Clay Helton and the Trojans look to take advantage of their revamped schedule
The USC Trojans weren't even sure they were going to play this year. The Pac-12 had originally decided to explore winter or spring football, but as the nation's conferences and commissioners came together with medical experts to sort out the various COVID-19 complications, the decision was ultimately made to proceed with a potential seven-game schedule that will begin on Nov. 7.
There can be no denying that USC has a much more favorable schedule than it did when the year started. The Trojans were supposed to play Alabama and Oregon, but all of that has given way to a slate of six games of known opponents (the Pac-12 is planning for every team outside of the division champions to play a crossover opponent on Dec. 19) in which one could argue their toughest home opponent is Arizona State and their toughest road opponent is Utah. It's a remarkably different schedule than USC would have faced.
So what does that mean for the Trojans? Well, it means that they have the pieces, players, and coaching staff to make a run this year. Many pundits expect them to win the Pac-12 South, and there are some experts who believe they could make a national title game. Of course, deciding which four teams will get that chance this strange season is going to be the most difficult task the College Football Playoff Selection Committee has had yet. One doesn't envy them.
But there is a real chance for USC to run the table and make the Pac-12 Championship Game. Most of the games the Trojans play are very favorable to their schedule. It seems likely that the 9 a.m. local start time for USC and Arizona State in their Nov. 7 opener could also add some extra spice to that recipe. That start time is bound to affect one of these teams.
The Trojans are returning a tremendous number of defensive players, and while they've got a lot of new people on both the offensive and defensive lines, they're still really talented and have leaders behind those new people to help them get acclimated to their new roles. It shouldn't be long before these units are gelling.
So what are the expectations for the Men of Troy in what is going to be referred to as a pandemic season? Athlon asked a few editors and one of its college football contributors to share their realistic win/loss projection for USC in 2020.
USC Football Game-by-Game Predictions for 2020
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
It’s tough to project what will happen in the Pac-12’s six-game slate, but USC should be the favorite to win the South Division. Coach Clay Helton’s team returns the conference’s top quarterback (Kedon Slovis), along with one of the nation’s top receiving corps. The offensive line is a work in progress, but tackle Alijah Vera-Tucker opted back into the season and protects Slovis’ blindside. Todd Orlando takes control of the defensive coordinator duties and an experienced group (nine returning starters) may help ease the transition in an unusual offseason. A road trip to Utah and the home opener versus Arizona State figure to be the toughest matchups on the 2020 slate.
Mark Ross (@AthlonMarkR)
It may be a lighter schedule than originally expected, but this is still an important season for Clay Helton's USC tenure. The good news for Helton is that the path to at least a Pac-12 Championship Game appearance is manageable. The Trojans open with Arizona State, their likely top competition for the Pac-12 South title, but that game is at home and USC has plenty of firepower to match up with the Sun Devils. There are questions about the offensive line and how the defense will fare under new coordinator Todd Orlando, but the Trojans will likely go as far as Kedon Slovis and a deep stable of skill position talent will take them. To that end, the only other game that stands out on the schedule is a road trip to Salt Lake City to face a Utah team that's replacing a dozen starters, most of those on defense. It seems risky to say USC will run the table, given the Trojans' track record under Helton, but maybe 2020 is their year.
Josh Webb (@FightOnTwist)
This is a highly unusual year for the USC Trojans football team. While it had initially seemed the Trojans would be facing a make-or-break year, the coronavirus seems to have put those plans on hold. It would see creating a sense of normalcy and addressing the conference issues would be of more importance to USC than potentially firing head coach Clay Helton at the end of this year if the team came up short. Given the way the year has shaken out in the college football world, it doesn't really seem like too many coaches are going to have their feet held to the fire for the results of this season. It's just too awkward a season for such actions. That said, USC appears to have as golden of a chance as it has ever had to make the College Football Playoff. The eventual Pac-12 champion will have played seven total games, and USC's hardest appears to be at home against Arizona State to start the season. This year is going to be interesting, but we will find out exactly how ready this team is, including the brand-new defensive coordinator, when the season starts on Nov. 7.