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Texas A&M Football

Around CFB: Defense detrimental to USC's chances in Pac-12 title race

October 31, 2023

Delusion is a common disease in college football. Lately, it appears USC coach Lincoln Riley may be the malady’s host.

That’s based on Riley’s statements last Saturday.

After the Trojans escaped with a 50-49 victory over Cal, Riley said: “I believe this team can win this league. Hell yeah, I do. I know we can. We’ve got some fun, exciting challenges ahead. We know that.”

Technically, Riley is correct.

The Trojans (7-2) have just one loss in Pac-12 play. Mathematically, they’re still very much in the conference title race.

But Riley might have an easier time convincing skeptics he’s a pitmaster, but the truth is, USC is in realistic danger of not winning again this season.

Any opponent with a competent offense will be problematic for USC, which is ranked 113th in the nation in scoring defense.

USC’s last six opponents exceeded their scoring averages against the Trojans. That includes Notre Dame and Utah, which dealt USC its two losses.

Notre Dame scored 10 points over its average in a 48-20 blowout. Utah, which averages 21.1 points, beat that in a 34-32 victory.

Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports
Caleb Williams accounted for four touchdowns in a 50-49 win at Cal. USC escaped after a failed two-point try.

Riley reportedly has overcome a bout of pneumonia, which forced him to miss two practices. Yet, his defense is sicker.

Calls out of Cali are growing louder for Riley to remove his friend Alex Grinch as defensive coordinator.

Riley evaded direct questions about Grinch’s future.

“I’m trying to beat Washington next week,” Riley said. “That’s my job, to get this team ready, sitting 5-1 in the best conference in America, to try and go win it. … Are there some things defensively that have to get better for us to do it? Yeah. There’s some things offensively that have to get better. There’s some things on special teams that have to get better. That’s the ebbs and flows of this season.”

Ebbs and flows? Riley’s Trojans have allowed at least 34 points in their last five games. They gave up 41 or more in four of them.

Their remaining schedule includes Washington, Oregon and arch-rival UCLA. All average more than 30 points per game. Washington and Oregon average more than 40.

A 7-5 finish seems more realistic than a Pac-12 championship.

Heisman Watch (If my ballot was due today)

1. Jayden Daniels, LSU, QB: He has an opportunity to greatly enhance an already stellar resume. If Daniels leads the Tigers to a victory over Alabama on Saturday, he’ll likely be recognized nationally as the leader. Daniels leads the nation with 3,094 yards of total offense. He has passed for 2,573 yards and 25 touchdowns with only three interceptions. He has rushed for 521 yards and five touchdowns.

2. Michael Penix, Washington, QB: The nation’s leading passer threw for 369 yards and four touchdowns in a 42-33 victory over Stanford last week. Penix has passed for 2,945 yards and 24 touchdowns with six interceptions for the unbeaten Huskies.

3. Jordan Travis, Florida State, QB: Last week, Travis had his most productive game of the season in a 41-16 victory over Wake Forest. He passed for 359 yards and three touchdowns. That raises his season totals to 2,109 yards and 18 touchdowns with just two interceptions. Travis has also rushed for 205 yards and six scores for the undefeated Seminoles.

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According to PFF, Marvin Harrison Jr. is the No. 2 prospect eligible for the 2024 NFL Draft.

4. Marvin Harrison Jr., WR, Ohio State: He has been virtually unstoppable the last month. Last week, Harrison exceeded 100 receiving yards for the fourth consecutive game and sixth time this season. He caught six passes for 123 yards and two touchdowns in a 24-10 win over Wisconsin. Harrison now ranks seventh in the nation in receiving. He has 48 receptions for 889 yards and eight touchdowns.

5. Malik Nabers, LSU, WR: The nation’s leader in receiving yardage could not increase his total last week because the Tigers were idle. He faces Alabama this week. Nabers has 56 receptions for 981 yards and nine touchdowns. He has exceeded 100 receiving yards in five games. He has had at least 67 receiving yards in every game.

Predicted Playoff Participants

1. Georgia: The unbeaten Bulldogs sometimes appear vulnerable, but they get serious when necessary, like in last week’s 43-20 blowout of Florida.

2. Florida State: The Seminoles have the best resume among unbeaten teams, with wins over LSU and Duke.

3. Michigan: The Wolverines lead the nation in scoring defense and are sixth in scoring, but they haven’t beaten a ranked opponent.

4. Washington: Three games with currently-ranked opponents loom in the next three weeks. The Huskies would have a claim on the top seed if they get through unscathed.

Games to Watch

No. 13 LSU at No. 8 Alabama: A win virtually gives Alabama the SEC West, but LSU still has hopes and an explosive offense.

No. 25 Kansas State at No. 7 Texas: These are among five teams with one loss in the Big 12 race. The winner takes a giant leap toward the Big 12 championship game.

No. 14 Missouri at No. 1 Georgia: Its offense makes Missouri dangerous, but Georgia only allows 14.8 points per game.

No. 10 Oklahoma at Oklahoma State: The Sooners looked shaky in a narrow win over UCF and then lost to Kansas. Meanwhile, Oklahoma State is surging behind running back Ollie Gordon II, who has rushed for 857 yards in the last four games (all wins).

No. 5 Washington at No. 24 USC: Huskies QB Michael Penix figures to put up huge numbers against the Trojans’ paper-thin defense. Maybe USC QB Caleb Williams can turn it into a shootout.

Editor’s note: This story was written and published before Tuesday night’s release of the initial College Football Playoff rankings. Rankings in this story are from the latest AP Poll.

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Around CFB: Defense detrimental to USC's chances in Pac-12 title race

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