely imperative, with their slate of boys’ games, that UCLA win their first five games. After that, we’ll see what Kelly and company are really made of. I’m not convinced the Bruins are on the same level as Utah, Oregon or USC, but if they can get past one of the upper tiers of the Pac-12, it’s not unreasonable to think they could finish with nine wins this season.
Is the USC spotlight really good for Chip Kelly and UCLA? If so, why?
screw: Absolutely. Kelly would have been an ace fighter pilot because he loves to fly under the radar. The USC buzz has caused a crater of interest in the Bruins to the point where only two, two! — Reporters attended a handful of fall training camp practices. That leaves Kelly in her element of just playing soccer with no distractions.
Nguyen: Also, wasn’t stepping away from the national spotlight one of the main reasons Kelly chose UCLA in 2017 when Florida was also courting him as a head coaching candidate? He was drawn to the opportunity to work somewhat anonymously at Westwood rather than under the SEC’s blinding attention, so I don’t anticipate any complaints from Kelly if everyone decides to turn their attention to Heritage Hall from him.
card: Honestly, I had completely forgotten about Chip Kelly and his bench this summer. But while USC and Riley are taking their inevitable turn this season, I have no doubt Kelly will enjoy that anonymity for a while. If he can beat Riley in his first Rose Bowl meeting, maybe we’ll see that shift in focus late in the season.
McCollough: Chip Kelly sticks to his “Win the day” mantra no matter what’s going on around him, but it certainly can’t hurt that his players had to hear about USC all offseason after beating the Trojans in the Coliseum. Even Chip could find a way to play that to his advantage motivationally, if he so chooses. (He probably isn’t, but maybe some people on his coaching and training staff are.)
Can Caleb Williams really contend for the Heisman?
card: Definitely. It took only a few games for Williams to burst onto the scene as a first-year Heisman contender in 2021. Now he’s had a full year to fit into the system. He took off his kid gloves and Riley made it clear that he now completely trusts Williams. The biggest jump of any quarterback occurs between Year 1 and Year 2, and Williams is no ordinary talent. Three of Riley’s previous four quarterbacks at Oklahoma were at least Heisman finalists, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Williams join that distinguished fraternity this season. Reaching that level, however, would require USC to at least seriously contend for a Pac-12 title, if not win one.
Nguyen: It absolutely comes down to team performance, which could make Alex Grinch one of the most important people in Caleb Williams’ Heisman campaign. The new defensive coordinator has a big commitment ahead of him to rebuild what was statistically the worst defense in USC history. With so many explosive offensive weapons, Williams could definitely put up Heisman-worthy numbers, but if defense doesn’t help the Trojans excel in the win column, it won’t be enough to keep the Heisman train going.
screw: So, are you saying that it could be the Grinch who stole a Merry Christmas from the Trojans? That is dead. The problem is not so much Williams as the team around him. Everyone knows he can put together a Heisman-caliber season, but if the Trojans win fewer than 10 games, it won’t matter what he does. Quarterbacks who play in the Alamo Bowl don’t win Heismans.
McCollough: Caleb Williams absolutely has a chance to win the show’s eighth Heisman Trophy (yes, we’ve got Reggie Bush). I’ll have something later this week on this very topic.
Who do you hope will be the best player at UCLA?
McCollough: It was interesting that Chip Kelly insisted that quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson would have been drafted had he made the decision to turn pro. If that’s true, then DTR really did come back because he’s motivated to finish the special season the Bruins looked like they were going to have last year. DTR has shown the kind of skill that can put a team over the top many times. You just have to do it consistently week after week, and I hope you do. He also had to listen to all the Caleb Williams hype all offseason, fueling his fire even more.
screw: I’m tempted to go in a few directions here – Thompson-Robinson, sack-happy linebacker Darius Muasau and twin running backs Gabriel and Grayson Murphy are all intriguing candidates – but ultimately, I think Zach Charbonnet launches himself into the nation’s consciousness. early in the season. and he stays there through Thanksgiving week, which puts him in position for a trip to New York for the Heisman ceremony. Charbonnet is going to gobble up yards during the Bruins’ easiest non-conference slate in 30 years, and he’s good enough to keep the momentum going in the Pac-12 game as the Bruins seek their first Rose Bowl since 1999.
Nguyen: The media and fans love quarterbacks, but Chip Kelly’s best offenses come through his running backs. In Zach Charbonnet, the Bruins have an excellent one to lead the charge. While Dorian Thompson-Robinson will continue his steady march in the school record books, I expect Charbonnet to be the most productive player in what should be a successful UCLA offense.
card: All aboard the Zach Charbonnet publicity train. Make me believe the Bruins’ top back is leading the Pac-12 in runs when the dust settles this season.
We end the season at SoFi Stadium no matter how well the home teams perform. Who is your national champion?
card: I will not choose Alabama. I will not choose Alabama. I will not do it Oh well, who am I kidding? The roll of the tide. Again.
screw: Alabama. In a world changing at the speed of a particle accelerator, some things stay the same.
McCollough: Alabama. Nick Saban and Bryce Young have issues with Kirby Smart and Georgia, and Ohio State’s defense hasn’t regained ground to go toe-to-toe with Alabama’s offense.
Nguyen: Alabama is unavoidable. *Thanos yells*