USC head coach Clay Helton’s first full season at the helm was a wild ride. Things looked like they were headed in the wrong direction following a 1-3 start. Then the magic of quarterback Sam Darnold helped the Trojans rattle off nine straight wins, including an incredible Rose Bowl comeback against Penn State.
Of course, success at USC means even more will be expected of Helton and company this season. It’s really hard to go up from the Rose Bowl, but those are the expectations these Trojans are facing, especially Darnold. Considered by many as the early Heisman Trophy favorite, he’s also the presumptive top quarterback prospect for the 2018 NFL Draft, should he choose to declare. The last time USC had this much riding on a season was 2012 and that’s a year Trojan fans would love to wipe from their memory banks.
Helton and his staff have stockpiled talent through the most recent recruiting classes and the 2017 crop looks to have a few players that will contribute early and often. Roster depth is a must because the Men of Troy won’t see a bye during the regular season, meaning they will play 12 straight games starting on Sept. 2 and going through Nov. 18.
How tough will it be for a new-look team under Helton to do damage at the top of the polls? Athlon Sports polled a few writers to get their take on USC’s realistic 2017 win/loss projection.
USC Football Game-by-Game Predictions for 2017
Josh Webb (@FightOnTwist)
USC is a team loaded with talent at every conceivable position. The Trojans recruit well even when the results on the field could be a bit better because it is USC. The Trojans are one of the college blue bloods for a reason, which comes with high expectations each season.
Thus far, getting the old gang back together and mixing in a few new names has worked out very well for USC. Clay Helton has built the kind of rapport with his players that demands excellence, but also encourages uniqueness and camaraderie. This is the formula that seems to work best at USC. The previous two regimes were far too regimented and hypocritical for players to buy in. With Helton, what you see is what you get, and that is just fine with the players.
The Trojans may have had a slightly better 2016 season if Sam Darnold had started from the get-go, but there’s also an argument to be made that he was able to succeed by not having the stress of what turned out to be a 1-3 start hanging over his head. Players like Darnold know how to turn the page and find success, but sometimes you can overload a player by putting too much on him at once. Max Browne was probably in a better place to mentally cope with the rigors of the Alabama game while Stanford has shown a knack for creating stifling game plans for younger quarterbacks.
Darnold’s presence alone ought to help USC win nine games. It’s the lack of an in-season bye that makes it difficult to buy the notion that the Trojans can run the table. They don’t necessarily need to be undefeated to make the playoff thanks to a strong non-conference slate, but that lack of a bye increases the potential for USC to drop a game along the way simply due to fatigue, be it physical and/or mental. The Trojans can run the table, but past history gives pause to that idea. Then again, history also is meant to be rewritten.
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
The Trojans have a favorable path to the Pac-12 Championship Game and the College Football Playoff. However, I think coach Clay Helton’s team falls just short of an undefeated season, likely losing at Washington State, Notre Dame or against Stanford. Quarterback Sam Darnold should build off his strong debut last fall, and running back Ronald Jones is poised for his best all-around season. However, the Trojans suffered heavy losses up front and depth is an issue behind the starting five. With six starters back, coordinator Clancy Pendergast has a good foundation to build around on defense. But USC’s defense lost its best lineman (Stevie Tu’ikolovatu) and standout cornerback Adoree’ Jackson. Darnold should carry this team to the South Division title, but the development of the offensive line and defense will decide whether or not this team earns a playoff bid.
Bryan Fischer (@BryanDFischer)
You don’t even have to guess as to which team is the most talented in the Pac-12 on a yearly basis because the consensus of players, coaches, fans and the media will always point to the Trojans. That will be the case again in 2017 as USC will be in the thick of the playoff race and the favorite to win the conference for the first time in a while. There’s been a ton of attention paid this offseason to QB Sam Darnold but there’s a reason for it – he’s the real deal. Add in a run game that will be as good as anybody and a defense that has enough to take the next step and the hype looks to be warranted in LA. We’ve been fooled in the past with the Trojans but this team feels different, and is certainly more level-headed than past editions in cardinal and gold. I wouldn’t put the team in the same league as the Alabamas or Ohio States of the world just yet but the only team on USC’s regular season schedule that can beat the Trojans is USC.
Kyle Kensing (@kensing45)
This has become a dance college football fans know well. Virtually every season since USC last won the Pac-12 and contended for a national title (2008), the Trojans were deemed to be "back." Whether it was 2012 with a preseason No. 1 ranking, ‘14 with the arrival of new head coach Steve Sarkisian and the subsequent return of a bevy of talent, USC was unsuccessful in its bid to regain national prominence.
So what's different this time around? For one thing, this is the first of those years in which the Trojans enter riding a nine-game winning streak, which culminated with a victory in the Rose Bowl. USC's fourth-quarter rally vs. Penn State in the Granddaddy of 'Em All felt like the USC of old. With key players from that win back in the fold for 2017 – namely quarterback Sam Darnold, linebacker Cameron Smith, defensive end Porter Gustin and wide receiver Deontay Burnett – the foundation is rock solid.
A host of impressive young talent looks ready to fill in the gaps left by departing talent. USC has every piece needed to win its first conference title since 2008. But it won't be easy. The Trojans have no bye week, and they face one of the toughest schedules in college football. A road trip to Washington State late in the first month looms as high-upset potential, but the budding rivalry with Stanford poses the most serious challenge to the Trojans early in the slate.
Stanford's had USC's number of late; likewise, historic rival Notre Dame has won the last two in South Bend. The Fighting Irish will be much improved from the 2016 squad USC routed last November. Those two dates stand out as possibilities to complicate USC's College Football Playoff aspirations, but don't sleep on the November road trip to Colorado.
Despite the challenges, USC benefits from avoiding Washington – the team the Trojans are likely to see in Santa Clara for the Pac-12 Championship Game.
John Coon (@johncoonsports)
Few college football teams enter 2017 better positioned to make a splash nationally than USC. The Trojans won nine straight games a year ago to recover from a 1-3 start and are a top-10 team on paper coming into this season. Can USC reach the College Football Playoff? The odds do seem to favor the Trojans.
Sam Darnold is a major reason why USC could finally live up to the hype. His freshman debut exceeded expectations. Darnold threw for 3,086 yards and 31 touchdowns while completing 67.2 percent of his passes. He posted a 9-1 record as a starter and the Trojans averaged 6.9 yards per play in those 10 games. Ronald Jones II adds a potent backfield threat to the USC offense. Jones has churned out 2,069 rushing yards over the past two seasons. Their abilities will be tested by a less experienced offensive line, but the offense should still be electric.
USC's defense will be no less imposing. The Trojans are stacked at linebacker. Cameron Smith led USC with 83 tackles a year ago. Porter Gustin and Uchenna Nwosu combined for 20.5 tackles for a loss a year ago and are supremely disruptive on the edge. USC should be tough again in the secondary as well, even with the loss of Adoree’ Jackson, with most of the defensive backfield intact from a year ago.
Recent history shows us that USC is likely to stumble somewhere along the way. The schedule is littered with tough tests against the likes of Stanford, Washington State and Utah, as well as trap games against teams like Colorado and Oregon State. If the Trojans do get through it unscathed, they have the ability to put together a really special season.