The USC Trojans are an oddity; college football’s version of Schrödinger's cat, if you will. Until they’ve played the game, it’s impossible to tell whether the team spirit and effort is alive or dead. It also makes them an extremely tough team to peg down in the rankings. If the metric is on-paper talent, USC belongs up there with the best in the nation. If the metric is results based on talent level, USC deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as some of the “overrated” programs their fan base talks about so often.
This is not a slight at the Trojan team or their fans, whom would be the first to tell anyone that they have no earthly idea what they’re going to get when they tune in. Last year was as up and down of a season as the Trojans have had in recent memory and that includes those years with interim-interim coaches. USC was simply not good enough when it needed to be and downright awful at other times.
Athlon Sports ranks the Trojans at No. 23 coming into the 2016 season and it’s impossible to know whether this is too high or too low. Some of the tougher questions may be answered when the Trojans kick of their season in AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, against defending national champion Alabama, but USC has shown out against highly ranked opponents before only to lose to teams most experts agreed the Trojans should have beaten. Simply based on a history of doing that alone, it’s important not to take too much or too little away from the Alabama game.
Lou Holtz once said that “you’re never as good as everyone tells you when you win, and you’re never as bad as they say when you lose.” USC epitomizes this famous quote in so many different ways. The Trojans were nowhere near as good as their 42-24 upset of then-No. 4 Utah, but they also weren’t as bad as their 41-22 shellacking against Stanford in the Pac-12 Championship Game. The Trojans tend to nullify their positive progress with periods of mental frailty and self-inflicted mistakes.
Is USC too high at No. 23? Maybe, maybe not. The Trojans have done well to avoid any off-the-field issues over the summer, but the offseason is still young and it’s usually around July or August that USC has its setbacks with key players. This year’s offseason started with a painful reminder of what can happen when things really go wrong at USC.
Former USC tight end Bryce Dixon was sentenced to six years in prison for his role in a series of violent robberies with a former LSU lineman. The fall of Dixon is a worst-case scenario, but in the past five seasons USC has had numerous different players suspended or booted from the team for having stories just as outlandish as this one. The Trojans simply cannot keep allowing off-the-field distractions keep them from on-the-field success, and so far USC has done the exact opposite.
The Trojans will need a quiet offseason for a change. Even without those distractions, USC faces the nation’s toughest schedule and September will be the worst of it. Aside from the Crimson Tide, USC also faces Utah State, Stanford and Utah. The only game USC plays at home during that stretch is against Utah State. If the Trojans come out of September with three or more wins, No. 23 might prove to be far too low.
Should the opposite become the case, USC may end up looking up at No. 23 from quite a ways down. This USC team is capable of finishing anywhere along the 0-4 to 4-0 during the first month of play and it would hardly be shocking to see most experts peg them to finish 2-2 on the month. That’s about what people have come to expect from the Trojans. Of course, which two teams they beat is really anyone’s guess.
In all likelihood, the best thing that could happen to USC during this stretch is a lower ranking. The lower ranking leads to fewer expectations and that seems to be when this team is at its best. Alabama will likely carry the burden of expectation entering into the season opener, but the Tide are also savvy enough to know that win or lose, there is still a long season and they’ll still have plenty of time to make an impression on the poll voters and College Football Playoff Committee.
The Trojans, on the other hand, are the type of team to get caught up in the moment and forget about everything else. It’s not hard to picture a world where USC beats Alabama to open the season and then mystifyingly loses to Utah State at home before getting pummeled on the road at Stanford and losing a shocker at Utah. In fact, there is probably someone out there placing a bet on that exact thing to happen.
Two of the keys to how USC fares this year will be new defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast and new offensive coordinator Tee Martin. While Pendergast is a trip down memory lane for USC, Martin is breaking in the position and the jury is out on exactly how good he will be. The Trojans didn’t have much of a choice in his promotion, it had simply become time to give him what he wanted or watch him walk out the door to another program. With the way Martin recruits, it’s something that USC could not afford to risk.
So now the Trojans make one last run at replicating the Pete Carroll era. New athletic director Lynn Swann is sure to deviate from the insular nature of predecessor Pat Haden, and has already spoken out on changes he plans to make. Swann did support the hiring of now full-time head coach Clay Helton, so at least USC will begin the season with an AD and a head coach on the same page. Whether or not they finish there will be something to watch.
The Trojans could be ranked anywhere and it could be justified successfully by the right person. A very loaded and talented team will be upgrading several significant positions this offseason and the resulting effect could be awe-inspiring. In truth, there are a lot of similarities between this team and the 2003 version that Matt Leinart took over upon Carson Palmer’s departure to the NFL. How USC manages that talent will invariably be the story of the season.
It has been for the last five years.
— Written by Josh Webb, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Webb is a recruiting analyst for BarkBoard, Scout’s Fresno State affiliate. A contributor to USCFootball.com, Scout’s USC affiliate. He is also a regular guest and contributor for CFBHuddle. Follow him on Twitter @FightOnTwist.