Amid Georgia championship celebration, there’s USC anticipation
Early in a defensive slugfest that ultimately left him wounded, Bryce Young shined. He dodged danger from Georgia’s bruising bullies and locomotive linebackers all night, spinning passes so accurate it seemed he hardly needed his top two NFL-bound wide receivers to move Alabama down the field. The best quarterbacks don’t become too dependent on their targets; they elevate them, whomever they may be.
On the opposite sideline stood another Santa Ana Mater Dei product reminding USC fans who tuned into Monday night’s national championship game of the acute pain that has come with finding a difference-maker at quarterback since Sam Darnold’s departure. JT Daniels, the five-star prospect who actually made it to campus, left the hometown Trojans for this, holding a clipboard for most of two seasons in Athens behind an inspiring and unflappable former walk-on in Stetson Bennett IV?
In the rapidly changing world of college football today, where the transfer portal beckons at the first pang of insecurity and players are unshackled by name, image and likeness limitations, it has become increasingly hard to bank on having security at the most important position on the field. USC is certainly not alone.
But Monday of all nights, with the Young Who Got Away dazzling under the bright lights of Lucas Oil Stadium and Daniels’ star dimming in the shadow of Bennett’s second-half masterpiece, those who bleed cardinal and gold didn’t have to feel down anymore while watching Georgia’s gritty 33-18 victory over Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide.
In fact, the tortured Trojans legions turned on this title bout ready to party, refreshing their Twitter feeds and parsing any nugget of information, asking: Is he coming?
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Caleb Williams did not announce that he was transferring from Oklahoma to USC on Monday, but the signs that he eventually will became hard to deny. Sunday, Williams, the top quarterback in the 2021 class who chose to play for the Sooners because of Lincoln Riley, was in L.A., sampling our city’s unparalleled sports smorgasbord. He took in the Rams game from a field-level suite at SoFi Stadium before zooming over to the Lakers game downtown.
On Monday, USC’s likely starter at quarterback, enticing sophomore Jaxson Dart, entered the transfer portal. There is very little chance he would have done that if Williams hadn’t made his intentions known.
For the first time since January 2017, after the Trojans had outlasted Penn State in that Rose Bowl classic and had Darnold coming back, USC folks could think realistically about someday receiving an invite to the College Football Playoff.
It had to feel good to be looking forward — not back to Daniels’ freshman flameout in 2018; his season-ending knee injury the next year that led to Kedon Slovis’ rise; Young’s decision to flip from USC to Alabama; and Slovis’ regression through the pandemic period and eventual transfer this offseason to Pittsburgh.
From the moment Riley’s hire was announced, it was assumed Williams would have a decision to make. The young man from Washington, D.C., did not choose Oklahoma because he always dreamed of being a Sooner. He wanted to be the latest Heisman Trophy winner and No. 1 overall draft pick to be mentored by Riley.
Williams took over for Spencer Rattler, the guy most assumed would be Riley’s next Heisman winner, in the second half of the Texas game. He owned the Red River Rivalry stage, leading an all-time Oklahoma comeback and setting expectations for the rest of his season that the freshman could not meet.
Riley’s offense never fully took off with Williams, as the Sooners fell at Baylor and Oklahoma State, but ironically that opened the door for USC to wiggle its way into the picture. Riley bolted for L.A., and it’s clear he still believes Williams is the best quarterback around to run his offense for at least the next two seasons.
As excited as USC fans are about Riley and the potential of Williams, they should remember to breathe. A turnaround that would put the Trojans back on the national stage is unlikely to happen quickly. Riley and Williams struggled this season, and Oklahoma boasted much more infrastructure for success than they will find at USC.
Monday night’s game carried lessons too about the journey ahead. Georgia’s dominant defensive front and a will forged by four humbling defeats to Alabama pushed the Bulldogs through Saban’s dynasty and the amazing Young, who finally ran out of magic. USC has a barren defensive two-deep and an empty well where there was once a will.
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The Bulldogs did not need a five-star quarterback, as Bennett avenged a questionable fumble with two late touchdown passes. He could not contain his emotions once it was clear he had led Georgia to its first national championship since 1980.
“I wasn’t going to be the reason we lost tonight,” Bennett told ESPN.
What a story. But the conventional logic remains that it’s still better to have a guy like Young or Williams taking snaps.
All the Trojans need is for Williams to say the word.
Go beyond the scoreboard
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