College football roundtable: How many wins do USC and UCLA need this season?

Los Angeles, CA - November 20: UCLA cornerback Cameron Johnson, right, bats a pass away from USC wide receiver Tahj Washington in the second quarter at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles on Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
UCLA cornerback Cameron Johnson, right, knocks a pass away from USC wide receiver Tahj Washington at the Coliseum on Nov. 20, 2021. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

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

This season's College Football Playoff national championship game will be played at SoFi Stadium, so they also tackled which team they believe will clinch the title in Inglewood.

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

USC players head to practice.
USC players head to practice during the first day of fall training camp. (Michael Owen Baker / For The Times)

Kartje: The honeymoon energy in Troy is still going strong … for the moment, at least. I think most of the fans understand that a team doesn’t typically go from a 4-8 debacle to the precipice of the College Football Playoff, no matter who your coach happens to be. That said, this team has enough talent — and an easy enough schedule — to win at least nine games in the regular season, and that should be the expectation. So much hinges on the Trojans’ trip 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.

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

McCollough: Ben’s right. Ten wins is the marker for Riley in Year 1, and it leaves very little margin for error considering the Trojans play at Utah and against Notre Dame (each team is consensus preseason top 10). In my Power Five picks, I have USC losing to Utah, UCLA and Notre Dame. The bowl game is likely to take on huge significance for Riley’s program in how his first year is viewed by the fan base.

Nguyen: It’s not just outside expectations that are setting the bar high for USC this year either. 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 toward a 10th with the bowl opportunity.

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

UCLA players celebrate defensive back Cameron Johnson's second half interception.
UCLA players celebrate defensive back Cameron Johnson's interception against USC at the Coliseum on Nov. 20, 2021. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

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

Nguyen: Especially with such an easy schedule, the Bruins have to get to at least double-digit wins to sustain the steady (but slower than desired) improvement of the Chip Kelly era. After several years of low-stakes rivalry games as both UCLA and USC struggled, this year’s figures to have some real juice as both teams are, theoretically, going to be battling at the top of the conference.

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

Kartje: It’s absolutely imperative, with its cakewalk slate out of the gate, that UCLA win its first five games. After that, we’ll see what Kelly and Co. are really made of. I’m not convinced that the Bruins are on the same level as Utah, Oregon or USC, but if they can upend one of the Pac-12’s top tier, it’s not unreasonable to think that they could finish with nine wins this season.

Is the USC spotlight actually good for Chip Kelly and UCLA? If so, 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)

Bolch: Absolutely. Kelly would have made an ace fighter pilot because he loves flying under the radar. The USC buzz has cratered interest in the Bruins to the point that only two — two! — reporters showed up to a handful of fall training camp practices. That leaves Kelly in his element of just playing football without any distractions.

Nguyen: Also, wasn’t shying away from the national spotlight one of the primary reasons Kelly chose UCLA in 2017 when Florida was courting him as a head coaching candidate too? The opportunity to work somewhat anonymously in Westwood as opposed to under the blinding SEC spotlight appealed to him, so I don’t anticipate any complaints coming from Kelly if everyone decides to direct their attention to Heritage Hall.

Kartje: Honestly, I’d forgotten entirely about Chip Kelly and his hot seat this summer. But while USC and Riley take 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 that late-season spotlight shift.

McCollough: Chip Kelly sticks to his “Win the Day” mantra no matter what is going on around him, but it certainly can’t hurt that his players have had to hear about USC all offseason after drubbing the Trojans in the Coliseum. Even Chip could find a way to play that to his advantage motivationally, if he’s inclined. (He probably isn’t, but maybe some folks on his coaching and training staff are?)

Can Caleb Williams really contend for the Heisman?

USC quarterback Caleb Williams follows through on a pass at practice.
USC quarterback Caleb Williams follows through on a pass during fall camp. (Michael Owen Baker / For The Times)

Kartje: Definitely. It took just a few games for Williams to burst onto the scene as a freshman Heisman contender in 2021. Now he’s had an entire year to settle into the system. The kid gloves are off, and Riley made clear that he now trusts Williams completely. The biggest leap from any quarterback comes between Year 1 and Year 2, and Williams is no ordinary talent. Three of Riley’s previous four passers at Oklahoma were at least Heisman finalists, and I wouldn’t be stunned to see Williams join that distinguished fraternity this season. Reaching that level, however, would require USC to at least seriously contend for a Pac-12 title, if not win one.

Nguyen: It absolutely comes down to the team’s performance, which could make Alex Grinch one of the most important people in Caleb Williams’ Heisman campaign. The new defensive coordinator has a huge undertaking in front of him to rebuild this defense that was statistically the worst in USC history. With so many explosive offensive weapons, Williams could definitely put up Heisman-worthy numbers, but if the defense doesn’t help the Trojans be great in the wins column, it’s not going to be enough to keep the Heisman hype train running.

Bolch: So you’re saying it might be the Grinch who stole a happy Trojans Christmas? That’s dead on. It isn’t Williams that’s the issue so much as the team around him. Everybody knows he can put together a Heisman-caliber season, but if the Trojans win fewer than 10 games it won’t matter what he does. Quarterbacks playing in the Alamo Bowl don’t win Heismans.

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

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

UCLA's Zach Charbonnet runs for a touchdown Aug. 28, 2021, at the Rose Bowl.
UCLA's Zach Charbonnet runs for a touchdown against Hawaii on Aug. 28, 2021, at the Rose Bowl. (Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

McCollough: It was interesting that Chip Kelly has made a point of saying that quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson would have been drafted if he had made the decision to go pro. If that’s true, then DTR truly did come back because he’s motivated to finish off the special season that it seemed like the Bruins were going to have last year. DTR has flashed the kind of ability that can put a team over the top many times. He just has to do it consistently week in and week out, and I expect he will. He also has had to hear all of the Caleb Williams hype the entire offseason, fueling his fire even more.

Bolch: I’m tempted to go in a few directions here — Thompson-Robinson, sack-happy linebacker Darius Muasau and twin edge rushers Gabriel and Grayson Murphy are all intriguing candidates — but ultimately I think Zach Charbonnet dashes into the nation’s consciousness early in the season and remains there through Thanksgiving week, putting him in position for a trip to New York for the Heisman ceremony. Charbonnet is going to gobble up yards during the Bruins’ easiest nonconference slate in 30 years, and he’s good enough to keep the momentum going in Pac-12 play as the Bruins seek their first Rose Bowl since 1999.

Nguyen: Media and fans love quarterbacks, but Chip Kelly’s best offenses go through their running backs. With Zach Charbonnet, the Bruins have a great one to lead the charge. While Dorian Thompson-Robinson will continue his steady march up the school record books, I expect Charbonnet to be the most productive player for what should be a successful UCLA offense.

Kartje: All aboard the Zach Charbonnet hype train. Put me down as a believer that the Bruins' top back is leading the Pac-12 in rushing when the dust settles on this season.

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

Alabama coach Nick Saban leads his team on the field.
Alabama coach Nick Saban leads his team on the field before the College Football Playoff championship game against Georgia on Jan. 10 in Indianapolis. (Paul Sancya / Associated Press)

Kartje: I won’t pick Alabama. I won’t pick Alabama. I won’t — ah well, who am I kidding? The Tide roll. Again.

Bolch: Alabama. In a world changing at particle-accelerator speed, some things remain the same.

McCollough: Alabama. Nick Saban and Bryce Young both have a bone to pick with Kirby Smart and Georgia, and Ohio State’s defense hasn’t made up the ground to go toe to toe with Alabama’s offense.

Nguyen: Alabama is inevitable. *Thanos snap.*

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.