The 2020 season is a breath of fresh air for USC in nearly every aspect — save one. A new president is cleaning up at the scandal-ridden school. A new athletic director is calling the shots around Heritage Hall. The Trojans will sport a revamped football coaching staff and return one of the best rosters on the West Coast. Despite positive momentum, though, optimism is still muted. Such a feeling has nothing to do with any player or the schedule but rather with the presence of Clay Helton, whose seat is red hot after a 13–12 mark the past two seasons.
Whether or not Helton can Fight On for another year will be one of the biggest storylines in college football. Such talk will hover over the program at every turn, but regardless how things play out this fall, the head coach will at least be equipped with a team capable of winning — and winning skeptics over. A division title is expected at a minimum, but this being the Cardinal and Gold, the bar is much higher.
Previewing USC’s Offense for 2020
The program famous for “Student Body Right” moved to the Air Raid last season, and the results under OC Graham Harrell were impressive. The Trojans scored nearly a touchdown more per game and ranked 15th nationally in yards per play — a jump of 48 spots. That they did so with then-true freshman Kedon Slovis at QB speaks to the talent on hand and the job the coaching staff did playing to its strengths throwing the ball. Slovis is the incumbent behind center and is fully entrenched now that former starter JT Daniels (2,672 yards, 14 TDs in 2018) entered the transfer portal. Backup Matt Fink provides a veteran option.
Slovis will have a strong supporting cast. The backfield includes seniors Vavae Malepeai and Stephen Carr sharing carries with sophomores Markese Stepp and Kenan Christon. It figures to be running back by committee until one emerges as the lead back. USC might have one of the deepest wide receiver corps in the country, too, headlined by Tyler Vaughns and the slippery Amon-Ra St. Brown. Part-time basketball player Drake London (five TDs) provides a big option on the outside, while former five-star prospect Bru McCoy is set to contribute quite a bit. Kyle Ford was expected to play a key role in the receiving corps but suffered a season-ending knee injury in early June.
Up front, USC has quality depth along the offensive line despite searching for replacements at both tackle spots. USC has eight freshmen linemen on the roster who will help bolster a solid core of upperclassmen, led by All-Pac-12 first-teamer Alijah Vera-Tucker. He and fellow starter Jalen McKenzie could both kick outside if junior Andrew Vorhees is healthy. Brett Neilon anchors things at center.
Previewing USC’s Defense for 2020
The loss of spring practice hit particularly hard with an entirely new defensive staff led by Todd Orlando. He takes over a unit that gave up nearly 30 points per game in 2019 and ranked 101st in FBS in allowing gains of greater than 10 yards. Limiting big plays will be key, and the move to more of a three-man front should allow the staff to maximize the talent on hand.
Leading the way in the trenches is junior Jay Tufele, who aims to be one of the best defensive linemen out West. He teams off the edge with Drake Jackson, a Freshman All-American who led the team in sacks (5.5) and tackles for a loss (11.5).
Injuries and inconsistent play leave the other linebacker spots as a bit of a question mark, but there’s little doubt that the four- and five-stars who dot the roster provide plenty to work with. Palaie Gaoteote IV, Jordan Iosefa and Kana’i Mauga are a trio of upperclassmen who will man the middle, but all have to become more consistent tacklers.
Depth is a strong suit in the secondary, where the team should have no problem utilizing nickel and dime packages. Olaijah Griffin, Chris Steele and Isaac Taylor-Stewart all showed growth at corner, and Greg Johnson emerged as a solid nickel back after some early struggles. What really makes things tick, though, is the safety tandem of Talanoa Hufanga and Isaiah Pola-Mao. The latter led the team with four picks, while the former was the tone-setter with a massive hit or turnover seemingly every game. The team’s leading returning tackler, Hufanga was limited by injuries at times, but he’s one of the best in the conference when on the field.
Previewing USC’s Specialists for 2020
No unit received more of a coaching upgrade than special teams did with the addition of Sean Snyder. He is highly regarded and will be tasked with improving nearly every aspect under his purview after years of glaring issues. Kicker Chase McGrath is a reliable option, but the team will need more consistency out of punter Ben Griffiths.
USC changed nearly everything about its program with the exception of head coach this offseason. While Helton is no favorite of the fan base, he did upgrade the staff and returns a roster that everybody in the Pac-12 would love to have.
Will that be enough in 2020? The Trojans are clear division favorites, but sights are always aimed higher. Opportunities against national powers Alabama and Notre Dame will provide key measuring sticks for the state of Troy and will help determine whether a coaching change is forthcoming.