After a roller coaster of a season that had USC going through a coaching change, rebounding to win the Pac-12 South Division and finish with a loss to Wisconsin in the Holiday Bowl, the Trojans are hoping for some stability and a return to normalcy in 2016.
Clay Helton had the “interim” tag removed from his title right before USC played Stanford in the Pac-12 Championship Game. The 41-22 loss to the Cardinal and subsequent setback to the Badgers in the Holiday Bowl ended the Trojans’ season on a down note and it may be tough for Helton’s team to get off to a quick start this season.
Faced with the toughest schedule in the nation, USC opens its 2016 campaign with an historic game against defending national champion Alabama at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. The good news is that it can only get easier from there on in for the Trojans. With that in mind, here are USC's 12 regular season games ranked from easiest to most difficult.
12. Oct. 27 (Thursday) vs. Cal
With an out-of-conference slate already consisting of Alabama and Notre Dame, Cal moves into easiest game territory simply by virtue of “someone had to finish last.” While USC has a ridiculous win streak over the Bears dating back to the early 2000s, that’s not the sole reason Cal is in this spot. The Bears’ massive losses on offense, including No. 1 overall NFL Draft pick quarterback Jared Goff, will be hard to overcome and the Trojans will be motivated coming off a bye week.
11. Oct. 8 vs. Colorado
Colorado has slowly been improving over the past couple of years and 2015 was the surest sign of a team about to put things together. The Buffaloes wound up in a bunch of one-score games, where they had a legitimate chance to win at the end. Head coach Mike MacIntyre is entering his fourth season as and he will be expected to produce. The Buffalo are 10-27 during his tenure, but only 2-25 in Pac-12 play. If MacIntyre doesn’t start improving on his conference win total, he may not be around next season, but Colorado has looked much more disciplined and focused under his guidance. It’s only a matter of time before the Buffs start giving USC a run for its money.
10. Oct. 1 vs. Arizona State
Head coach Todd Graham has been tearing it up on the recruiting trail, but coming up short on the football field. Though the Sun Devils have found various ways to frustrate the Trojans in his tenure, the same could be said going the other way. The better team usually wins the game and USC will have the better roster of talent in 2016. Whether or not the Trojans can stay healthy is a different story.
9. Nov. 12 at Washington
The Huskies are still finding their feet under head coach Chris Petersen, but the end product is starting to look more and more consistent, reminiscent of what he had at Boise. Quarterback Jake Browning had one heck of a freshman campaign while Washington returns plenty of other key players and contributors.
8. Oct. 15 at Arizona
Rich Rodriguez made some changes to the Wildcats this offseason in an effort to seriously compete with the stronger defenses of the Pac-12. The result has produced improvement on the recruiting trail, but time will tell if new defensive coordinator Marcel Yates can couple that with on-field success.
7. Sept. 23 (Friday) at Utah
The Utes are always game and things get tricky when USC plays during the week and on the road. The big question mark for Utah is what the offense will look like without quarterback Travis Wilson at the helm. The Utes may also be the beneficiary of the body-blow theory by Bruce Feldman, which is the physical letdown that usually happens to teams following a matchup with Stanford. This game ends an extremely daunting September slate for USC with matchups against Alabama, Utah State and at Stanford preceding this trip to Salt Lake City.
6. Sept. 10 vs. Utah State
The Aggies played the Trojans close last time and they get the benefit of being sandwiched between Alabama and Stanford. The Trojans do get to play this game at home, but the Aggies have been to the Coliseum before and head coach Matt Wells isn’t afraid of a physical contest. If the Helton era happens to start unceremoniously, Utah State could find itself on the right side of a significant upset.
5. Sept. 17 at Stanford
The Cardinal have simply battered the Trojans the last couple times they have played. Running back Christian McCaffrey has enough tape of him running wild on USC alone to package up and send to an NFL scout. The Cardinal will show no mercy on the new USC offensive coordinator, as head coach David Shaw will be all too happy to put Tee Martin’s football IQ and adjustment strategies on notice.
4. Nov. 19 at UCLA
Bruins quarterback Josh Rosen had about as good of a freshman season as one can have short of winning a national title. He took home a host of accolades, but more importantly he proved that the preseason hype was warranted. Rosen’s abilities will only continue to grow as he matures and UCLA has done well to recruit skill position players around him. If Rosen doesn’t fall victim to the infamous sophomore slump, UCLA should be more than capable of handing USC its traditional loss at the Rose Bowl in the Jim Mora era.
3. Nov. 26 vs. Notre Dame
The work head coach Brian Kelly has done with Notre Dame is nothing short of impressive. After a shaky start because of some public comments, Kelly has settled in and become the next beloved figure to guide the Irish. Last season might have been his magnum opus with all the injuries the Irish faced. The Irish are a stout defensive team with an offensive system capable of putting USC on its heels. They’ve proven up to the task in a boat race and a war of attrition. This game has always been tough, but Kelly has reintroduced the physical mindset into Notre Dame’s personality.
2. Nov. 5 vs. Oregon
The Trojans get this one at home, but that hasn’t really hindered Oregon in its last two trips to the Coliseum. The Ducks are not afraid of the bright lights and could be competing for the national championship should transfer quarterback Dakota Prukop live up to expectations. Oregon is another team that reloads and a November run-in with the Trojans could look mighty good to the College Football Playoff Committee.
1. Sept. 3 vs. Alabama (Arlington, TX)
Playing the defending national champions is always daunting, but when it’s a team like Alabama, the task gets even harder. The Tide do not rebuild, they reload and this year is expected to be no different.
Fortunately for USC, its hardest game shouldn’t be its most costly game. Win or lose, the Trojans will have a quality name on their resume come Playoff selection time. USC would much rather have the win, however, as it is 2-5 all-time against Alabama.
— 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.