This fall’s schedule places Notre Dame’s bye week directly before the matchup with USC. Spending two weeks preparing for this rendition of the Trojans will be a nice, and likely a needed, luxury. USC is deservedly mentioned in any conversation on College Football Playoff contenders.
Part of the reasoning to holding the Trojans in high esteem entering this season ties to how they ended last year. That strong finish stands in stark contrast to how they opened 2016.
Replacing an NFL-bound quarterback in Cody Kessler and a second-round pick of a linebacker/safety who led their defense in every way in Su’a Cravens, USC struggled on both sides of the ball to begin last season. Frankly, describing the season-opener as a struggle is charitable. The 52-6 loss to Alabama was a complete and utter rout, exactly as the score implies a year later.
A win over Utah State a week later did not give USC enough momentum to handle the following two contests, losses at Stanford and Utah to drop the Trojans to 1-3 after having started the year in the top 20 of both the coaches and the AP polls.
Enter then-sophomore quarterback Sam Darnold. His first career start came against the Utes, and while his presence did not yield a victory that week, he did proceed to lead USC to nine straight wins, culminating with a 52-49 topping of Penn State in a back-and-forth shootout in the Rose Bowl. That positive ending bumped the Trojans to No. 3 in the final coaches poll and No. 5 in the AP.
Also included in the winning streak was a 26-13 victory at Washington, a win USC nearly had a chance to repeat in the Pac 12 championship game, except Colorado finished a game ahead of the Trojans in the South Division. The Buffaloes’ one previous loss in the conference? It indeed came at the hands of Darnold’s group.
WHAT USC LOST
Darnold will need to turn to new targets this year, having lost his top two receivers from 2016. JuJu Smith-Schuster and Darreus Rogers combined to catch 126 passes for 1,610 yards and 14 touchdowns with an average of 12.8 yards per reception.
Darnold will also be protected by a few new offensive linemen, losing left tackle Chad Wheeler, right tackle Zach Banner and left guard Damien Mama, a former Notre Dame recruiting target.
Defensively, cornerback Adoree’ Jackson was a first-round draft pick. Not only did he have five interceptions last year, but he also had two punt returns and two kick returns for scores. His secondary compatriot, safety Leon McQuay, heard his name called in the sixth round.
WHAT USC GAINED
The country’s No. 6 recruiting class, per rivals.com, featured 23 commits total and 17 four-star prospects. The most-likely of those to see a genuine role this season is running back Stephen Carr. While he will not start or become the primary ballcarrier, barring injury, Carr will likely contribute to the Trojans offense beginning early in the season.
Defensive tackle Marlon Tuipulotu could open the season as a starter, filling in where Stevie Tu’ikolovatu left off.
If USC had not turned its season around last September, it is likely Clay Helton would have spent this offseason sweating. Instead, he has found a grip on the position he twice held on an interim basis.
This will be his second full season as the Trojans head coach, following three years as the offensive coordinator under Lane Kiffin, Ed Orgeron and Steve Sarkisian, and three years as Kiffin’s quarterbacks coach.
Darnold has gotten the most hype this offseason, and it is warranted after he completed 67.2 percent of his passes in his 10 starts, throwing 31 touchdowns and only nine interceptions. Yet, Darnold may not be the biggest key to the USC offense. That would be junior running back Ronald Jones. Jones notched 1,082 rushing yards and 12 scores last year, averaging 6.1 yards per carry.
Hence, no matter how highly-touted Carr is, he will not usurp Jones.
Receivers senior Steven Mitchel and junior Deontay Burnett will attempt to keep opposing defenses from focusing only on Jones, along with sophomore tight end Daniel Imatorbhebhe. Burnett caught 56 passes for 622 yards and seven touchdowns last season while Imatorbhebhe averaged 14.7 yards on his 17 catches, finding the end zone four times.
If they can match the production lost from Smith-Schuster and Rogers, the Trojans should be able to exceed last year’s 477 yards per game. For that matter, when Darnold took over as starter, USC’s output jumped to 523.3 yards per game, including 225 rushing yards each week.
Only a third of the teams in the country can claim a linebacker on the Butkus Award Watch List. The Trojans trot out three in junior Cameron Smith (83 tackles, six for loss), junior Porter Gustin (68 tackles, 5.5 sacks, 7.5 tackles for loss) and senior Uchenna Nwosu (53 tackles, three sacks, 4.5 tackles for loss). The trio will ease some of the pressure felt by USC’s secondary as it works to replace Jackson and McQuay.
Overall, the Trojans defense spreads the wealth. Last season nine defenders made at least 50 tackles, five of which return. For context: The Irish had six such tacklers in 2016, four of which return.
USC will have a good 2017. The question is just how good. The coaches poll slotted the Trojans at No. 4. The AP poll, set to be released today (Monday) at noon Eastern, should offer a similar gauge.
If USC gets past Stanford in week two, it will be well on its way toward clearing an over/under win total of 9.5. In the Pac-12 South, the greatest competition will be Utah, who the Trojans host the week before they head to Notre Dame.
Wednesday: Boston College
Thursday: Michigan State
Friday: Miami (OH)
Saturday: North Carolina
Tuesday, 22nd: North Carolina State
Wednesday, 23rd: Wake Forest
Thursday, 24th: Miami (FL)
Friday, 25th: Navy
Saturday, 26th: Stanford (The same day as Stanford’s opener vs. Rice in Australia.)