For USC, the path to a CFP berth is clear, if focus can shift quickly from UCLA to Notre Dame

Southern California quarterback Caleb Williams, left, gets a hug from head coach Lincoln Riley after USC defeated UCLA 48-45 in an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 19, 2022, in Pasadena, Calif. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
USC quarterback Caleb Williams, left, gets a hug from coach Lincoln Riley after the Trojans defeated UCLA to clinch a spot in the Pac-12 title game and stay in contention for a College Football Playoff spot. (Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

There were tears of joy and roars of elation, years worth of pent-up emotions all packed into one raucous, postgame celebration.

The realization seemed to sweep over USC’s sideline all at once in the final seconds of its 48-45 victory over UCLA on Saturday: Not only would the rivalry win send the Trojans to the Pac-12 title game, but also the College Football Playoff, a goal that seemed entirely preposterous at this point last year, was now in play.

It was a lot to take in for a team that finished 4-8 last season.

“Competing for the College Football Playoff, it’s a unique experience for some of us old-heads here,” senior guard Justin Dedich said jokingly.

Now, to keep the party going, it’ll be up to those old-heads to make sure USC shakes off the impending emotional hangover in time.

There’s certainly no room for error over the next two weeks, not with No. 13 Notre Dame awaiting Saturday and the Pac-12 title game six days after that. Win those two games and the Trojans should qualify for the CFP.

New coach Lincoln Riley has been in this position plenty of times before, having led Oklahoma to the playoff in each of his first three seasons as coach. But for USC’s players, it’s a new experience, one they’re learning to deal with on the fly.

That much was clear at the start of practice Tuesday, when, “energy was lacking,” center Brett Neilon said.

“We picked it up,” Neilon said. “I think that’s going to be a key point for us. Block out all the outside distractions and focus on us.”

Kicker confidence

After missing two more kicks against UCLA, Denis Lynch is tied for the most missed field-goal attempts of any qualifying kicker in college football through 11 games this season. Still, Lincoln Riley said Tuesday that his confidence level in USC’s freshman kicker remains “very high.”

Lynch reaffirmed that belief just before the half Saturday, when he split the uprights on a 49-yarder, into the wind.

“If there’s a continuing problem, of course you’re going to address it or make adjustments. But we’ve got a lot of confidence in Denis,” Riley said. “I think Denis showed his confidence by coming back and nailing that one.”

Williams' return

A week after Jordan Addison got off to a slow start in his return from injury, fellow wideout Mario Williams was uncharacteristically quiet against UCLA.

He figured in for just 24 snaps and was targeted twice, one of which was dropped. Riley said he thought Williams played well, but “you could also see some rust.”

“He missed a month of ball, like Jordan had against Colorado,” Riley said. “That’s the value of those guys getting in there and getting the chance to play and get their feet back under them."

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.