OPINION: Stern: The Grinch who could steal USC's national title hopes

Alex Grinch
Photo credit Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The boundaries between personal friendships and workplace acquaintances become shades of gray when both sides grow closer. It's made some firings challenging, and caused others to prioritize their own preferences over what might be best for the company. In the case of USC head coach Lincoln Riley, his loyalty toward defensive coordinator Alex Grinch -- who followed him from Oklahoma to Los Angeles last season -- could end up being a situation where personal relationships stand in the way of professional goals.

With reigning Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams under center, the Trojans have College Football Playoff aspirations and the requisite offensive weapons to outscore any opponent. But one thing that could seemingly knock the USC train off the CFP rails is a mediocre defense, which already appears unable to keep its opposition out of the endzone.

It's not unusual for college football teams to struggle right out of the gate, as players need time to get acclimated without a preseason. But watching USC surrender four touchdowns to San Jose State in Week 0 should've made the postgame champagne from a 56-28 win taste sour.

What made their defensive efforts particularly concerning was the carryover effect from last season. In USC's three losses -- two against Utah, the other against Tulane in the Cotton Bowl -- they allowed 45.3 points per game. This statistic also doesn't account for two tight victories over Arizona and UCLA, where they allowed 37 and 45 points, respectively. So, they had a defensive problem, and while the offense hummed up and down the field, they did so knowing the margin for error was very slim.

Teams coached by Riley have never been known for their defense. But given USC's potential in a recruiting hotbed, along with their resources for success, one would've thought he'd spent more time focusing on the other side of the ball during the offseason. Grinch did a solid job after replacing Mike Stoops in Norman, leading a defensive unit that ranked respectably in the nation. But in a business where a coach is only as valuable as his last season, Grinch's style and approach after 2022 regression needed to be more closely examined.

USC vs. San Jose State
Photo credit Katelyn Mulcahy / Stringer / Getty Images

Who's to say former Alabama defensive coach Charles Kelly, who joined Deion Sanders in Colorado, or another up-and-coming SEC position coach wouldn’t have been interested in the job? Perhaps the gamble appeared too risky with Grinch, who's found success fairly recently. However, in hindsight, it might've been worth it. More likely, Riley had comfort with Grinch and built a bond with him during their four seasons together at Oklahoma, prompting complacency and an unwillingness to seek an upgrade.

Whatever the case may be, Riley should've taken a closer look at moving on from the biggest weakness of the 2022 unit. A closer examination of Grinch's resume indicates that he's used high-achieving offenses and the concept of improvement -- both at Oklahoma and Washington State -- to inflate his actual results. The players involved in last season's poor performance are deserving of blame as well. But after watching USC blitz on 3rd-and-long last weekend, it's clear that scheme is a major culprit, too.

There's no doubt that the Trojans will have another winning season. But their record and ability to contend for the Playoff will ultimately determine whether or not they reach the ceiling of a fast rising expectation bar. With four games against teams ranked 15th or higher -- two of which take place on the road -- it won't be a cakewalk to the promised land. All it takes is one or two losses to push USC out of Playoff contention entirely. Plus they need to win games in a controlling manner in order to earn style points.

If they allowed 28 points in a warmup game at the Coliseum, just imagine how they'll fare against better competition. As a move to the Big Ten is scheduled for 2024, with Williams set to potentially depart for the NFL, this year probably represents USC's best chance at capturing a national title. The Trojans' largest roadblock right now is a weak defense, led by a defensive coordinator who's become notorious for conservative, boneheaded play-calling in crunch time.

There's no saying the decision to cut ties with Grinch would've been an easy or logical one. But with the number of early red flags, it's easy to see why the Trojans might've made a mistake in turning a blind eye to deficiencies. If USC has a series of letdown games, fingers will likely be pointed at Grinch.

As for one of the game's hottest young masterminds, Riley's likely facing yet another tough dilemma at season's end with a familiar colleague. It’ll be one he should’ve faced a year earlier. But in terms of feeling sympathy, he should employ the same mentality as "The Godfather" boss Michael Corleone, who once said, "It’s not personal, it's strictly business."

Jack Stern is a columnist, anchor, and associate producer for CBS Sports Radio. You can follow him on Twitter @J_Stern97.

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