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SQ College Football Top-25 Preview: No. 3 USC

After Sam Darnold took over at quarterback last season, USC flourished. This season, the Trojans look poised to assert themselves as title contenders.

The college football season is rapidly approaching, with the anticipation building each day. As the hunger for the upcoming season gets stronger we’ve got something here at SQ that will whet your appetite. We are nearing the end of our top-25 countdown and today we continue with #3, USC.

Team Name: USC Trojans

Rank: 3

2016 Record: 10-3

Finish in AP Poll: 3

Coach: Clay Helton (16-7, entering second full season)

Key Arrivals: RB Stephen Carr, WR Joseph Lewis, OT Austin Jackson, DT Jay Tufele, S Bubba Bolden, DT Marlon Tuipulotu, LB Levi Jones, CB Greg Johnson, QB Jack Sears, S Isaiah Pola-Mao, OT Alijah Vera-Tucker, DE Hunter Echols, TE Josh Falo

Key Departures: CB Adoree’ Jackson, WR JuJu Smith-Schuster, OT Zach Banner, S Leon McQuay III, DT Stevie Tu’ikolovatu, QB Max Browne (TRANSFER - Pitt), RB Justin Davis, WR Darreus Rogers, TE Taylor McNamara, OG Damien Mama, C Chad Wheeler

Previewing USC’s Offense

USC enters 2017 with one of the nation’s premier offenses.

After quarterback Sam Darnold took over as the full-time starter Week 4 against Utah, the Trojans saw their production increase from 22.0 to 38.6 points per game. Darnold, an early Heisman favorite and the potential No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, is back and ready to continue putting up big numbers.

Darnold finished with 3,086 passing yards, 31 touchdowns, and a 67.2 completion percentage against just nine interceptions. Although not a true running quarterback, he is mobile and a capable runner. Last season he rushed for 250 yards and two touchdowns. He put up all of those numbers last year with only 10 starts. That won’t be the case this season. Barring injury, Darnold will helm the USC offense from start to finish this year with no competition behind him.

He’ll also have one of the nation’s best offensive lines protecting him. The Trojans line last season allowed just six sacks during the final 10 games of the year, and return three starters plus a deep rotating bench. Interior lineman Toa Lobendahn will return as well after suffering a season-ending injury in the season opener last season. USC will not lack for big men this year.

Running behind that line is a talented and deep running back committee. Last year’s leading rusher, Ronald Jones II, returns for his junior season and he’ll be assisted by three other backs: redshirt freshman Vavei Malepeai, junior Aca’Cedric Ware, and true freshman Stephen Carr.

Malepeai, Hawaii’s all-time leading high school rusher, was forced to redshirt his freshman season after suffering an injury in camp, but he is back at full strength to serve as Jones’s main competitor for carries. Ware was the third-leading rusher for the Trojans last season and will likely serve as a nice complimentary piece again. Carr, though, will be an interesting infusion to the offense. Carr, a consensus five-star recruit, is a well-rounded back with explosiveness, speed, and power. He has the ability to seize the No. 2 spot on the depth chart and could potentially usurp Jones as the lead back.

The deep backfield will help take some of the load off of Darnold’s shoulder. But when he does throw the ball, he’ll have plenty to work with thanks to the Trojans’ equally deep receiving corps.

JuJu Smith-Schuster and Darreus Rogers, USC’s two leading receivers from a year ago, are both gone, but there is plenty available to replace them. Deontay Burnett caught 56 passes last season for 622 yards and seven touchdowns, and will now serve as the Trojans’ number-one option.

He’ll be flanked by an almost excessive amount of young talent. True freshman Joseph Lewis; redshirt freshmen Tyler Vaughns, Josh Imatorbhebhe, Velus Jones, and Trevon Sidney; and sophomore Michael Pittman will all compete for significant playing time. Each provides something by way of top-end speed, a large catch-radius, and/or physicality that will allow for most, if not all, to get on the field in a meaningful way this season.

The Trojans have all that, and still I haven’t mentioned the tight end position, led by sophomore Daniel Imatorbhebhe, which can go three men deep, and the veteran receivers who will play a significant role: senior Steven Mitchell and junior Jalen Greene.

Darnold has an embarassment of riches to go alongside his tremendous talent, making USC one of the early favorites to possess the best offense in the country.

Previewing USC’s Defense

For all the attention its offense received last year, USC’s 2016 defense was great in its own right. The Trojans allowed just 24.2 points per game overall (38th nationally) and 20.0 points per game against conference opponents (second in the Pac-12). USC also quietly finished first in the Pac-12 in rushing defense, ahead of even the vaunted Washington defense.

