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Over the past decade, the game of college football has slowly evolved with the creation of the four-team playoff, lucrative TV contracts, a less-restrictive transfer portal and NIL for student-athletes. This offseason, the game changed immediately when the USC Trojans announced Lincoln Riley would be the new face of their football program. The signing of one of the brightest offensive minds in the sport thrust the college football landscape into chaos, causing a massive domino effect of player and coach movement that makes handicapping this season more exciting than ever.
USC's disappointing 4-8 season warranted significant changes. Riley delivered immediately by leveraging the transfer portal to bring top-end offensive talent to Southern California in one of the most dramatic roster overhauls in the country. Heisman candidate and former Oklahoma quarterback Caleb Williams leads the newest version of Riley's high-octane offense that is loaded with plenty of playmakers, including last year's Biletnikoff winner, WR Jordan Addison. Very few programs can match the offensive talent Riley has assembled, but the only remaining question is how quickly USC can play as a cohesive unit in a new system. All five starters at USC's skill positions are transfers.
QB Caleb Williams (Oklahoma)
RB Travis Dye (Oregon)
WR Jordan Addison (Pitt)
WR Mario Williams (Oklahoma)
WR Brenden Rice (Colorado)
Big headlines bring big expectations
We live in a world of instant gratification, and Riley's recruiting power propelling an uber-fast revamp of the roster has soared expectations in his first year. The Trojans went from a team that finished the season by dropping six of its last seven games to BetMGM's second-highest liability to win the national championship. They are currently 20-1 to win the national title despite Riley having an 0-3 career record in the College Football Playoff. I have little doubt that the Trojans will quickly become a national powerhouse under Riley, but odds seem significantly inflated for his first year. And here is the best way to profit off them this season.
USC Win Total 9.5 — Under (+100)
Despite the roster strength, there are still several questions heading into the season, especially on defense. The most frustrating part of Riley's tenure at Oklahoma was that he could never build a dominating, physical defense to complement his prolific offenses. The man in charge of the unit that has held him back, former Sooners defensive coordinator Alex Grinch, is tasked with rebuilding one of the worst defenses in the Pac-12. USC allowed 31.8 points per game, ranking 11th of 12 teams in the conference. High-scoring games tend to have higher variance, and if the Trojans can't stop teams from scoring, it's more probable they end up on the wrong side of a few shootouts against inferior teams they should beat.
From a scheduling perspective, the soft start to the season is a positive for a team with so many new players to gain continuity before the games become more meaningful. USC opens the season as a 35-point favorite against Rice before it travels to Stanford as a big favorite for the second consecutive week. Then it gets tricky, as the Trojans host a team in Fresno State that ranked 26th in scoring offense and ninth in passing success rate. The Bulldogs return several key players, including QB Jake Haener, and could be a live underdog if Alex Grinch doesn't have the USC defense ready.
That's what makes the under so appealing. There is minimal margin of error for USC to finish with a 10-2 record or better. Its most challenging conference games, including facing the defending Pac-12 champions, are on the road. Utah was 6-0 at home last season and will undoubtedly have this game circled on the calendar. The Trojans also finish the season with back-to-back games at UCLA and hosting Notre Dame.
Lincoln Riley has done a masterful job rapidly infusing talent into a program that could be in the national championship conversation for years. However, his toughest challenge is putting it all together this season. His polarizing impact is both a gift and a curse and has produced a slight overreaction in the betting market. Betting on a 10-win season is counting on Caleb Williams to have this offense in sync and perform consistently from Day 1 without allowing for any bumps in the road while building chemistry with his new playmakers. The pressure will be magnified by having to overcompensate for a poor defense that will be learning a new system on the fly under Grinch. That's a lot for a sophomore quarterback, even one as talented as Williams. There are too many questions for me to buy into USC as a 10-win team. I will have to see it to believe, and right now fading USC at even money looks like the best way to play the win total.