Los Angeles will host next season's College Football Playoff championship game at SoFi Stadium. Is there any chance UCLA or USC could earn a spot in it?
New Trojans coach Lincoln Riley has been courting Oklahoma star quarterback Caleb Williams with the hope he can be the centerpiece of a quick USC rebuild, while veteran UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson has committed to retuning to UCLA before coach Chip Kelly has locked in his future with the Bruins.
L.A. Times college football writers Ben Bolch, Ryan Kartje, J. Brady McCollough and Thuc Nhi Nguyen break down what fans should expect from the Bruins and Trojans in 2022.
What impact can Caleb Williams have if he does choose to transfer to USC?
Bolch: Williams would sell a lot of tickets, making the Coliseum a far less desolate place, and make the Trojans’ offense not just buzzworthy but capable of torching defenses from the moment he throws his first pass. His presence would vastly accelerate the timeline for coach Lincoln Riley to succeed by giving the Trojans the sort of star they want to build around. The quarterback’s familiarity with Riley also means there would be no breaking-in period for either one once the reunion becomes official.
Kartje: Jaxson Dart had a really impressive debut season while thrust into a difficult spot as a freshman. USC would’ve been just fine with him at the helm next season. With Riley guiding his development, a Dart-led future looked pretty bright at USC, and I have no doubt he’ll make another team very happy as its quarterback. But Williams is on another level. He’s already being viewed as a candidate for the top pick in the 2024 NFL draft. His arrival would immediately set USC on a different course over the next two seasons. He’s already comfortable in Riley’s offense, and while he wouldn’t have the same caliber of weapons to work with, there’s no doubt he would immediately step in as one of the best quarterbacks in the Pac-12. That goes a long way when you’re trying to rebuild a program.
McCollough: Ryan, it’s interesting you feel that way about the difference in weapons between USC and Oklahoma. I do think that the Sooners had way more proven depth at wide receiver than the Trojans feature at this moment, plus a deeper stable of running backs, particularly with Keaontay Ingram’s decision to go pro. But Riley is going to pack USC’s wide receiver room very quickly, as it also seems that five-star player Mario Williams will be transferring with Caleb from Oklahoma. You roll out Gary Bryant Jr. (who flashed this year), Mario Williams, Tahj Washington/Kyle Ford, recent top-100 commit C.J. Williams, plus some transfers like Washington’s Terrell Bynum, and, while you may not have the depth OU had, you can give Caleb plenty to work with. Running back will be a question, of course, but five-star prospect Raleek Brown will give Riley a tantalizing option right off the bat. The bigger issue will be the drop-off between Oklahoma’s offensive line talent and USC’s. But Caleb’s athletic ability will really come in handy there too.
Kartje: Adding Mario Williams would definitely help, and I agree that Bryant could be a major beneficiary of Riley’s arrival. But the rest of the group still has a lot to prove. Losing standout freshman tight end Michael Trigg hurts. The biggest question mark is in the backfield, where USC is going to be relying a lot on Darwin Barlow.
Nguyen: It's a shame Jaxson Dart didn't work out at USC. He clearly showed how talented he was. But USC fans aren't crying about trading him for someone as good as Caleb Williams. We've already seen the kind of magic Lincoln Riley makes at the quarterback position, and to bring someone of Williams' caliber to USC will add a much-needed jolt of energy to the fan base. And like Brady alluded to, it's not just the fans who get excited. Recruits and other players are now feeling USC's gravitational pull, so Lincoln Riley will be able to restock the cupboard quickly. Come on down, Mario Williams.
Dorian Thompson-Robinson is back. Is that a good thing for UCLA and who will he have to work with?
Bolch: After 3½ years of wildly vacillating highs and lows, Thompson-Robinson has finally been almost universally embraced by fans given his strong finish to the 2021 season. His six-touchdown performance against USC, including the signing of a hat midgame and the vault over a helpless Trojans defender, was the tipping point that sent his approval rating soaring. If Thompson-Robinson can maintain that sort of spectacular level of play in 2022, he could have the Bruins in the hunt for their first Rose Bowl appearance since the 1998 season. The one caveat is that UCLA is losing both of its starting offensive tackles and top two pass catchers in Kyle Philips and Greg Dulcich, meaning that Thompson-Robinson will need to find several new favorite targets next season.
Kartje: I’m already anticipating Thompson-Robinson’s rematch with USC next November. No performance was more demoralizing for the Trojans this season than DTR’s complete dismantling of their defense. But like Ben mentioned, I think losing Philips and Dulcich is significant. I’m curious to see if he can carry over the success of last season’s final stretch without them.
On another note, don’t be surprised if UCLA is still a player in the quarterback transfer market. Dart considered the Bruins until the very end of his recruitment, and he reiterated this past season in the run-up to the game how close he was to signing with UCLA. There’s even been chatter about Williams visiting the Bruins. Could Thompson-Robinson reconsider if one of those two suddenly decided to sign with UCLA?
McCollough: Until DTR’s announcement Monday, I had been assuming Dart would just switch zip codes and zoom across town to Westwood, spending the next couple years trying to make USC and Riley regret prioritizing Williams over him. With DTR back, I assume Dart will be looking for a clearer path to immediate playing time because he’s a kid with supreme confidence.
