How many wins do USC and UCLA need to please fans this season?

During the opening week of the college football season, authors Ben Bolch, Ryan Kartje, J. Brady McCollough and Thuc Nhi Nguyen addressed the most pressing issues facing the UCLA and USC football programs.

This year’s College Football Playoff National Championship game will be played at SoFi Stadium, so they also looked at which team they think will win the title at Inglewood.

How many wins does USC need to call it a successful season?

USC players go to practice.

USC players go to practice on the first day of fall training camp.

(Michael Owen Baker / For the Times)

card: The honeymoon energy in Troy is still going strong…at least for now. I think most fans understand that a team doesn’t usually go from a 4-8 debacle to the college football playoff abyss no matter who your coach is. However, this team has enough talent – and an easy schedule – to win at least nine regular-season games, and that should be the expectation. So much depends on the Trojans’ voyage to Salt Lake City in October; Beat the Utes, and suddenly we’re talking about a Pac-12 title favorite and a potential dark horse playoff contender.

bolt: Ten. It’s an impatient fan base and even Lincoln Riley said he expects to win big in Year 1. With so much hype, there’s no room for early stumbles that would be sensible in more level-headed situations.

McCollough: Ben is right. Ten wins marks Riley’s Year 1 mark, and it leaves very little room for error considering the Trojans play in Utah and Notre Dame (each team is consensus in last season’s top 10). In my power five picks, I have USC losing to Utah, UCLA, and Notre Dame. The bowl game is likely to become a big part of Riley’s program as his freshman year is seen by the fan base.

Nguyen: It’s not just outside expectations that are setting the bar high for USC this year. Riley has said multiple times that they’re playing for championships this year, and to do that, the team should have at least nine regular-season wins and push for a 10th-place finish with the bowl opportunity.

How many wins does UCLA need to call this season a successful one?

UCLA players celebrate second-half interception of defenseman Cameron Johnson.

UCLA players celebrate defender Cameron Johnson’s interception against USC at the Coliseum on November 20, 2021.

(Allen J. Cockroaches / Los Angeles Times)

Ben Bolch: It’s not the number of wins, but which the Bruins bag will matter most. They’ll likely need to win two out of three games against contenders Utah, Oregon and USC to get to the Pac-12 championship game. That would probably take her to (at least) 10 wins.

Nguyen: Especially with such a simple schedule, the Bruins will need to post at least double-digit profits to maintain the steady (but slower-than-desired) improvement of the Chip Kelly era. After several years of low-stakes rivalry games in which both UCLA and USC struggled, this year’s numbers will have some real juice as both teams will theoretically be battling at the top of the conference.

McCollough: Similar to USC, Chip Kelly needs 10 wins to feel good about the progress of his fifth-year program. That means beating one of Utah, USC, and Oregon and taking care of the teams that — on paper, at least — should be very beatable for the Bruins. Of course, a 9-3 with a win over the Trojans in the Rose Bowl would be enough to keep Chip’s place cool for another year.

card: It is absolutely imperative that UCLA win their first five games as their goal is still out of the gate. After that we will see what Kelly and Co. are really capable of. I’m not convinced the Bruins are on the same level as Utah, Oregon or USC, but if they can turn one of the Pac-12’s frontrunners upside down, it’s not unreasonable to think they’ll win this season at nine could end victories.

Is the USC Spotlight Actually Good for Chip Kelly and UCLA? If yes why?

UCLA coach Chip Kelly smiles.

UCLA coach Chip Kelly smiles during Pac-12 Football Media Day July 29 in Los Angeles.

(Damian Dovarganes/Associated Press)

bolt: Absolutely. Kelly would have made a top-notch fighter pilot because he loves to fly under the radar. The USC hype has piqued interest in the Bruins to the point where only two—two! – Reporters showed up for a handful of drills at the fall training camp. This keeps Kelly in his element, simply playing football without distractions.

Nguyen: Wasn’t shying away from the national spotlight one of the main reasons Kelly chose UCLA in 2017, when Florida was also courting him as a head coaching candidate? The opportunity to work somewhat anonymously at Westwood instead of working in the blinding spotlight of the SEC appealed to him, so I don’t expect any complaints from Kelly if everyone decides to turn their attention to Heritage Hall.

card: To be honest, I completely forgot about Chip Kelly and his Hot Seat this summer. But as USC and Riley make their inevitable heel turn this season, I have no doubt Kelly will bask in that anonymity for a while. If he can beat Riley in their first meeting at the Rose Bowl, maybe we’ll see the spotlight shift late in the season.

