Editor’s note: Eleventh in a series previewing each team in the Pac-12.

USC was enjoying a remarkable return to glory last season under first-year coach Lincoln Riley.

That is, until the Trojans ran into Utah — twice.

The Utes put a major damper on USC’s rise, beating the Trojans once in overtime in Salt Lake City and again in the Pac-12 championship game in Las Vegas. 

While USC boasted an explosive offense under the direction of Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Caleb Williams, the Trojans know they need to bolster their defense, which gave up 43 and 47 points, respectively, against Utah. 

USC has tried to address those defensive deficiencies during the offseason, adding linebacker Mason Cobb, an All-Big 12 selection from Oklahoma State (and Provo High); five-star lineman Anthony Lucas, a transfer from Texas A&M; and defensive tackle Kyon Barrs, an All-Pac-12 defensive tackle from Arizona. 

But will those additions be enough to lift USC to a new level in 2023? The Trojans are entering their final season in the Pac-12 before moving on to the Big Ten. 

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How quarterback Michael Penix Jr. is leading resurgent Washington
Why the climb back to relevancy for Stanford football could prove to be difficult
Will high-profile Clemson transfer give Oregon State’s offense a big boost?
What will Oregon’s Bo Nix do for an encore?
Is Cal coach Justin Wilcox on the hot seat?
Youngest coach in FBS comes home to lead Arizona State
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Who’s going to replace DTR, Charbonnet at UCLA?

If USC is going to contend for a Pac-12 title — let alone a national championship — it will need to be much better defensively. 

Riley is excited about the progress his defense has made since last season.

“We all knew deep down that we had some holes there last year,” he said after the spring game. “I mean, it is what it is right? You knew. And even when we’re winning games and playing, playing well defensively, like, you know, at some point this has got to be addressed. It was going to be a focal point no matter if we won five games last year, we won 11, or we won 15 games last year. Like, it was going to happen. And so I’m excited about what that looks like.”

On the offensive side of the ball, Williams is receiving plenty of preseason hype. 

“If Caleb Williams passes and runs and leads the Trojans through another season like last season, he could end it as the greatest quarterback in college football history. Better than Florida’s Tim Tebow, who won two national titles but wouldn’t have Williams’ numbers,” wrote Los Angeles Times columnist Bill Plaschke. “Better than Louisiana State’s Joe Burrow, who had the most incredible single season for a college football quarterback in 2019 but only did it once.

“Better than even USC’s own Matt Leinart, who won two titles and a Heisman but failed to win a second Heisman after he voted for teammate Reggie Bush. Playing on a national stage with one of the nation’s premier franchises, Williams can become the first quarterback, and only the second player, to win two Heisman Trophies.”

Williams will have a lot of weapons at his disposal, including wide receiver Dorian Singer, an Arizona transfer. 

But how will the USC defense fare? That’s the big question. 

Entering his first season, Riley, who took over the program after guiding Oklahoma to three College Football Playoff appearances, was confident about what he could accomplish at USC. The Trojans were coming off an embarrassing 4-8 campaign. 

“I’m not going to take any goal off the table,” he said. “I said it Day 1. That’s not why we came here, so we expect to compete for and win championships every single year.”

In the end, USC’s offense held up its end of the bargain. Now, the Trojans are hoping the defense can do its part. 

2022 record: 11-3 (8-1 Pac-12).

Utah ties

  • QB Jake Jensen (Pleasant Grove HS).
  • LB Mason Cobb (Provo HS).
  • TE Carson Tabaracci (Park City HS/Utah).

2023 schedule

  • Aug. 26 San Jose State.
  • Sept. 2 Nevada.
  • Sept. 9 Stanford.
  • Sept. 23 @Arizona State.
  • Sept. 30 @Colorado.
  • Oct. 7  Arizona.
  • Oct. 14 @Notre Dame.
  • Oct. 21 Utah.
  • Oct. 28 @California
  • Nov. 4 Washington
  • Nov. 11 @Oregon.
  • Nov. 18 UCLA.
Southern California quarterback Caleb Williams smiles after USC defeated Notre Dame 38-27 Saturday, Nov. 26, 2022, in Los Angeles. Williams, who returns in 2023 as the Trojans’ QB, was named the AP Player of the Year. | Mark J. Terrill, Associated Press