To go back to the original question, is it a good thing that DTR is back? If the Bruins did indeed miss out on a guy like Dart — who would be around for at least two years — to bring back DTR for one, we won’t know the answer until we see how 2022 plays out. Ben points out the stakes of possibly contending for a Rose Bowl, and if the Bruins do that (they have Utah and USC in Pasadena), then this will have played out perfectly. But that puts a lot on DTR’s shoulders.
A big domino yet to fall is whether Zach Charbonnet returns for his senior season or goes to the NFL. Having a strong run game with Charbonnet and Brittain Brown took a lot of pressure off DTR. He’s going to have to be Superman if Charbonnet leaves.
Nguyen: First of all, just the thought of a rivalry matchup between Dorian Thompson-Robinson and Caleb Williams has me very excited. I was surprised that Dorian Thompson-Robinson decided to come back, especially because so many of his top weapons like Philips and Dulcich and his starting offensive tackles won't be back. Like Brady said, Charbonnet's potential return would be huge. I assume that he will because he only has one season as the No. 1 back and could need more to sway NFL suitors.
In terms of a potential transfer challenging Thompson-Robinson, I don't see it coming. Chip Kelly has shown immense loyalty to two people during his UCLA tenure: defensive coordinator Jerry Azzinaro and Dorian Thompson-Robinson. The chances of a transfer unseating Thompson-Robinson look extremely thin in my eyes because Kelly never wavered on the quarterback when he struggled as a sophomore. Why would he when he's coming off a good season?
Why is Chip Kelly's extension taking so long to nail down and will it have a negative impact on UCLA?
Bolch: It’s a little mystifying that the parties have not been able to get this hammered out sooner given the optics of the $9-million buyout expiring [this coming] weekend, which would officially put Kelly into lame-duck status. But the deal is expected to get done before then so that we can all move on. Kelly needs to back up his public comments that he loves being at UCLA by signing any reasonable offer that’s put in front of him.
Kartje: The clock is ticking for athletic director Martin Jarmond. As long as the deal gets done by the weekend, this situation should resolve itself. But what’s the hold up? By waiting this long, it seems like Jarmond has sacrificed some of UCLA’s leverage. They have no choice but to sign Kelly to some sort of extension now.
McCollough: Or … maybe Chip’s buyout going to $0 after Jan. 15 gives Jarmond all the leverage? He may like Chip just fine, but Chip is not his guy. Jarmond and UCLA reps have had over a month, if they were so inclined, to put out feelers to potential candidates. I’m not saying I think this is about to get messy, but I wouldn’t rule it out either. After all, if we have learned anything from this ridiculous coaching carousel, it’s to keep an open mind about what’s to come.
Kartje: Matt Campbell is still available, I hear.
McCollough: File this away, but when UCLA comes open, Dave Aranda is a name likely to emerge as a favorite. And, if I’m Jarmond and I know I can get Aranda to come home to Southern California right now, maybe I should wait until Jan. 15 and let awkwardness reign.
Nguyen: Reports in November out of Waco said Aranda’s contract was going to be amended, but Jarmond should definitely check to see if pen has been put to paper yet. What an 11th-hour move that would be.
But to be left on this contract cliff for so long is a bad look for UCLA, definitely. Chip Kelly’s contract extension feels like Thanos in its inevitability, but the long wait is damaging to the program that’s trying to compete with USC’s huge momentum-grabbing hire. Coaches and their agents have so much power in these negotiations, as we’ve noticed from the astronomical contracts being signed across the country. Whether he negotiates an extension or has to find a new coach, Jarmond has a tough job ahead because Kelly’s agent isn’t going to settle for anything less than what Kelly’s first contract gave him.
How does Riley's staff look and does it matter that it's light on local names?
Bolch: The one name that immediately stood out to me was Roy Manning, known for continually tweeting that it was a great day to be a Bruin during his one season under Chip Kelly in 2018. There weren’t too many great days for UCLA that season, the Bruins going 3-9 and Manning’s special teams a constant mess, but he probably deserves a pass given that there weren’t too many things going the team’s way that season. Manning has enjoyed considerably more success since uniting with Riley starting with the 2019 season.
McCollough: The fact that Lincoln Riley decided to keep Donte Williams on staff is going to do a lot of heavy lifting here locally. A coach of Riley’s stature certainly could have pushed through any pressure he was receiving from USC to keep Williams if he wanted to be stubborn about desiring a fully fresh start on his staff. Few know how to recruit L.A. like Williams, and he can run point. Plus, Riley is such a big name and such a dogged recruiter himself that he won’t have any trouble getting into any living room in Southern California and making his pitch.
Kartje: When the No. 1 prospect in the state makes it clear he wouldn’t have signed without Williams, that tells you how crucial he was for Riley to retain. Domani Jackson is just the latest top recruit to sign with USC thanks to Wiliams, and while his tenure as interim coach was tumultuous, his continued presence on the recruiting trail is a huge coup. Not that this group is going to need much help in that regard. It’s a young staff, with no one over the age of 48, and with Riley leading the way, it shouldn’t take long for the staff to dominate the recruiting scene in Southern California.