This year, USC returns seven starters from that squad, along with plenty of rotation players, as it looks to improve on those marks.

The defensive line brings back studs Porter Gustin, Rasheem Green, and Uchenna Nwosu. The trio combined for 14.5 sacks, 176 tackles, and 27.0 tackles for loss last season.  Defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast asks a lot of his defensive line in his 5-2 system, which employs multiple defensive ends as outside linebackers. Ends such as Gustin (6-foot-5, 255 pounds) are prototypical pass rushers off the edge in this system, and Gustin in particular thrived last season. Expect more of the same this year.

The linebackers are led by junior Cameron Smith, a top-end run-stuffer. Smith added a sack, a forced fumble, and 7.0 tackles for loss to go along with his team-high 83 tackles last season, but its his leadership at the middle linebacker spot that will be most invaluable this season.

There are only two “true” linebackers in the 5-2 scheme, since the other three are all essentially defensive ends, making Smith even more important. Sophomore Jordan Iosefa will be Smith’s partner on the inside. Iosefa appeared in all 13 games last year, but was mostly a fringe back-up. He will need to step up this year in his new role as a starter.

The secondary takes a hit after losing star corner Adoree’ Jackson to the NFL, but overall it shouldn’t take too much of a step back, if any at all. Safeties Chris Hawkins and Marvell Tell are back after a solid 2016 that saw them combine for 87 tackles, 6.0 tackles for loss, 4.0 pass breakups, and an interception. Junior Iman Marshall returns to one corner spot and sophomore Jack Jones will receive the tall order of replacing Jackson. If Jones plays half as well as Jackson, USC’s secondary will be in great shape.

This defense is, at a minimum, the second-best in the Pac-12 and could very well surpass Stanford for the best unit in the conference by year’s end.

Three Key Games

1. Sept. 9 vs. Stanford - Possibly a preview of the conference championship game, Week 2 of the regular season pits USC against Stanford. The Cardinal have not received nearly as much hype as the Trojans this offseason, but they are as formidable as any team the Trojans will face all season and USC will have to face them right off the bat. This will be an early litmus test for the Trojans to see if they are, in fact, actual national title contenders. USC does benefit from playing the game at its home stadium, but this will be a tough test pitting one of the nation’s best offenses against one of the best defenses in one of the best match-ups this September.

2. Sept. 29 at Washington State - This game may not seem like a big one for USC, but considering the Trojans’ relatively weaker schedule, it actually is. Additionally, this game against Washington State will serve as USC’s second true road game of the season, but its first against a legit opponent. The Cougars will once again have a vaunted offense thanks to senior quarterback Luke Falk and head coach Mike Leach’s pass-heavy system. Washington State lost just one home game last season against a conference opponent, so it knows how to defend its home turf. Darnold and the offense should not have too much trouble putting up points, but it will be interesting to see how the defense responds on the road against a potent opposing offense.

3. Nov. 18 vs. UCLA -  USC’s regular season finale against rival UCLA is intriguing to forecast this far out. By all measures, USC is a far better team than UCLA this season. However, the Bruins have a chance to push for a spot atop the Pac-12 South thanks to the healthy return of quarterback Josh Rosen. It’s hard to imagine the Trojans entering this game any worse than 7-1 in conference play, but if the Bruins (who draw both Washington and Stanford from the North) can enter this game with just two conference losses, then this game will decide the Pac-12 South. Because of the rivalry, USC-UCLA 2017 will be exciting. But the onus is mostly on UCLA to make this game have actual meaning.

Final Analysis

USC clearly has the talent to bring home its first national championship since 2004. Darnold is one of the nation’s elite quarterbacks, and he has a powerful arsenal surrounding him on offense. The defense is strong as well, and the combined abilities of both units is why USC has received so much hype this offseason.

An undefeated regular season is well within the realm of possibilities, but an 11-1 finish seems the most likely. Even the best of teams tend to slip up one week during the regular season. Either way, the Trojans should have no real problem claiming the Pac-12 South title and will be the favorites against either Washington or Stanford, whichever team emerges from the crowded and talented North.

If USC wins the Pac-12 championship, which I think it will, we will see the Trojans in the Playoff for the first time ever. And once they get there, Alabama and the rest of the field should watch out. This offense can put up points in a hurry and the defense can compete with the best offenses out there. No one should be surprised if USC holds the trophy come January 8, 2018.

Edited by Joe Sparacio.

When did USC last win the Pac-12/Pac-10?
Created 8/13/17
  1. 2012
  2. 2008
  3. 2004
  4. 2003

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