USC’s 2021 season kicks off this weekend with an out-of-conference battle with the San Jose State Spartans. The Trojans are looking to build on last year’s undefeated regular season in which they came up just short of running the table, losing in the Pac-12 Championship Game to an Oregon team only playing in it because Washington couldn’t clear COVID-19 protocols.
A lot will be expected of USC this year, especially with the signing of the No. 1 recruit in the entire nation, defensive lineman Korey Foreman, who is expected to be on the field a lot on Saturday. Head coach Clay Helton has had more than enough time to make something happen, and if he can’t do it this year, it’s just not likely that he’s ever going to do it. He might be a nice guy and a player’s coach, but nice guy doesn’t mean championship-winning, and USC expects titles of some kind.
First up on the 2021 docket is another team that ran the table in their regular season — but actually won its conference. San Jose State is the defending Mountain West champion and is already 1-0 after dismantling FCS Southern Utah 45-14 in Week 0 last Saturday. USC obviously represents a different caliber of opponent, but the Trojans can't expect to just roll over the Spartans either.
San Jose State at USC
Kickoff: Saturday, Aug. 28 at 5 p.m. ET
TV: Pac-12 Networks
Spread: USC -14
When San Jose State Has the Ball
The Spartans are going to have to rely heavily upon veteran quarterback Nick Starkel, who is coming off of a strong opening performance. Starkel threw for 394 yards (on just 16 completions), four touchdowns, and an interception in the rout of Southern Utah. Starkel did a fine job distributing the football by connecting with eight different receivers on the night. All four touchdown passes went to a different teammate, with two of those scoring strikes covering 65 or more yards. The more targets Starkel can involve in the passing game, the more stress he can put on USC's secondary.
San Jose State also will have to run the ball to keep the Trojans' defense on its toes. Tyler Nevens led the way last week with 91 yards on 12 carries. He and Starkel scored touchdowns on the ground. Three other players recorded two or more rushing attempts as the Spartans finished the game with 133 yards on 23 carries. Averaging nearly six yards per carry against USC would go a long way towards orchestrating a potential upset.
When USC Has the Ball
The Trojans enter this contest knowing they have to get off to a strong start or the calls for Helton’s ouster are only going to grow louder. Helton knows what needs to improve this year, as well. USC has made several notable changes, including replacing their strength coach and offensive line coach. The big reason behind these changes was a lack of potency in the run game.
The Trojans will need to find a way to manufacture yards on the ground with Texas transfer Keaontay Ingram and Vavae Malepeai. The only game last year in which USC was able to run the ball effectively was against Utah. Every other game saw the Trojans struggle to find open space, so rediscovering some semblance of a ground attack is going to be critical if this team wants to achieve its goals.
The backfield will look different following some offseason departures, but the key to USC's offense remains quarterback Kedon Slovis. Last year was a bit of a struggle for Slovis, and it’s not known whether it was just a sophomore slump or the result of being asked to take on so much of the offensive workload. He has one of the nation's top wide receiver groups to throw to, headlined by Drake London, and he'll be protected by a revamped offensive line under the tutelage of new position coach Clay McGuire. Slovis has already shown he's had the talent to win a Heisman Trophy; maybe this is the year he'll have a supporting cast to help him too.
USC is simply too stacked and too talented to lose this game. Stranger things have happened in college football, but the Trojans know what’s expected of them, and they’re going to be ready for San Jose State. The question for this game isn’t if USC is going to win, but by how much. Foreman will likely introduce himself to the nation and showcase why he was the No. 1 overall recruit, and Slovis should be fired up and ready to go in his third year as USC's quarterback. The Spartans have made a lot of progress under head coach Brent Brennan and are a good team. But the Trojans are better and will show it on Saturday.
Prediction: USC 44, San Jose State 16
Podcast: Week 1 Preview, Predictions & Spread Picks