Although the USC Trojans actually won their division and earned the right to play for a Pac-12 championship, COVID-19 protocols meant that Washington could not participate and their replacement, the Oregon Ducks, took their place and ultimately triumphed in the conference title game.
If it seems a bit petty to put it that way, college sports are nothing if not petty and phrasing it like this gives USC some internal motivation to improve and progress in 2021. Sometimes it's about finding the right mantra for the season, and USC can play the "we belonged and they didn't" card for themselves if it provides that extra motivation.
If the 2021 campaign hopes to see any hope of improving upon the 2020 season, the Trojans are going to have to find the right combination of skill, talent, motivation, and improvements throughout the year. And that process has begun with the commencement of spring practice for Clay Helton's team.
5 Storylines to Watch During USC's Spring Practices
1. Quarterback improvement
USC needs a healthy amount of improvement from quarterback Kedon Slovis. With Slovis only having true freshmen Jaxson Dart and Miller Moss behind him, he will need to stay healthy the entire year. Dart and Moss aren't going to help this program realize their goals just yet. Slovis is entering his third year and should be completely set up in offensive coordinator Graham Harrell's system.
If the Trojans do run into a scenario where they have to use Dart or Moss, USC will likely want to limit their exposure to one or two games at most. It's going to be up to Slovis to be smart during games, take what's there, and not try to force the issue. If he's able to stay within himself and play within Harrell's system, he should put up decent numbers.
2. Offensive line progress
USC's offensive line wasn't very good last year. Not only did the Trojans have trouble at the point of attack, they also never managed to be able to run the ball when they needed it outside of a few instances. The Trojans canned offensive line coach Tim Drevno and strength coach Aaron Ausmus in response to the OL play. If the Trojans want to build on what they had last year, they're going to need to be more physical, play with their butts lower to the ground, and work a lot harder in the weight room.
Making matters worse for USC's offensive line, they missed out on highly regarded 2021 recruit Austin Uke (Stanford) and sought-after transfer Wanya Morris (Oklahoma) because they didn't have an OL coach in place when these valuable linemen were selecting their spots. These are the kinds of follies that will prevent USC from reaching its expected heights. But it's also critical for new line coach Clay McGuire to use the spring to learn his personnel and start putting the plan for the fall together.
3. Harrell must show more
USC simply hasn't been good enough with Harrell leading the offense. The diversity in play-calling just isn't there yet. If USC aims to repeat some of its successes, Harrell is going to have to find a way to create a rushing attack out of his preferred air raid scheme. The Trojans simply weren't good enough with the run game last year and much of that falls on Harrell. The Trojans have the weapons, they just need to show up and perform.
4. Defensive growth under Orlando
Todd Orlando had a heck of a first year with USC as the new defensive coordinator. The defense was aggressive, got after opposing quarterbacks, and started to force multiple turnovers every week. Orlando has his finger on the pulse of this defense and he's shown that he can handle the task of having his unit ready to go every week.
Orlando was a huge question mark after being fired by Tom Herman at Texas. That said, he showed last year that he wasn't the problem in Austin. His performance with USC was nothing if not refreshing and Herman himself didn't last too long with the Longhorns following Orlando's departure. The Trojans appear set with Orlando leading the defense, so it's just a matter of everyone becoming more comfortable with their roles and increasing their understanding of the schemes.
5. Lay the groundwork for a fast start
It's only April, but never too early to look ahead to the fall. USC will kick off its 2021 season at home on Sept. 4 against San Jose State. As the defending Mountain West champions coming off of an impressive 7-1 record and ranked 24th in the final AP Poll, the Trojans can't afford to take the Spartans lightly, even with a date with Stanford to follow. USC's other non-conference games are at Notre Dame (Oct. 23) and against BYU (Nov. 27), so it's not an easy slate. The Trojans also have struggled against non-Pac-12 foes recently, going 4-7 over the last three seasons, a span that includes three straight losses to the Fighting Irish and a 2019 road loss to the Cougars.
So while a loss to San Jose State to open the season doesn't impact USC's chances of defending its Pac-12 South title or getting back to the conference championship game, that's not the kind of statement Helton's team needs to make either. The best way for the Trojans to avoid that is to take full advantage of these spring practices so they are ready to hit the ground running come the fall.
— Written by Josh Webb, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @FightOnTwist.