As for the actual coaching part of the job, this is an accomplished group in spite of its youth. Shaun Nua, USC’s new defensive line coach, comes from Michigan, where he helped develop Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo into first-round NFL talents. Running backs coach Kiel McDonald had the top rushing attack in the Pac-12 in two of the past three seasons. Offensive line coach and offensive coordinator Josh Henson had one of the top fronts in football over the past two seasons — in 2020, Texas A&M [was best in] the SEC in sacks allowed, tackles for loss allowed and yards per carry. They’ll have their work cut out for them in L.A.
Nguyen: Oh right, actual coaching! That’s a big part of this conversation too. I’m interested to see what Alex Grinch does with this defense. He helped Washington State to some of its most successful years with his “Speed-D” system that overcame some of the program’s recruiting disadvantages by focusing on max energy, creating turnovers and, as the name suggested, speed. Oklahoma fans grew annoyed with Grinch’s defense for some inconsistent play, but the Sooners still showed improvement during his tenure. The Trojans had what could have been the worst defense in school history this past year, so Grinch has his work cut out for him.
When it comes to recruiting, Riley got the one local name that mattered: Donte Williams. The combination of Riley and Williams should run Southland recruiting, no problem.
Who’s better positioned for 2022?
Bolch: UCLA has the edge given it will have a fifth-year quarterback and is essentially being gifted a 3-0 start with those games against Bowling Green, South Alabama and Alabama State. The Bruins’ games against Utah and USC are at the Rose Bowl, and the Trojans will still be in the early stages of filling all of their many talent gaps.
Kartje: In his opening press conference, Riley expressed confidence that the turnaround at USC would be quick. He reiterated those feelings again shortly after early signing day in December. But the reality of how far USC’s roster has to go makes me think that Riley will need at least a year to establish a foothold. Williams can certainly accelerate that timeline. His talent alone could make USC a dangerous team as soon as next season. But Thompson-Robinson’s experience, coupled with a schedule that’s somehow easier than USC’s, makes me inclined to go the safer route and say UCLA. If Charbonnet returns, the Bruins' rushing attack can be one of the best in the Pac-12.
McCollough: The return of DTR plus UCLA finally having a cake nonconference slate plus the Bruins playing the Trojans in the Rose Bowl makes me want to lean UCLA in 2022. Beyond that, after Riley has a full year to recruit and mine the transfer portal, I think we can all see that USC could be able to take over the crosstown rivalry for the foreseeable future. The Trojans just have so much roster turnover to deal with in the short term, but we can’t rule out the possibility that Caleb Williams elevates the entire program very quickly.
Nguyen: If he comes to USC as expected, Caleb Williams could definitely provide some huge individual moments in his first season, but considering UCLA’s easy nonconference schedule and fifth-year quarterback, the Bruins are on much more solid footing as a program for 2022. But USC could quickly close the gap by the following year with how tenaciously Lincoln Riley can recruit, so the Bruins need to make the most of their window.
Watching Monday night, just how far away is the Pac-12 from contending for a national title?
Bolch: Far. The big takeaway from the national championship game was that elite defense is what separates Georgia and Alabama from everyone else, and nobody in the Pac-12 is close to that level right now. The good news for the Pac-12 is that the recent hiring of Lincoln Riley and Dan Lanning could help narrow the gulf, particularly given what Lanning’s Bulldogs defense just did.
Kartje: That gap remains cavernous. Watching Georgia-Alabama felt like watching two NFL teams clash in the playoffs. That’s not something I’ve felt watching the Pac-12 over the past decade. Riley’s arrival definitely helps. USC can be the rising tide that lifts the rest of the conference’s boats, but it’s going to take a few years. If Lanning can get hit the ground running at Oregon, those two could become recruiting powerhouses in short order. That’s ultimately how the Pac-12 closes the gap.
McCollough: Pac-12 Commissioner George Kliavkoff mentioned to me coming off the Rose Bowl loss and the league’s 0-5 bowl record that the No. 1 thing the league has to do in recruiting is extend its territory east to bolster the offensive and defensive lines across the board. And that was certainly apparent watching Alabama and Georgia in the trenches. It’s going to be very difficult to go into other areas and convince top linemen to take a leap of faith and come to the Pac-12, but USC at least has a very adept offensive line recruiter in Josh Henson — who was cleaning up at Texas A&M — on its staff. The top Pac-12 schools will need to use the portal majorly on the lines to make up for the growing deficiency in elite offensive line and defensive line talent on the West Coast.
Nguyen: The Pac-12 is as far away as the drive from L.A. to Athens, Ga., at least. The matchups between offensive and defensive lines Monday night illustrated just how elite those SEC programs were and how far the Pac-12 has to go. It’s no coincidence that Utah, which is generally known to have some of the best linemen in the Pac-12, was the conference’s champion and stomped the other favorite, Oregon, in both games. The Pac-12 needs Dan Lanning to bring some of that Georgia strength to Eugene ASAP.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.
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