LOS ANGELES -- Caleb Williams was made for this moment. It goes beyond the promise, the responsibility, the absolute understanding of his new football life in the nation's second-largest media market.
His understanding of his place in the SoCal landscape comes the instant he shakes your hand. It's more than a shake; he grasps your hand, holding it for a moment to ensure eye contact is held.
"It is a pleasure meeting you," said USC's quarterback to a stranger who introduced himself.
Maybe too much is made of the gravity of that moment, but the point is Williams made it his moment. He controlled the exchange for those brief seconds. A small sample size, yes, but it suggests the Oklahoma transfer has a mindset that will aid him in controlling his future surroundings as well.
Williams, coach Lincoln Riley and scores of other USC transfers walk into this season with swagger. Whether they like it or not, they all joined the program to win right away.
"I don't know what a honeymoon looks like," Riley said. "I didn't get one at the first place. I don't expect to have one here."
If USC wins big enough, it will be historic. To go from 4-8 -- the program's worst record in 31 years -- to a Pac-12 championship would mark one of the biggest turnarounds in the history of the game.
Hawaii went from 0-12 in 1998 to 9-4 in 1999, an 8.5-game improvement that is still the NCAA record for a single-year turnaround. We're talking about the Trojans attempting something of that scale given how far down they were last season and how high their dreams are this season.
"I think, with the coaching, that USC definitely has a chance to be a title winner," said June Jones, coach of that Hawaii team. "The most important thing to me is the quarterback transferred with the coach."
Riley'swould have been less notable had not Williams sort of led the way. He didn't decide to leave Oklahoma for USC until late January, shortly before the semester started. But with Williams in hand, the transfer migration was legitimate and historic. Approximately half of USC's 85 scholarship players are new.
"The deciding factor for me, actually, was how familiar I was with all the people coming here," Williams said. "Coaching staff, nutritionists, everybody knows Coach Riley. I was very familiar with their families. Very close. I didn't want to feel like a freshman going to a new place, having to learn a new offense. I, for sure, didn't want to go to a new school to be in that position … I wanted to keep progressing."
In its history, USC is usually USC when it has a firestarter quarterback. The top six passers in program history have combined for two Heisman Trophies, a pair of national championships and at least a share of six Pac-12 titles.
Where Williams falls on that list is to be determined. For all the hype surrounding him, the sophomore has started seven games. Oklahoma fans called for him largely because he wasn't Spencer Rattler. 247Sports had him ranked eighth overall in the Class of 2021, second among quarterbacks.
It turned out, as a freshman, Williams could play. In his brief time leading the team, he threw 21 touchdowns and rushed for 442 yards. Still, in the final four games, either defenses started to figure him out or Williams hit a wall. Maybe a little of both. He completed only 57% of his passes and threw three of his four interceptions across those four contests.
"Caleb has played half a college football season," Riley cautioned. "He played at a major university under a lot of scrutiny, played in some big games and big moments. That's certainly going to help him. There's not a question he's ready for this moment."
Williams will not be ambushed. To a larger extent, neither will USC. A college athlete of Williams' stature has not shrunk from the spotlight. A team, a school, a city and a sport is watching.
"USC is a blue blood; simple as that," Williams said. "Teams and organizations, they have fought moments. We're here trying to turn that around."
He'll have plenty of help. Oregon transfer Travis Dye is a plug-and-play running back. Wide receiver Mario Williams followed his quarterback from Oklahoma. Pittsburgh transfer WR Jordan Addison caused the most offseason upheaval -- besides Riley being hired -- when he transferred to USC amid accusations he was "bought" with name, image and likeness funds.
"He was coming regardless of NIL," Williams said. "We had to joke about it. It was $2 million-$3 million that was out there for him. I was thinking, 'What the heck?'"
When Williams answered questions with teammate Shane Lee at Pac-12 Media Days last month, it was a supremely Hollywood setting. Given USC's standing in this town, the scene had a "Meet The Beatles" feel. It was the first time many of the local and national media had interviewed the pair.
They answered every question with thought and depth, stopping just short of arrogance.
"You don't come to USC and you don't come to Los Angeles to do things small," Riley added. "You've got to set your sights big."
There sat two guys who had transferred from blue bloods themselves. Oklahoma and Alabama, respectively, are in better shape than USC in 2022 even without Williams and Lee. Both look like they can step right in. Williams completed his first nine passes in the spring game. Lee started as a freshman in 2019 but started only five games combined in the last season, partially due to injury.
Like their coach, they bet on themselves, choosing the possibilities of the West Coast over the statis of championship contention.
"I know that Shane is not a loser," Williams said. "I know I'm not a loser. Those guys around here aren't losers. They want to win. They've been hungry. They've been changing their bodies and their minds."
That's part of the truth of USC in 2022. It must be tougher. The Student Body Right and Left days are over but not what they left behind: The tradition of toughness. As much as Pete Carroll's teams were offensive machines, the defenses were always physical. From 2008-11 -- basically the tail end of the Carroll dynasty -- USC averaged 4.75 defenders in the draft per year.
Since 2012, that number is two. In 2020, USC did not have a defensive player drafted for the first time since at least the debut of two-platoon football in 1964.
"You look at the trophies … and you're like, 'This is SC,'" Lee said. "It's the same at Alabama. It's the same at Oklahoma. … That's why I went to Alabama -- to see if I matched up. It's discipline. It's effort. It's heart. There's no real magic to it."
The hope of the conference has gone from improving the Pac-12 through USC's excellence to enduring a long, sad goodbye. USC must move forward casting an eye toward assimilating into the Big Ten. Williams and Lee will likely be gone by 2024, but it's this season's team that will lay the foundation for all that.
It's been a pleasure for L.A. to meet Team Transfer. Now, the handshake is over. USC must win. Big.
"It's great, but when it happens," said Williams of a turnaround, "it's nothing that is going to be a surprise."