USC started 1-2 last year in embarrassing fashion with just 16 combined points against Alabama and Stanford. The Trojans switched to quarterback Sam Darnold (former 5-star Max Browne was benched and is now with Pitt following a grad transfer) in week 4 and still lost to Utah, although the offense scored 27 points and showed many more signs of life.
Turns out, Darnold was the real deal. He lost his first start but finished the season with 9 straight wins culminating in one of the best Rose Bowl performances of all-time.
2016 Record: 10-3
2016 S&P Rank: 9
Offense Returning Production Rank: 82
Defense Returning Production Rank: 61
Rebuilding Around Sam
USC has lost a good chunk of offensive production from 2016 but the scary thing is that not many were elite talents. Of the 5 NFL Draft picks only wideout JuJu Smith-Schuster (2nd round) and tackle Zach Banner (4th round) were selected in Philadelphia from the offensive side of the ball.
Wide receiver and offensive line will be the big projects going into August camp. The running backs should be more than fine as only Justin Davis moves on and he was passed up by Ronald Jones as the top tailback anyway. USC will also bring two more juniors Aca’Cedric Ware and Dominic Davis with quality experience. Former Oklahoma transfer Taylor McNamara technically is the lost starter at tight end but Daniel Imatorbhebhe and Tyler Petite combined for 27 receptions, 406 yards, and 6 touchdowns at the position in 2016.
The offensive line remains a question mark as 3 starters are gone, including both tackles, and the spring was filled with some long-term injuries. There are 5 players who have started at least 1 game last year including Toa Lobendahn who missed all but the Alabama game with a knee injury and has 21 career starts.
The wideouts lose the top two players and 4 players overall. There should be a pretty decent youth movement (most expect 5-star freshman Joseph Lewis to have a big role) along with the solid production coming back from Deontay Burnett (622 yards, 7 TD) and Steven Mitchell (226 yards in 7 games).
Limiting Big Plays
USC’s defense was very good last year in nearly all categories…except limiting big plays. Their advanced stats are littered with Top 20 rankings and then there’s a 107th ranked IsoPPP defense and 104th ranked rushing defense IsoPPP.
Solidifying things in the middle of the defensive line will be a major focus. Utah transfer Steve Tu’ikolovatu put in one year as a grad student and was picked in the Draft, while a couple of other nose guards transferred out this off-season. The Trojans can now turn to the perpetually injured Kenny Bigelow and the inexperienced Jacob Daniel.
USC has a lot of outside linebacker and defensive end body-types but needs to shore up the big bodies on the inside.
There should be plenty of optimism for the Trojan defense as a whole. As stated, they have a plethora of pass-rushing options including a trio of former 5-star recruits. The back 7 is in good shape, too. Michael Hutchings, Adoree Jackson, and Leon McQuay have moved on but blue-chip talent is all over the place looking to step up.
This could be the break out season for DC Clancy Pendergast who has quietly been one of the best coordinators in the country and put together another strong season in Los Angeles last year even though Darnold and the offense were much more in the spotlight.
Summer Spread: USC Favored by 8.5 Points
Hey, the Irish have won their last two at home against USC! However, at this point the Trojans are squarely in the National Championship conversation and Notre Dame is decidedly not.
Buy or Sell: Darnold Winning the Heisman
It’s pretty easy to take the field here if that’s the choice in comparison to one player. Darnold won’t be short on key matchups including Stanford, Texas, Notre Dame, and UCLA. However, there’s no Oregon or Washington although you could argue that just makes it more likely the Trojans meet one of those teams in the Pac-12 Title Game.
Know a Player: DE Oluwole Betiku
USC basically botched the country’s top weak-side defensive end as a freshman by burning his redshirt in October and only playing him in 5 games. Betiku would finish with zero tackles and has been quite open this off-season that he wanted nothing to do with film and learning the intricacies of playing his position.
The Irish will hope he continue to struggles with the mental aspects of the game. If he puts it together he has the ability to be scary.
The Trojans have been a Nike school forever. Perhaps more interesting, they signed a lucrative licensing deal with Silver Star Merchandising back in 2011. SSM is an off-shoot of the Dallas Cowboys merchandising company.
Most Important Game: vs. Stanford
Things are going to be real for USC straight out of the gate. They get the Fleck-less Western Michigan program which, in reality, is probably an easy win. However, the Stanford game comes right after followed by Texas. All three are home games. If, USC opens 3-0 and beats maybe their only real divisional competitor in the process hype machines are going through the roof.