The Trojans rank No. 21 in Athlon's Top 25 for 2018
USC is the defending Pac-12 champion, but the Trojans will have a different look this season, especially on offense. Gone are quarterback Sam Darnold and running back Ronald Jones II, and how their replacements fare will determine if USC can defend its conference crown. The defense also lost some talent, but this unit could end up being even better as coordinator Clancy Pendergast has plenty of pieces to work with. The front seven should be stout but the key will be the improvement in the secondary. These Trojans won't have much time to figure things out as the schedule opens with three tough road games in September alone.
Previewing USC Football's Offense for 2018
USC's offense is undergoing a significant makeover. For the first time since 1980, it replaces a starting quarterback (Sam Darnold), leading rusher (Ronald Jones) and No. 1 wide receiver (Deontay Burnett) in the same offseason. The Trojans have the least experience at quarterback. Redshirt sophomore Matt Fink is the only passer who has appeared in a college game, appearing in mop-up duty for three games last season. Incoming freshman JT Daniels is a talented passer and the reigning Gatorade National Player of the Year. Redshirt freshman Jack Sears had succeeded Darnold previously at San Clemente (Calif.) High School.
Stephen Carr, Aca'Cedric Ware and Vavae Malepeai provide a running-back-by-committee approach to replacing Jones. All three are tough runners. Carr is particularly elusive and a threat as a pass catcher, but Jones' breakaway ability will be tough to match.
The Trojans have a variety of options in the passing game, led by sophomore Tyler Vaughns, who was a capable target with 57 receptions for 809 yards and five touchdowns last season.
Four of five starters return on the offensive line, which could help a first-time starting quarterback and the running game, but USC did allow 30 sacks last season - up from 12 in 2016.
Previewing USC Football's Defense for 2018
Few defenses were better at pressuring quarterbacks last season than the Trojans, who finished with 46 sacks, tied with Clemson for the most in the nation. The trend may continue in 2018 under defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast, who could have his best unit since returning to USC in 2016.
The Trojans lose sack leader Rasheem Green on the defensive line, plus Uchenna Nwosu, an outside linebacker who was a disruptive defender, but there is talent left in the front seven. Outside linebacker Porter Gustin, another pass rusher, returns from injury, alongside senior Cameron Smith, the Mike linebacker, and Christian Rector, a wrecking ball on the defensive line.
The Trojans ranked 82nd in the FBS in pass defense last season and surrendered far too many big plays. Senior Iman Marshall will need to continue to develop, along with other veterans, including senior Isaiah Langley. Junior Jack Jones was withheld from spring practice in order to focus on academics and won't return to the team for 2018. Safety Marvell Tell was also important against the run and helped out in blitz schemes, but he will be needed to help in pass defense.
Previewing USC Football's Specialists for 2018
Chase McGrath and Reid Budrovich, the former walk-on kicker and punter, respectively, are back. McGrath made 12-of-17 field goals, including the game winner in double overtime against Texas. Budrovich was effective pinning opponents inside their 20-yard line, where 23 of his 55 punts landed.
Clay Helton is the first coach in the program's history to guide the Trojans to 10 wins in each of his first two seasons, but it is going to be a challenge to continue that level of success with significant roster turnover.
The Trojans should remain the favorites in the Pac-12 South race, considering the talent remaining on their roster and coaching changes that occurred at three of their division rivals. The challenge to repeat as Pac-12 champions gets off to a difficult start with a tough September slate that includes trips to Stanford and Arizona, plus a matchup with Washington State on a Friday night. It won't be an easy road to navigate.