Holiday Bowl column | FOX Sports


SAN DIEGO — A Heisman Trophy winner can rarely, if ever, fade into the background.

Caleb Williams knows this all too well in the wake of taking home that famous stiff arm last season. Already a notable figure following a high-profile recruitment and subsequent transfer from powerhouse Oklahoma to blueblood USC, winning the Heisman elevated him into a household name and made him the face of the sport in 2023.

There was no escaping him either, from the endless commercials to the constant attention (good and bad) amid the ups and downs of a disappointing junior year that saw the Trojans go from trendy College Football Playoff favorite to the butt of jokes. Williams was front and center through it all.

Yet the most popular player in college football this year — and one sure to be a top-two draft pick next spring for some lucky NFL franchise — was largely absent from the center of attention in the minutes following USC’s thunderous 42-28 victory over Louisville in the Holiday Bowl on Wednesday night. Dressed in street clothes with his trademark No. 13 jersey bunched up around his neck, the quarterback spent much of the postgame festivities giving out hugs and selfies with his soon-to-be-former teammates.

When the time came for the team to climb up a quickly assembled podium a few feet away from the third base dugout at Petco Park, however, Williams was left by himself to take the scene in. Standing behind the risers piled full of cardinal and gold players, the most popular one of them all had time to sit back and take in the scene uninterrupted.

It was not what Williams likely imagined doing if you had given him truth serum at the start of fall camp nor at any time when the team floated around the top five in the polls during their 6-0 start to the season. There he was though, the Heisman Trophy winner watching on as many of the 35,317 still around for a bittersweet trophy presentation saluted a different USC quarterback for slicing up a defense and setting records in the process.

It takes a lot to knock Williams off the podium and into the background, but that’s what first-time starter Miller Moss managed to do with his performance against the Cardinals. 

Dimes were dropped. Jaws were, too. USC was not lifeless and uninterested despite its disappointing spot in the postseason pecking order, thanks to a new face behind center.

USC’s Miller Moss throws six touchdowns in Holiday Bowl win

USC's Miller Moss throws six touchdowns in Holiday Bowl win

This wasn’t just some longtime backup getting his moment in the Southern California sun. Rather, it was the performance of a lifetime that will likely come to define the Trojans’ offseason, a 372-yard performance from the sophomore signal-caller, plus a Holiday Bowl record six touchdowns and a lone interception that merely kept the score a tad closer than it should have been.

“I think people are always trying to pit quarterbacks against each other, especially in the same room in college these days. But we had a really positive experience working together. I’ll always appreciate Caleb for what he did — not only for me but for this program. He’s a great leader,” said Moss, so unsure of what to do about being in the spotlight for the first time at USC that he had to be reminded which microphone to speak into. “We’ll always be really, really great friends.”

Such sentiment can exist because the two were never really rivals for the top spot. That much felt clear from the moment Williams announced he was joining head coach Lincoln Riley in making the trip West from Norman.

‘I’m trying to pinch myself right now’ — USC’s Miller Moss

'I'm trying to pinch myself right now' — USC's Miller Moss

Moss never outwardly seemed to mind despite the fierce competitor that naturally burns inside anybody who plays the position. He understood the gig as much as the situation: to be a shadow that helps prepare and propel the star for as long as possible until that moment came to step into the light.

And step into it he did. 

“I’m not a bit surprised at how he played,” remarked Riley, who had to juggle a slew of opt-outs that left him with fewer than 55 scholarship players (out of 85) for the game. “He did what he did in practice.” 

Moss’ play also presents the coach with quite the conundrum. 

It’s been no secret that Riley has been courting successors to Williams for much of the past six weeks.

A carefully laid succession plan was supposed to mean former five-star Malachi Nelson was next in line, but the freshman barely saw any action and, seeing the writing on the wall, quickly entered the Transfer Portal when it opened. Kansas State’s Will Howard is one of several veterans who have been linked to the program, and half a dozen other names have either visited Los Angeles or been contacted to gauge interest in the seemingly vacant job.

No. 15 Louisville Cardinals vs. USC Trojans highlights

No. 15 Louisville Cardinals vs. USC Trojans highlights

Wednesday’s result doesn’t shift such thinking about bringing in a new signal-caller completely, but when it comes to replacing Williams in 2024 as the team moves into the Big Ten, it does give the noted quarterback whisperer running the program another good option.

“Shoot, he may have scared off anybody that would want to come here anyway,” Riley said with a mixture of seriousness and subtle joking that felt inherent to someone who grew up in West Texas knowing how to thread such a line. “In this day and age with all the movement, when you have guys like that, it’s even more of an advantage than it was maybe even five or 10 years ago because it’s becoming a little bit harder to find.

“Miller’s had a passion for this university and this program for a long time … He’s stayed here, he’s gotten better and that’s why a night like tonight happened.”

“I think it’s just more of a testament to the guys in that locker room, the leadership, and our coaching staff that made me want to stay. I love those guys, I’ll ride with those guys,” the redshirt sophomore said a few minutes later. “Coach Riley has done a really good job in quarterback development with the guys he’s had. I trusted him and I trust his process.” 

Holiday Bowl: USC’s trophy ceremony

Holiday Bowl: USC's trophy ceremony

Receiver Kyron Hudson, who blocked a Louisville punt that later set up his touchdown catch amid a 21-point outburst in the second quarter, was not shy in endorsing Moss as next year’s QB1 amid the jubilation of the victory.

Riley, however, did not go that far. Left unsaid in a manner that also said plenty, there will be a quarterback battle in L.A. come spring practice, and any number of names — including Moss — could emerge from it to lead the team into a new era next year.

“There’s been a lot of bright moments over the first two years, but we understand that this is just the beginning of some great opportunities,” noted Riley in a moment of levity just before being doused by a bucket of eggnog by the team. “This is forever one of the greats as a program, and we are motivated as we possibly can be to continue to fight to get it back there. 

“We will get that done.”

The bigger question is how — and it largely starts with the most important position on the field. 

What is far more clear is that the Williams era is firmly and fully over at USC. It’s still to be determined if that means it’s, ahem, Miller time in Los Angeles.

Bryan Fischer is a college football writer for FOX Sports. He has been covering college athletics for nearly two decades at outlets such as NBC Sports, CBS Sports, Yahoo! Sports and among others. Follow him on Twitter at @BryanDFischer.

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