USC enjoyed the ups and downs in 2016 that come with what was expected to be a transition season. A slow start gave way to a fantastic finish, as the Trojans’ fortunes changed due to a quarterback switch.
The end result was a nine-game winning streak that culminated with Clay Helton becoming a Rose Bowl champion in his first full season as head coach and has positioned sophomore quarterback Sam Darnold as one of the Heisman Trophy favorites for 2017.
For the first time a while, expectations are high for the Men of Troy due in part to their home-friendly schedule, which is not nearly as difficult on paper as last year’s. It may not be “national championship or bust” for Helton and company, but this team will be expected to contend for a Pac-12 title, at minimum.
USC’s schedule is unique in that the Trojans will play 12 straight weeks without a bye. So which games are the ones that could prevent USC from playing in the Pac-12 Championship Game? Here are the Trojans’ 2017 matchups ranked from easiest to most difficult.
12. Sept. 2 vs. Western Michigan
P.J. Fleck is no longer rowing the boat at Western Michigan and wide receiver Corey Davis is no longer terrorizing defenses that underestimated his talents. Tim Lester enters his first year as a head coach with a first-year offensive coordinator and plenty of roster turnover. Catching USC at the Coliseum on “light up the scoreboard Saturday” might be too much for the Broncos from the MAC.
11. Sept. 23 at Cal
Cal is bidding farewell to the Sonny Dykes era with first-year head coach Justin Wilcox ready to make his debut. He hired former Fresno State head coach Tim DeRuyter as defensive coordinator as they hope to rebuild, renew and reinvigorate the Golden Bears’ Pac-12 chances. Fortunately for USC, it’s going to take a couple of seasons for Cal to be considered a legitimate threat and the Trojans have beaten the Bears 13 straight times.
10. Oct. 28 at Oregon State
The Beavers should continue to improve this fall. By any measure, last season’s 4-8 record shows that Gary Andersen has things going in the right direction in Corvallis. That’s not to say that USC should be on upset alert, but the Trojans better not sell these Beavers short and put forth their best effort on the road.
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9. Nov. 4 vs Arizona
There is only one way for Arizona to go in 2017 and that’s up. As good as he has been for Arizona and the Pac-12 (and I would argue he’s been extremely good for both), the Wildcats may not keep Rich Rodriguez if he has another 3-9 campaign. He was brought to Tucson not only to raise the program’s profile, but also because he had shown he could win games. Rich Rod is in year six with only one 10-win season (2014) to show for it and the end of that campaign soured the overall result. It’s time for him to produce results, like beating USC at home.
8. Nov. 11 at Colorado
Colorado showed its rise was anything but fleeting with a trip to the Pac-12 Championship Game and nearly beating out USC for a spot in the Rose Bowl. However, this is shaping up to be a rebuilding season of sorts and quarterback Steven Montez doesn’t have the dual-threat ability that typically gives USC problems. The Buffaloes do return running back Phillip Lindsay though, who the Trojans must slow down if they want to win in Boulder.
7. Oct. 28 at Arizona State
This is one of those games that I feel like I may be overvaluing, but the Trojans always have one randomly tough Pac-12 opponent and it hasn’t been ASU in a minute. Quarterback Blake Barnett’s arrival makes things extremely interesting. He’s exactly the type of guy that head coach Todd Graham knows how to use to beat USC. This should be a fun game, regardless. Oh, I almost forgot to mention that former Baylor defensive coordinator Phil Bennett will be reshaping that Sun Devil defense. This team will compete in games and should do so almost immediately.
6. Sept. 29 (Friday) at Washington State
Playing in Pullman is already a daunting task in the Mike Leach era. Leach does not care how long a game lasts or how sloppy it is played so long as his team comes out on top and is executing the game plan. Quarterback Luke Falk is back, he knows that offense like the back of his hand and the game will be played on a Friday night in September. Somehow, someway, the weather will be terrible and Leach will be smiling.
5. Sept. 16 vs. Texas
So much about this game is an unknown. How will Tom Herman get off the ground at Texas? It took him minutes in Houston. Texas is always loaded with talent and Herman knows how to formulate a game plan. Probably too high on the list, but it would look foolishly low if USC comes away with the loss, something that could happen.
4. Oct. 14 vs. Utah
The one problem that had plagued Utah during its time in the Pac-12 was an offense that nobody feared and was often operating without its primary quarterback. Then Utah went and hired Troy Taylor, one of the minds behind Eastern Washington’s dynamic offense. The statistics that offense put up would terrify most USC fans and that doesn’t even account for the Utes’ usually terrifying defense. USC will be happy to have this one at home, but will the Trojans get caught looking ahead to Notre Dame?
3. Oct. 21 vs. Notre Dame
The Fighting Irish may be coming off of a 4-8 campaign and lost quarterback DeShone Kizer, but they’ve reloaded with another outstanding recruiting class, new signal-caller Brandon Wimbush doesn’t have to worry about losing his job, and new defensive coordinator Mike Elko is looking to put his stamp on this defense. The only downside to Wimbush’s lack of competition is just that. If something goes wrong with Wimbush, Notre Dame only has Ian Book and Avery Davis as fallback options. Beyond that, Notre Dame will be hungry to rebound and head coach Brian Kelly is the type of leader who could motivate the younger players into starring roles.
2. Nov. 18 vs. UCLA
The Trojans avoided a fully healthy Bruins team last year but that probably won’t be the case this season. Jed Fisch is now in charge of the UCLA offense and will be looking to improve on the lack of production the Bruins had with Kennedy Polamalu calling the plays. Last year’s 4-8 record was the first losing season under Jim Mora and it seems likely he’ll be able to turn things around with a healthy Josh Rosen back at quarterback. If Rosen is slinging it like he’s shown he’s capable of, UCLA has a solid shot at denying the Trojans and winning the Pac-12 South Division.
1. Sept. 9 vs. Stanford
USC cannot seem to beat Stanford, but will be glad to see Christian McCaffrey gone. Even though the Cardinal had a down year in 2016, they still won 10 games. This game is the first Pac-12 matchup of the season and could be the first of two meetings between these teams. Which one will be able to make the stronger opening statement?