Oftentimes when USC football fans and/or media members discuss expectations for this 2022 team, they mention that Pete Carroll's first USC team was 6-6. It's an effort to pump the brakes when certain analysts predict them to make the College Football Playoff.
It's a good argument, and it's worth taking a look and really dissecting whether this team in Year 1 with a new head coach can be compared to that team in Year 1 with a new head coach. Everyone has their eyes on USC's new-look roster, and it's for good reason. SC loaded up in the transfer portal--finding two five-star transfers and five four-star transfers.
They return four starters on the No. 1-rated O-Line in the country (PFF), and Tuli Tuipulotu is always a stud on the D-Line. A good nickelback in Max Williams will be healthy, and both Calen Bullock and Xavion Alford showed enough promise to have confidence in. That's why it's a trip when analyzing how similar Carroll's first roster was to Lincoln Riley's.
For starters, the QB room under Pete Carroll in his first year was similar to Lincoln Riley's.
Pete Carroll had a future Heisman winner at QB for USC football in his first year. Was Carson Palmer even close to his ceiling at that point? Not at all, but Carroll did have a very talented quarterback, just like Riley has one in Caleb Williams. Carroll had another future NFL Draft pick and Pro Bowler behind Palmer in Matt Cassel, similar to how USC has high hopes for their current backup QB (Miller Moss) too.
So, while Palmer wasn't as good at the time as Williams is now, it is fair to bring up that talent at QB wasn't the issue for Carroll. Again, he even had another NFL Pro Bowler backing Palmer up. He, like Moss, is a great backup. But it's not just about quarterbacks, right?
There are 17 other positions on offense and defense combined. But, some of USC's strongest positions on this team were very strong for that 6-6 Carroll team as well. Look at RB, for instance. USC has a great running back room headlined by Travis Dye, but USC also had a future NFL back in Sultan McCullough for Carroll's first year too.
As for the receivers, USC has the best one in the country this year in Jordan Addison and another top 10 guy in Mario Williams. But...WR talent wasn't really USC's problem in 2001 either. They weren't ANYWHERE near as deep as this WR corps is, but they still had a player more than capable of being a stud in Keary Colbert. He didn't pop until the next year, but he was still around.
Did Carroll's first team have the line that Riley is about to have? Well, not on offense, but he did have Shaun Cody and Kenechi Udeze on defense. And look at the linebacking crew. Riley boasts a massive transfer pickup in Eric Gentry, but Carroll had Matt Grootegoed at his disposal.
And look, Riley's secondary certainly looks pretty solid. Mekhi Blackmon is coming in and is a plug-and-play corner who was a captain for Colorado. Alford and Bullock were already mentioned, as well as Max. Domani Jackson will likely slot in as the No. 2 corner, and he was the fifth-best recruit in the entire country in the 2022 class (247Sports).
But again...Carroll had a ton of secondary talent too in his first year at SC. He had three NFL Draft picks (Troy Polamalu, Kris Richard, Chris Cash) and a Pro Football Hall of Famer (Polamalu).
This article is NOT to suggest that USC is going 6-6. Riley is coming in with far too much momentum as a coach (remember how Carroll was an NFL castoff at the time he was hired by SC) to go 6-6. But, it is to warn those who have maybe set their expectations too high for this team due to the talent on the roster and the name of the head coach.
USC, with a roster that didn't have a talent deficiency and had CARROLL--one of the best college football coaches ever--went 6-6 in 2001. Turning a program around in Year 1 with a new coach is hard, even with one as good as Carroll. Again, it's not a perfect comparison. Many of those big names for Carroll mentioned in the article weren't at their peaks until after Carroll's first year.
That's why everyone loves this roster. Many of the best players are already proven as quality players, or better. But this article is being written so that if USC goes 8-4 this season, understand that it's not because Riley isn't the coach everyone thought he was. It's not because USC is cursed, or that they'll never be back. It's simply that this stuff isn't easy for ANY first-year coach.
USC is ranked 14th in the AP Preseason Top 25 Poll. Again, they are likely not going 6-6, or anywhere close to it. But if they don't keep their ranking that high and dip into four-loss territory, understand that USC is still succeeding in their process, and to trust that things will continue improving at a nice rate.
If Carroll can go 6-6 in Year 1, it shouldn't be expected that Riley bring USC back in just one year when inheriting the amount of cultural problems he did.