Once again, our college football staff here at The Comeback gathers to share our thoughts on a pressing question for the upcoming college football season. This week, the focus is on none other than the USC Trojans.
USC is coming off a very positive end to the 2016 season, which was highlighted by a regular season victory against eventual Pac-12 champion Washington and a wild Rose Bowl victory over Big Ten champion Penn State. With quarterback Sam Darnold skyrocketing up the offseason Heisman Trophy board and plenty of talent to work with, the narrative surrounding the Trojans is that USC is once again ready to contend for the Pac-12 title and make a push for a Playoff appearance. Are you buying that logic, or are there any concerns holding you back from hopping on board the USC hype train?
Matt Lichtenstadter: After years of turmoil, churning through coaches and controversy, it does finally seem like USC is on the verge of being back among the nation’s elite. Bill Connelly’s great S&P+ stat says USC and Washington weren’t separated by all that much last year, including the Trojans win over the Huskies in Seattle, and with the transition Washington had to undergo in the secondary, there’s every reason to believe USC is the Pac-12 favorite this year. A lot of what negatively affected the Trojans last season came before Sam Darnold’s meteoric rise, so with him under center for a full season, in theory, the Trojans should be the favorite.
But there are mitigating factors as well. USC, while they do avoid Washington and Oregon in crossover play, has a brutal schedule with no bye weeks until Thanksgiving weekend, and a brutal out-of-conference slate compared to not only Washington but also their competitors in the South as well. And there is still plenty unknown about whether Clay Helton can lead the program like Pete Carroll and others have in the past. Success in one season is easy, chaining together multiple seasons like that is what becomes difficult. But this isn’t just Sam Darnold and Ronald Jones II owning the team, the defense too is more experienced than it was last season.
Everyone loves to jump on the bandwagon of a rebounding blue-blood really quickly, especially with the way the Trojans not only upset Washington, but came back against Penn State in the Rose Bowl. Sam Darnold is the flashy star, but there is more to the Trojans than just him that could catapult USC to the Playoff this season. Sustained success takes more than just talent, and it remains to be seen if this is the foundation for another USC run of dominance, or another brief flash as has been the case in recent years.
Phil Harrison: I agree that USC has the talent to do some really special things in 2017, but I have pause for one main reason. We’ve seen this hype before in the post-Carroll era only to watch talented USC teams not play to their full potential. From the outside looking in, the appearance is that the program plays great when there the lights have turned on for the season and puckers up when really big things are at stake.
Even if we take a look at last year, the optimist in all of us believes the team was much different from early on because of the insertion of Sam Darnold and what he brought to the offense. And while there is truth to that, the pessimist realizes that the game changed only after a couple of blemishes reset expectations.
The USC Trojans may just be the most mercurial program we’ve seen over the last five years, and I am not totally sold that they’ll come out and live up to all the hype until I see someone not named Pete Carroll steer them back into open waters.
Terry P. Johnson: I’m not on board. At all.
Don’t get me wrong: USC has a good football team. But so does Stanford, which has won the last three meetings between the teams. So does Utah, which has won two of the last three in the series, including last season with Sam Darnold starting at quarterback. So does defending South Division champion Colorado, which will host the Trojans on Nov. 11.
Simply put, there are a lot of solid teams in the Pac-12 this year. That means that the race is much more wide-open than many preseason prognosticators are saying it is. Sure, USC could win the league title, but it still has some question marks heading into the 2017 campaign.
For starters, how will the Trojans replace three all-conference performers on the offensive line? What will the secondary look like with the departures of Adoree Jackson and Leon McQuay? Will the front seven do a better job of getting after the quarterback to take some of the pressure of the new starters in the secondary?
No one knows the answers to these questions yet, which is why I have pause about the Trojans heading into the season.
Kevin M.: It is easy to get swept up in the supposed momentum USC has working in its favor heading into the 2017 season, including the rise of quarterback Sam Darnold and a defense returning six starters from a year ago. USC is finally getting back to full strength and after winning the Rose Bowl, it is fair to suggest the bar has been raised. That said, I am a little reluctant to go all in on the Trojans just yet, at least as far as being a playoff and national title contender is concerned.
The Trojans return just four starters on offense this season, but one of them is Darnold and the Trojans always recruit well. Now we will see how well Clay Helton and his staff develop the talent needed to fill some roles on the offense. USC will have a chance to convince me they may be for real with a good start to a somewhat challenging opening to the season with home games against Western Michigan, the always sturdy Stanford, and Texas with new head coach Tom Herman in charge. If USC escapes that start with a 3-0 record, I’ll revisit my stance on USC. Having all three of those games at home could be huge too.
Bart Doan: USC’s long slog back to the nirvana of the Pete Carroll era won’t be complete until they win a championship or at least make the CFB Playoff. Because it’s USC, it’s always going to be talked about, but what rarely gets into that narrative is that last year’s “USC is back” campaign came when they finally had a full allotment of scholarship players on the roster. So any narrative on USC being ready to contend again has always been through the lens of simply having all the roster flexibility of any other program.
And since those numbers are up, yep, they’re more than ready to contend for the conference crown and should fully be expected to push for that playoff bid. The schedule sets up pretty nicely, and even though they only return five starters on offense, they return guys like Sam Darnold at quarterback and Ronald Jones at running back that are top shelf. If there’s a concern spot, it’s replacing three starters along the line. That’s a spot they started slow with last year, allowing as many sacks the first three games during their 1-3 start that had heads on swivels as they did the remaining 10. But every team has some spots to break in. It’s college football.
Plus, they miss conference powerhouse and defending champ Washington until the Pac-12 title game potentially, and the out-of-conference schedule is less than daunting, to say the least. Feel free and unfettered by doubt to hop back on the USC train with the full menu of expectations, but always with that worry that they’ll play down to someone’s level at the wrong time. Odds are, if they do, it won’t be often.