The USC Trojans are entering the 2021 season with high expectations. The Trojans ran through their 2020 regular-season schedule undefeated before coming up short in the Pac-12 Championship Game against an Oregon team that was only in it because Pac-12 North champion Washington had COVID-19 issues at the worst possible time. USC then opted out of playing in a bowl game.
Head coach Clay Helton saw what everyone else saw in that loss to the Ducks and made the appropriate changes on his coaching staff. Offensive line coach Tim Drevno and strength and conditioning coach Aaron Ausmus were dismissed, replaced by Clay McGuire and Robert Stiner.
While the Trojans' recent spring scrimmage did little to boost confidence in either department, it's important to remember that change takes time. It wasn't too long ago that defensive coordinator Todd Orlando appeared out of his depth and now most would agree that he was an outstanding hire. Sometimes you just need to give coaches time to do their thing.
As for what awaits USC, the 2021 schedule is relatively spread out when it comes to difficulty. That doesn't mean the Trojans have an easy slate, they certainly do not, but the toughest matchups (on paper) aren't crammed together, meaning they'll have some time to grow into the best version of themselves.
Bye: Week 7
Week 1 – Sept. 4 vs. San Jose State (Los Angeles)
Prior to last year, this game looked like a throwaway for USC. But San Jose State is coming off of a Mountain West championship and near-perfect season, the only loss coming to Ball State in the Arizona Bowl. Brent Brennan has established himself as one of the top coaches on the rise, and the Spartans have plenty of pieces coming back from the team that broke through in 2020. This should be a game the Trojans win, but all things are possible in the Clay Helton era.
Week 2 – Sept. 11 vs. Stanford (Los Angeles)
Stanford is always a tough out. The Cardinal are one of the few teams in college football capable of beating you the week they play you and the week after. Look no further than the "body blow theory," presented by Bruce Feldman, FOX Sports reporter and National College Football Insider for The Athletic. This is a game the Trojans could find themselves on the wrong side of if they don't have their preparations in order.
Week 3 – Sept. 18 at Washington State (Pullman, Wash.)
This is not the same Wazzu the Trojans have been facing for the last several years. Cougars head coach Nick Rolovich doesn't employ Mike Leach's Air Raid, instead he has introduced a modernized version of the Run and Shoot offense, one that incorporates more run-pass options (RPO). The former Hawaii head coach went just 1-3 in his Washington State debut, which was impacted heavily by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. USC should have the clear advantage in this one, but the Cougars are typically a tough out at home.
Week 4 – Sept. 25 vs. Oregon State (Los Angeles)
USC has dominated this series (63-11-4) and the last four meetings have been decided by an average of nearly 22 points. Former Beavers quarterback Jonathan Smith is 9-22 in his first four seasons as the head coach of his alma mater, including a 7-16 mark in Pac-12 play. Oregon State returns 15 starters from last season's 2-5 team, but still has a long way to go before it's on USC's level. The Trojans also get this one in the Coliseum so look for the Men of Troy to maintain the status quo in this series.
Week 5 – Oct. 2 at Colorado (Boulder, Colo.)
The contest everyone wanted in 2020 will finally be played in 2021 and Colorado gets this one at home. It's entirely possible the Buffaloes win this game going away. Karl Dorrell hasn't had much of a problem getting people to buy into his system in the short time he's been in Boulder. He was the Pac-12 Coach of the Year last year and for good reason. He has serious roots in the conference, knows how to recruit the area, and should get ample opportunity to prove he knows what he's doing. If Year 1 is proof of concept for the rest of Dorrell's five-year contract, Colorado is in good hands.
Week 6 – Oct. 9 vs. Utah (Los Angeles)
The Utes have been a thorn in the side of the Trojans ever since they joined the Pac-12. Kyle Whittingham has been the head coach of the program since I was 23 years old. I am now 39. It would be an understatement to say that he knows what he's doing and that the players have fully bought in. Utah teams always play physical and the Trojans may be in a world of hurt after facing Colorado, so Whittingham will be sure to use that to his advantage. The Utes also are search of their first win over USC in Los Angeles since the late 1910s.
Week 8 – Oct. 23 at Notre Dame (South Bend, Ind.)
Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly has had a tremendous run against USC in his tenure with the Fighting Irish. He's 7-3 vs. the Trojans including three straight wins. Notre Dame is coming off of College Football Playoff appearance and could find itself in the hunt again this fall. This game was canceled last season because of the pandemic, but that may have benefited USC more. Kelly knows how to bring the hurt against the Trojans and has little problem getting his players to believe they can beat them anytime they play.
Week 9 – Oct. 30 vs. Arizona (Los Angeles)
Arizona is entering the 2021 season starting over from scratch after putting an end to Kevin Sumlin's disastrous tenure. First-year head coach Jedd Fisch takes over a program that has deep roots and plenty of qualified alumni but really nothing to show for it outside of a Fiesta Bowl appearance in 2014, a game the Rich Rodriguez-led Wildcats lost to Boise State. Fisch is faced with a daunting rebuilding task and has already tapped Arizona's NFL alumni to re-energize both the players and the fan base. But it will take a while before anyone expects Arizona to give teams like USC much of a fight, especially with this one taking place in the Coliseum.
Week 10 – Nov. 6 at Arizona State (Tempe, Ariz.)
Arizona State enters this game knowing they can knock off the Trojans. Herm Edwards has turned the Sun Devils into a consistent contender in a short amount of time, as evidenced by the last three meetings with USC. Arizona State left the Coliseum with a win over the Trojans in 2018, Edwards' first season, with USC winning the next two meetings by a total of six points. Expect another close contest in Tempe as this could determine which team wins the Pac-12 South.
Week 11 – Nov. 13 at California (Berkeley, Calif.)
Cal finally snapped its 14-game losing streak to USC in 2018 but otherwise the Trojans have maintained their dominance in this series. Golden Bears head coach Justin Wilcox is 21-21 entering his fifth season but just 11-20 against Pac-12 teams. Defense has been Cal's calling card under Wilcox but that side of the ball will operate a little differently this season with former co-coordinator Tim DeRuyter now at Oregon. As it is, offense is more of a concern for the Bears after finishing 101st or worse nationally in all four major categories last season.
Week 12 – Nov. 20 vs. UCLA (Los Angeles)
Chip Kelly enters his third season leading the Bruins and there are many in the industry that feel the program is headed in the right direction. Kelly still has yet to post a winning season at UCLA (10-21 overall, 10-15 in Pac-12 games), but all four losses in 2020 were by six points or fewer, including a close one to USC (43-38) in the Rose Bowl. This one should be a fun ride.
Week 13 – Nov. 28 vs. BYU (Los Angeles)
This will be just the fourth meeting ever between these historic programs. USC leads 2-1, but BYU won the most recent encounter, defeating the Trojans 30-27 in 2019. That game was in Provo and this time around the Cougars won't have first-round NFL draft pick Zach Wilson, among others, from the team that went 11-1 and finished the 2020 season ranked 11th in the final polls. BYU will still be a tough out as head coach Kalani Sitake has put his stamp on the program. By this point, USC could be preparing for the Pac-12 Championship Game, jockeying for bowl positioning or both, barring unexpected results occurring earlier in the schedule.
— Written by Josh Webb, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @FightOnTwist.