LAS VEGAS -- USC quarterback Caleb Williams said last year's loss to Utah in the Pac-12 conference championship game still "burns," and he predicted the Trojans will be in the College Football Playoff this fall.
"I'm very determined," Williams, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, told ESPN on Friday at the Pac-12 media day. "I haven't been in the College Football Playoff in my two years of playing. ... It's been tough. It bothers me because I play for championships. I don't play for anything else. So not being able to have the chance and being so close frustrates me. This year it's going to be a good one."
Had USC defeated Utah and won the conference last year, the Trojans most likely would have earned a top-four finish and a spot in a CFP semifinal. Williams was hindered by a hamstring injury, though, and the Utes beat the Trojans 47-24. USC also lost to Utah during the regular season, and Williams said he still replays in his mind what went wrong last season.
Without hesitating, he pinpointed two touchdown passes he said he missed against Tulane in the Cotton Bowl and a wide-open receiver he missed down the middle in the first game against Utah, when he "got off his read too fast."
"I have plays in my mind that I can think of and vividly," he said. "I zone out and think of the play and where we were and all that. It's for sure a chip. I know I'm not the only one."
USC coach Lincoln Riley agreed.
"In reality, getting to the point where we were a play away from winning the conference or going to the playoff, was that largely positive? Yes," he said. "But do I want us to have the sour taste in our mouth that it was right there and we didn't finish it? Absolutely. I want there to be excitement, but I want that pissed-off attitude. I don't think I've had to cultivate that or create it. It's there. It's definitely there."
USC was picked by the media to finish first in its final season in the conference, as the Trojans and UCLA will join the Big Ten in 2024. As conference realignment continues to impact scheduling, Riley said on Friday that even with the change in affiliation, he expects USC to continue to find a way to face rival Notre Dame.
"That's one of the biggest rivalries in college football," he said. "We're going into a damn good league. We open up with LSU next year and then play the whole Big Ten. Are we getting rid of Notre Dame? Hell no. Find a way."
Riley, who came to USC last year from Oklahoma, brought up USC's rivalry with Notre Dame in response to a question about Bedlam. The former Sooners coach weighed in on a topic that was brought up recently at Big 12 media days, where some coaches -- particularly Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy -- lamented that this will likely be the final season of the Bedlam rivalry game for a while because of the Sooners' pending move to the SEC next year.
"I hate it," Riley said. "This is one of the things that separates our sport. You can find a way. We're getting ready to go to a 12-team playoff. You're going to have some grace now. You're probably going to be able to lose two games and still get to the playoff. You've got a bigger responsibility to college football. ... Not that they care what I think anymore, but I wish the two schools would get together and find a way."
USC travels to Notre Dame on Oct. 14 this year and faces Utah the following Saturday. If the Trojans are going to live up to Williams' playoff prediction, they almost certainly have to win at least one of those games. Williams said he would be honored to win the Heisman Trophy a second straight season, but winning the national title would ultimately mean more.
"It would mean something, but the golden one at the end would mean a lot more to me," he said. "It'd be an honor to have the second one, to only be the second one out of even the smaller group of 88 of us, it would be a pleasure and honor, but the golden one at the end is what I play for and what most people play for."