The USC Trojans have heavy expectations in 2021. After a perfect regular season and an appearance in the Pac-12 title game, USC head coach Clay Helton is basically in a do-or-die year. Anything short of a tremendous regular season and a Pac-12 championship is likely to see his ouster at the end of the year.
Helton does have plenty of positives entering the new season. He's fresh off a spectacular recruiting class that had the nation's No. 1 recruit not only sign with USC for the first time since 2009, but they also managed to keep it a secret from the world as he signed early but didn't announce until January.
Recruits or no, USC has plenty of work to do in 2021 and much of it starts up front. The Trojans will have to improve on an extremely poor running game and find a way to diversify their offense while keeping quarterback Kedon Slovis healthy. So, let's take a look at three reasons for optimism in 2021.
1. Korey Foreman
As mentioned in the intro, Foreman was the nation's No. 1 recruit, and it was a consensus, which these things often aren't. The defensive lineman out of Corona Centennial in Southern California is expected to do big things in his first year. To compare him to someone USC faced in 2020, Foreman has expectations similar to Kayvon Thibodeaux when he signed with Oregon. The Trojans remember well how Thibodeaux dominated the Pac-12 championship, and Foreman will be expected to be a game-changer and a difference-maker they can deploy to turn the tide of games.
The defensive line for USC has done fairly well under new defensive coordinator Todd Orlando. So, it stands to reason that Orlando will thrive with Foreman at his disposal. Orlando is likely to maintain his aggressive mindset knowing that he has someone like Foreman coming off the edge and causing havoc for offensive linemen. It's only one piece, but Orlando lost some of USC's better defensive players to the NFL draft and Foreman is a welcome addition to a solid defense looking for fresh talent to come in and make the difference.
2. Exciting pieces on offense
The Trojans have some impressive components coming back on offense. Yes, they lost key contributors like Tyler Vaughns and Amon-Ra St. Brown to the NFL draft, but they also have players like Kyle Ford and Bru McCoy ready to partner with emerging star Drake London. There's also Gary Bryant and John Jackson III joining up with guys like Vavae Malepeai and Stephen Carr as well as Kenan Christon Jr.
There's a lot to like about the USC offense, especially if Slovis is back to 100 percent health. There were plenty of times throughout last year where it looked like he was still dealing with some injury issues that may have been left over from the Holiday Bowl. If he's back and ready, he has the arm to take care of every receiving target USC gives him. He's a great processing quarterback and is athletic enough to pick up some yards with his legs when things break down.
3. Home-friendly schedule
Outside of USC traveling to South Bend for their annual contest against Notre Dame, the Trojans seem to have it made when it comes to tough contests in 2021. Although the Pac-12 has yet to release its full schedule, some things are known. The Trojans' non-conference slate consists of San Jose State (Sept. 4) and BYU (Nov. 27) at home and the aforementioned road date with the Fighting Irish (Oct. 23).
For conference play, USC has three home games (Arizona, UCLA, Utah) against divisional foes compared to two road dates (Arizona State, Colorado). And in crossover play, the Trojans miss the projected top two teams in the Pac-12 North in two-time defending conference champion Oregon and Washington while getting Oregon State and Stanford in the Coliseum, with Cal and Washington State coming on the road. Again, it remains to be seen how these games will line up, but while USC will certainly be tested this fall, the schedule appears manageable.
— Written by Josh Webb, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @FightOnTwist.