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Williams’ Heisman encore has USC in national championship conversation

Caleb Williams USC Trojans Caleb Williams - The Canadian Press

Caleb Williams and Lincoln Riley are running it back.

USC's star quarterback stood on stage in New York City last December, freshly minted as a Heisman Trophy winner. He acknowledged the prior recipients, thanked his family, and then turned to his head coach to finish with a simple message: "We're not done."

To this point, Williams' encore season is exceeding his Heisman year. He has 21 touchdown passes in five games – exactly half the amount he threw in 14 games in 2022. His latest masterpiece produced 403 yards and six touchdowns in a win over Colorado, which bumped the Trojans' record to 5-0.

Williams is the current odds-on favourite to win another Heisman and has USC in the national championship conversation.

“Great quarterbacks get defined by their team’s success and their championships,” Riley said at Pac-12 Media Day in July. “I know he’s hungry to go close out this year with both.”

Williams’ history with his head coach extends beyond USC. In 2021, he began the season as the backup at Oklahoma under Riley but snatched the starting role after leading a 21-point comeback against Texas in the Red River Showdown. Riley left for USC after a 10-2 regular season, and Williams followed suit by entering the transfer portal in January of 2022.

The Trojans were postseason-bound after an 11-win regular season in their first year under Riley, but had their path altered after a 47-22 loss to Utah in the Pac-12 Championship. Williams was awarded with the Heisman six days later, outlasting a trio of co-finalists that had booked their tickets to the College Football Playoff: TCU's Max Duggan, Ohio State's C.J. Stroud and Georgia's Stetson Bennett. Williams became the third quarterback to win the award under Riley, joining former Sooners Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray.

This season's encore has hardly been a surprise, despite Williams losing his top pass-catcher to the NFL. Tahj Washington has replaced Jordan Addison as his favourite target, with 395 yards and five touchdowns through five games. And then there's Brenden Rice – son of NFL legend Jerry – who snagged two touchdowns against Colorado and already has seven this year.

"People really take what [Williams] does for granted," Rice said after the win over the Buffaloes. "It won't be until he leaves that people will realize the greatness they're watching."

Williams is in position to go out on a historic note. Another Heisman, and he'll join Ohio State's Archie Griffin as the only two-time winner of the award. And a berth in the playoffs would be USC's first since the current format was adopted in 2014.

Despite the 5-0 start, the Trojans face an uphill climb. Four of their seven remaining regular-season games are against teams that are currently ranked, including three against conference opponents. Their meeting against Washington and fellow Heisman candidate Michael Penix Jr. next month is amongst the biggest games left on college football's schedule.

But first, a matchup with unranked Arizona on Saturday. The Wildcats did their part to aid Williams' Heisman bid last week, holding Penix without a touchdown pass in Washington's 31-24 win.

A USC win on Saturday, and Williams is one step closer to the goal he set out prior to the season.

"Everybody always says it's hard to do something twice, especially back-to-back," he told ESPN. "If you end up 15-0, you get to hoist the trophy you really want. When you do something like that, your self-accolades are easily accomplished."