USC will be among the nation’s most hyped college football teams entering 2017. The Trojans are fresh off a 10-win season and a Rose Bowl triumph. Many are touting returning quarterback Sam Darnold as a Heisman favorite and a potential No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 Draft. USC may not start the season No. 1 overall in the AP Poll, but the Trojans were a fixture in “way too early” top fives.
Such high billing is not uncommon for USC. They reel in five-star recruits. They are in L.A. The Pete Carroll dynasty days have not quite left the collective memory. Will Ferrell is a fan. People get excited. Seasoned Trojan skeptics, however, will note this year’s hype contains strong echoes of 2012.
The Trojans went 10-2 with Lane Kiffin in 2011. They beat Oregon. They went to triple overtime with Stanford. USC would have reached the Pac-12 title game were it not for NCAA sanctions. Quarterback Matt Barkley, promoted as the Heisman favorite and a potential No. 1 overall pick, returned for his senior season. The Trojans entered 2012 as the No. 1 team in the AP Poll. That season did not go as expected.
Stanford knocked off USC 21-14 in the third game. The wheels came off from late October onward. The Trojans lost five of six to close the season. They scored just seven points in a Sun Bowl loss to Georgia Tech. That collapse was bad and far from abnormal. USC has averaged five losses per season when ranked in the initial AP Top 15 since 2009.
USC may not be bound for an epic 2012-like cataclysm. But there are reasons why they may not live up to the 2017 hype. With an early win-total line of 9.5, one may consider taking the under.
Look at their schedule. The Trojans do not have an off week, literally or figuratively. They play 12 straight games without a break between Sept. 2 and Nov. 18. Their bye comes the final week of the season. Two of their three non-conference games are against Texas and Notre Dame. The only non-Power 5 opponent is Western Michigan, a team that won 13 games last season and may have been a preseason Top 25 team if P.J. Fleck had not left.
No, the Trojans don’t play Washington or Oregon during the regular season. But that schedule is rife with potential pitfalls that could make the rest of the slate much tougher than it seems.
USC plays big-game upset specialist Tom Herman and Texas the week after getting a physical 60 minutes from Stanford. The Trojan defense faces Mike Leach’s offense on short rest, in a road night game, on a second-straight road trip, after facing WMU, Stanford, Texas, and a Beau Baldwin Cal offense. They play at Arizona State the week after heading east to play Notre Dame. USC has a road game at Colorado in November in a look-ahead spot before UCLA.
USC also has glaring roster concerns. The Trojans always recruit talent. But, they lack depth aside from a few positions, they have multiple players coming off injuries, and they will rely on many underclassmen to fill out their two-deep. None of those factors bodes well for good health and consistency week-to-week.
The Trojan offensive line may become a serious issue. USC has to rebuild, after losing Zach Banner, Chad Wheeler, and Damien Mama. Fourth-year starter at guard Viane Talamaivao may be the one starter with a definite position at this point (and he will be coming off an injury). If you’re curious how a shaky offensive line can affect a talented quarterback, watch some Josh Rosen footage from 2016. The Trojans also lost their two biggest playmakers with Juju Smith-Schuster and Adoree’ Jackson to the NFL.
USC’s defensive line could be a trouble spot too. Stevie Tu’ikolovatu stepped in as a grad transfer from Utah and solidified the vital nose tackle spot for USC’s 3-4. The Trojans may be going from an NFL-drafted fifth-year senior at that position to true freshman Marlon Tuipulotu. He’s a top-100 overall recruit, but that’s going to be a big ask. The difference between a playoff-contending USC and a 7-8 win USC is likely to be line play.
None of this guarantees the 2017 USC team will disappoint. They should be Pac-12 South favorites. The Trojans belong in the tier of teams that aren’t Alabama or Ohio State but could make a run at a playoff bid. That said, be cautious. We’ve been fooled by unchecked Trojan narrative before.