McCollough: Chip Kelly sticks to his “win the day” mantra no matter what’s going on around him, but it certainly doesn’t hurt that his players have had to listen to USC all through the offseason after beating the Trojans at the Coliseum. Even Chip could find a way to use that to his motivating advantage if he’s so inclined. (He probably isn’t, but maybe some people on his coaching and training team are?)

Can Caleb Williams really fight for the Heisman?

USC quarterback Caleb Williams makes a pass in practice.

USC quarterback Caleb Williams puts through a pass at fall camp.

(Michael Owen Baker / For the Times)

card: Definitive. It was only a few games before Williams burst onto the scene in 2021 as a fresh Heisman contender. Now he had a whole year to get used to the system. The kid gloves have come off and Riley made it clear that he now fully trusts Williams. Any quarterback’s biggest jump comes between Year 1 and Year 2, and Williams is no ordinary talent. Three of Riley’s previous four passers in Oklahoma were at least Heisman finalists, and I wouldn’t be stunned to see Williams join that respected fraternity this season. However, to reach that level, USC would have to at least seriously contend for a Pac-12 title, if not win one.

Nguyen: It absolutely depends on the team’s performance that could make Alex Grinch one of the most important people in Caleb Williams’ Heisman campaign. The new defensive coordinator has a monumental undertaking to rebuild what was statistically the worst defense in USC history. With so many explosive offensive weapons, Williams could definitely put up Heisman-worthy numbers, but unless defense helps the Trojans be great in the win column, it won’t be enough to keep the Heisman hype train going.

bolt: So you’re saying it could be the Grinch who stole a Merry Christmas from the Trojans? That’s dead. It’s not Williams that’s the problem, it’s the team around him. Everyone knows he can put together a Heisman-caliber season, but if the Trojans win fewer than 10 games, it doesn’t matter what he does. Quarterbacks playing in the Alamo Bowl don’t win Heismans.

McCollough: Caleb Williams has every chance of winning the program’s eighth Heisman Trophy (yes, we’re counting Reggie Bush). I’ll have something on that topic later this week.

Who do you expect to be the top performers for UCLA?

UCLA's Zach Charbonnet running for a touchdown on August 28, 2021 at the Rose Bowl.

UCLA’s Zach Charbonnet running for a touchdown against Hawaii at the Rose Bowl on Aug. 28, 2021.

(Ashley Landis/Associated Press)

McCollough: Interestingly, Chip Kelly pointed out that if quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson had decided to turn pro, he would have been drafted. If that’s true, then DTR really came back because he’s motivated to complete the special season the Bruins seemed to be having last year. DTR has flashed the kind of skill that can take a team to the top many times. He just has to do it consistently week in and week out, and I expect he will. He also got to hear all the Caleb Williams hype throughout the offseason, which fueled his fire even more.

bolt: I’m tempted to go in a few directions here — Thompson-Robinson, sack-loving linebacker Darius Muasau, and twin edge rushers Gabriel and Grayson Murphy are all intriguing candidates — but ultimately I think Zach Charbonnet caught the eye early in the season Nation storms and stays there through Thanksgiving week, positioning him for a trip to New York for the Heisman ceremony. Charbonnet will gobble up yards during the Bruins’ easiest non-conference list in 30 years, and he’s good enough to keep the momentum going in the Pac-12 game as the Bruins seek their first Rose Bowl since 1999.

Nguyen: Media and fans love quarterbacks, but Chip Kelly’s best offenses come through her running backs. The Bruins have a great leader in Zach Charbonnet. As Dorian Thompson-Robinson continues his steady climb up the school record books, I expect Charbonnet will be the most prolific player on a successful UCLA offensive line.

card: Everyone gets on the Zach Charbonnet Hype Train. Let me believe the Bruins top defender will lead the Pac-12 when the dust settles this season.

We end the season at SoFi Stadium regardless of how well the local teams do. Who is your national champion?

Alabama coach Nick Saban leads his team onto the field.

Alabama coach Nick Saban leads his team onto the field before the college football playoff championship game against Georgia January 10 in Indianapolis.

(Paul Sancya/Associated Press)

card: I will not pick Alabama. I will not pick Alabama. I will not – well, who am I kidding? The tide is rolling. Again.

bolt: Alabama. In a world changing at particle accelerator speed, some things stay the same.

McCollough: Alabama. Nick Saban and Bryce Young both have an ax to grind with Kirby Smart and Georgia, and Ohio State’s defense hasn’t made up ground to keep up with Alabama’s offense.

Nguyen: Alabama is inevitable. *Thanos snaps.* How many wins do USC and UCLA need to please fans this season?

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