Until it actually happens, there will be constant chatter about whether USC is “back” under Lincoln Riley. The debate will carry on with many subjective criteria being used by the program’s supporters and detractors, but here’s one objective marker that should be considered in the discussion:
The Trojans will need to bring home their eighth Heisman Trophy — yes, eighth, because we all saw what happened on the field and at New York’s Downtown Athletic Club in 2005 when the coveted bronze statue was handed to Reggie Bush as the program’s seventh winner.
When USC is USC, its top players win Heismans. Period. Eight would vault the Trojans above Ohio State, Notre Dame and Oklahoma (and wouldn’t that be satisfying for Riley, whose tutelage of quarterbacks Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray brought the Sooners two of their seven?).
For the next two seasons Caleb Williams, USC’s much-hyped quarterback transfer from Oklahoma, will be among the favorites to win the Heisman. What will it take for him to do it in 2022?
Here are eight — there’s that number again! — factors to look out for:
Win 10 games
It’s not news that team success factors greatly into the Heisman voting. Williams may not need to lead USC to 10 wins, given that the Trojans went 4-8 last year and even flipping that around to 8-4 would show his obvious impact, but 10 victories would undoubtedly have him in the top rung of candidates.
This is also extra important because his expected top competitors — Alabama’s Bryce Young, last year’s winner, and Ohio State’s CJ Stroud, a finalist last year — are likely to be leading their teams to the College Football Playoff semifinals. With eight or nine wins, Williams would have to amass ridiculous numbers to put himself above them in the pecking order.
Past winners Tim Tebow in 2007 and Lamar Jackson in 2016 each led their teams to 9-3 regular seasons, but both put up eye-popping numbers that included the rushing stats of an all-conference tailback. Which leads us to our next point …
Rush for more than 750 yards
Riley has to run Williams. Of course Riley’s job is to win championships, not Heismans, and he needs Williams to be healthy to contend for a Pac-12 title. Still, to fully unlock the Trojans’ potential, Williams needs to be a running threat. Even 10 totes per game would be enough to differentiate him from Young and Stroud, who scramble to pass and are not called on for designed runs.
Over the final month of last season at Oklahoma, Williams rushed 12 times per game. If he kept up that pace and rushed for the same average he did all of last season, he’d finish at 858 yards rushing — a number that voters would have to consider in evaluating his value to his team.
Keep interceptions in single digits
One last statistical key: The last two Heisman-winning quarterbacks threw fewer than five interceptions in the regular season. If Williams throws 10 or more, that’s going to be held against him.
Win a marquee game
Williams needs to star in a game that people will remember, and it needs to be a USC victory.
That means the Trojans need to win at Utah Oct. 15 in what could be a battle of top-10 unbeaten teams or at home against Notre Dame in the regular-season finale.
Given the proximity to voting time, a win over the Irish could certainly put him over the top.
Build buzz early
It is likely that USC’s Sept. 10 game at Stanford will be the prime-time offering on ABC with Chris Fowler and Kirk Herbstreit on the call. A sterling performance in front of a national audience from Williams will confirm his candidacy the rest of the way.
Make Jordan Addison’s big bet pay off
Jordan Addison, the Biletnikoff Award winner last year as the nation’s top wide receiver, transferred from Pittsburgh to USC in part because of a desire to play with a top-flight quarterback.
Williams needs to keep a weapon like Addison humming at an All-America level, but he’ll need to improve his 38-percent deep-ball completion percentage from last season when Addison is inevitably speeding by defenders with nothing but green in front of him.
Flash like Superman
You can’t carry a nickname like “Superman” and not at least look the part some of the time. Williams’ remarkable effort in the Red River Rivalry last season when he led the Sooners back from a 28-7 deficit to beat Texas should provide a fine blueprint for establishing a “wow” factor.
Hope voters don’t want a repeat winner
Archie Griffin winning back-to-back Heisman Trophies in 1974-75 is ingrained in the sport’s lore. Would voters enjoy placing Bryce Young in such exclusive company? The guess here is that voters would prefer fresh blood such as Stroud or Williams — if they do their part.