USC football takes massive climb in ESPN's 'Updated Way-Too-Early Top 25' ranking

Caleb Williams, USC Football, USC Trojans
Caleb Williams, USC Football, USC Trojans / Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The USC football program has been rather polarizing all offseason. Since they've acquired a new elite head coach in Lincoln Riley, a new elite QB in Caleb Williams, and four four-star transfers, everyone has accepted that SC will be much better. Nobody seems to agree, however, when it comes to exactly how much better they'll be.

People either have USC winning the Pac-12 and playing in another Rose Bowl, or they have SC winning seven to eight games with a bad schedule, or they have them having a good-not-great season where they finish in the high-teens or early 20's in the final AP poll.

Originally, ESPN ranked SC No. 22 in their way-too-early poll, which is about where I have them (No. 21). Recently, however, they seem to be buying into the hype. In their new 'Updated Way-Too-Early Top 25' rankings, they have USC jumping up 10 spots to reach the No. 12 slot in their early poll.

Ranking USC football at No. 12 in a 'way-too-early' poll is still very justifiable.

Look, USC football at 12 is a bit too high for me, but it's completely understandable. In fact, ESPN's Mark Schlabach gave himself quite the case in the article. He focused his argument around the brilliant work Riley has truly done in the transfer portal.

"Former Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley's face-lift of USC's roster includes the addition of 13 players through the transfer portal, including former Sooners starting quarterback Caleb Williams and Oregon star tailback Dye. Riley also has vastly upgraded the wide receiver corps by bringing in Mario Williams, Rice and Bynum. Haskins, who started 20 games at Virginia, might get plugged in at left tackle. USC's defense seems to need more work, although former Alabama linebacker Lee and ex-Colorado cornerback Blackmon should help."

Mark Schlabach, ESPN

Williams was the No. 1 player in the portal for a reason. The most highly-anticipated transfer in college football history, Williams was actually the leading contender for the Heisman Trophy for a time last season despite not even starting until the second half of the year.

Travis Dye is an elite back, and has been for multiple seasons now. As soon as he saw that Riley would be heading West, he headed home to play for his hometown Trojans. Dye rushed for a career-high 1,271 rushing yards last year (six yards per carry) and caught 46 passes for 402 yards while scoring 18 total touchdowns (16 rushing, 2 receiving).

Schlabach was also certainly right in what he said about the group of receivers that Riley will now have to work with. Mario Williams looked good in his first year of college ball last year (380 receiving yards, 4 touchdowns) and coming from Riley's offense at OU, that continuity is going to be important. Brenden Rice was a tremendous recruit, and showed plenty of promise at Colorado when he had his chances. Now that he has legit quarterback play for the first time and will be playing in an offense that values the passing game, he'll likely be very productive as the Trojans' No. 1 receiver.

Another Colorado transfer in Mekhi Blackmon will also be huge. He was a captain at Colorado, and will likely slot in as the No. 1 corner, while former Freshman All-American Shane Lee is expected to be a high-impact plug-and-play starter in the linebacking core.

Having Bobby Haskins is a huge help after 2021 starting left tackle Jalen McKenzie is off to the NFL Draft. Haskins has been a reliable player in his college career up to this point.

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This ranking from ESPN is a bit generous in comparison to where I have them, but it's not a bad take at all. It's completely justifiable when taking into account that USC has the No. 2 transfer portal class in the country coming in. The roster will be much improved, and the coaching staff is a million times better. SC likely won't be back next year, but they will be significantly improved and on quite the upward trajectory.