The Trojans rank No. 5 in Athlon's Top 25 for 2017.
USC enters this season one of the hottest teams in the country after winning nine in a row to close out 2016, including a thrilling comeback victory in the Rose Bowl over Penn State. Expectations are high for the Trojans once again thanks to presence of quarterback Sam Darnold, who went from No. 2 on the depth chart to a Heisman Trophy contender in a little more than three months. USC returns only 10 starters and has lost several playmakers on both sides of the ball, but the Trojans have the talent to not only contend in the Pac-12, but also make their first trip to the College Football Playoff.
Previewing USC Football’s Offense for 2017
After Sam Darnold took over as the starting quarterback in late September, the Trojans went 9–1, capped by a dramatic comeback to defeat Penn State in the Rose Bowl, as the dynamic passer breathed new life into a stagnant offense. In the 10 games he started, USC averaged 6.9 yards per play. Only seven FBS teams averaged a better clip over the full season.
Darnold will again need to lift USC, especially after key departures on the offensive line, including starting tackles Zach Banner and Chad Wheeler, and at receiver, where JuJu Smith-Schuster and Darreus Rogers have moved on.
The big question is whether Darnold can stay upright. He was the least-sacked quarterback in the Pac-12 last season. Part of that stemmed from his own ability to evade the rush and deliver accurate throws under pressure, but the veteran bodies up front helped, too.
It also remains to be seen if younger wideouts, including Deontay Burnett, Michael Pittman and Velus Jones, can replace Smith-Schuster and Rogers, who combined for 41 percent of the receptions and 45 percent of the receiving yards last season.
Ronald Jones II, who has amassed 2,069 yards in two seasons, headlines a potent rushing attack.
Previewing USC Football’s Defense for 2017
The Trojans will begin their second consecutive season under coordinator Clancy Pendergast, who will oversee a more experienced bunch with six returning starters from a group that was third in the Pac-12 in total defense.
The biggest concern will be up front, with the loss of Stevie Tu’ikolovatu, a burly nose tackle who frequently commanded double teams in his one season after arriving as a graduate transfer from Utah. Kenny Bigelow and Marlon Tuipulotu could assume his place, but Bigelow is coming off a second ACL surgery, and Tuipulotu, who ran with the first-team defense in spring practice, is a true freshman. Expect them to rotate.
The linebacker unit is the most proven group, led by Cameron Smith, who amassed a team-high 83 tackles as a sophomore. Porter Gustin and Uchenna Nwosu remain disruptive as well. Gustin and Nwosu at times line up as edge rushers in Pendergast’s 5-2 look. They combined for 20.5 tackles for a loss a year ago.
Cornerback Adoree’ Jackson, who won the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation’s top defensive back, left early for the NFL. Jackson had five of the defense’s 14 interceptions last season, but most of the secondary remains intact.
Previewing USC Football’s Specialists for 2017
Placekicker Matt Boermeester made the game-winning field goal in the Rose Bowl, but he is unlikely to return for his senior season after he was suspended from the team in February for an unspecified “student conduct issue.” That would leave redshirt freshman Michael Brown to take over. Jackson, the dynamic cornerback who also returned two kickoffs and two punts for touchdowns, will also be missed on special teams.
The resurgence of USC, coming off its best season since the Pete Carroll era, is expected to continue, with the program inching toward its first conference championship in nearly a decade and first-ever appearance in the College Football Playoff.
Darnold, considered among the early favorites for the Heisman Trophy, adds credence to the hype. But the Trojans remain young. More than 50 of their 85 scholarship players will be underclassmen.
Coach Clay Helton has recruited well thus far, with two straight top-10 classes, so the Trojans are talented and have been free of NCAA sanctions since 2014. If USC is to become the third Pac-12 team in four seasons to make the CFB Playoff, it can thank a regular-season schedule that is more navigable, without Alabama and Washington. It’s likely the Trojans will be a factor in the race.
NATIONAL RANKING: 5
PAC-12 SOUTH PREDICTION: 1
Don't forget to check out Athlon Sports' entire college football Top 25.