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USC Football: Game-by-Game Predictions for 2021

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USC Trojans head coach Clay Helton

Clay Helton and the Trojans are feeling the pressure to defend their Pac-12 South title

The USC Trojans enter the 2021 season coming off of an undefeated regular season and nearly coming all the way back against Oregon in the Pac-12 Championship Game. The Trojans will feel like they have a lot to prove and they’re entering the year having pulled off quite the recruiting coup in landing the nation’s no. 1 overall recruit in defensive lineman Korey Foreman. It’s been a while since USC landed the nation’s top player. This is surely what Heritage Hall wanted to see out of head coach Clay Helton in addition to undefeated regular seasons.

But even though the Trojans had an undefeated regular season, they lost the only game that mattered and they opted out of playing a bowl game during the pandemic. So, the season amounted to nothing, really. It will just sort of exist in USC’s history and may one day be included in a documentary on how they played football during a pandemic. This year is for all the marbles and will include a bowl game. But can Helton lead his squad to a Pac-12 title and maybe a spot in the College Football Playoff? Let’s see how a couple of Athlon editors and a college football contributor see the Trojans' season playing out.

USC Football Game-by-Game Predictions for 2021

USC Football: Game-by-Game Predictions for 2021

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Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
With the best roster and arguably the most favorable schedule in the Pac-12 South, a division title and double-digit victories should be the expectation for USC this fall. However, the Trojans haven’t played up to their potential under coach Clay Helton, and last year’s performance in the abbreviated 2020 slate didn’t inspire a ton of confidence. Quarterback Kedon Slovis needs to play up to the level he displayed in ’19 season after an uneven (at times) ’20 campaign but he'll be working behind an offensive line with major question marks. If the line holds up, scoring points won’t be a problem with Slovis and a wealth of talented playmakers returning. Similar to the offense, USC’s defense doesn’t lack for talent. However, this unit also enters the year with its share of question marks, namely depth concerns on the interior of the line and at linebacker, while also playing up to its potential. If Helton and this staff can’t get the roster to play up to its talent level (and win the South), a coaching change might be coming at the end of ’21.

Mark Ross (@AthlonMarkR)
Even though USC went undefeated in the 2020 regular season (albeit over five games) and hung tough against Oregon in the Pac-12 Championship Game, it wasn't enough to satisfy the Clay Helton haters. It's pretty clear that Helton needs to win, and not just in the regular season, if he wants any shot at keeping his job. The Trojans, per usual, are talented but can they put it all together? The Pac-12 South figures to be a dogfight and key games against Utah, Arizona State and UCLA will probably decide USC's fate in the race. A home loss to the Bruins would be crippling for Helton in more ways than one and then there's the rivalry with Notre Dame, which has swung in the Irish's favor recently. Even though the Trojans catch a big break by avoiding Oregon and Washington in crossover play, a crowded division will be what keeps them out of the Pac-12 title game this season, and probably result in a coaching change too.

Josh Webb (@FightOnTwist)
USC has had problems finding that second gear under Clay Helton without having a top-five NFL draft pick leading the way. Maybe Kedon Slovis is that guy this year; he already has two years under his belt as the starter for USC. It’s possible that this is the year it all comes together. It’s more likely the Trojans fall to around the middle of the pack after overachieving last year. They lose some top talent at the wide receiver position and the loss of Talanoa Hufanga on defense is sure to have a massive ripple effect, never mind the fact that they’ve also lost the leader along the offensive line two years in a row now. The Trojans likely move on from Helton after another mediocre year where the team underachieves and new-ish athletic director Mike Bohn is forced to make a change.