The preseason favorite in the Pac-12 South is "in control of its own destiny"
The USC Trojans entered the 2017 season fresh off a nine-game winning streak, which culminated in a comeback victory at the 103rd Rose Bowl Game.
That performance in the Granddaddy of 'Em All vaulted USC into the preseason conversation for the College Football Playoff. And, despite a few underwhelming performances in the season's first half, the Trojans still "control their own destiny" at 5-1, as head coach Clay Helton noted.
"We couldn't say that at this time last year," he said.
Win out, and USC returns to the Pac-12 Championship Game with a shot at its first conference crown since 2008. Get through the final six games-plus-one unscathed, and the Trojans will have an excellent shot at a playoff invitation.
Offensive MVP: WR Deontay Burnett
Burnett played his breakout game in last January's Rose Bowl, culminating in the game-tying touchdown reception that set the stage for Leon McQuay III's interception. That excellent finish to 2016 carried over into the first half of '17. Burnett has been far and away the most reliable and productive USC receiver, tallying 41 catches for 527 yards with six touchdowns.
Defensive MVP: LB Uchenna Nwosu
Nwosu does everything a team could ask of a linebacker. He's a dangerous pass rusher in blitzing scenarios and an excellent run-stopper. The most telling statistic of Nwosu's remarkable first half, however, are his eight pass deflections and one interception.
Those are numbers on par with some of the premier defensive backs in college football, say nothing of linebackers.
Don't take my word for it: Helton himself called Nwosu "the MVP of the defense."
Best Moment of the First Half: Jake Olson's debut
A long-snapper, Olson dreamed of playing football at USC, and he didn't let a childhood affliction that cost him his eyesight stop him from making that dream reality.
Olson appeared in his first game for the Trojans on Sept. 2 against Western Michigan. He delivered a perfect snap for the final extra point in a 49-31 win.
Best Newcomer: WR Tyler Vaughns
While not technically a 2017 newcomer in that he redshirted last season, Vaughns has broken out as an elite playmaker as a newcomer to the gameday roster. Vaughns' production really picked up in the latter portion of the first half of the season, as he led USC in receiving yards in games against Washington State and Oregon State.
Biggest Surprise: DL Christian Rector
With preseason All-American defensive end Porter Gustin sustaining a biceps injury during the Sept. 16 Texas game, and interior defensive lineman Rasheem Green dinged up during that same contest, USC needed someone to step up. Rector answered the call immediately, delivering a forced fumble in the second overtime to set the table for a Trojans win.
In the weeks since, Rector has played a variety of positions, lining up both at defensive end and on the interior, while also seeing some time at outside linebacker.
Three Things to Watch in the Second Half
1. Sam Darnold settling in
Darnold (above, right) embarked on the 2017 season with considerable hype. He was tabbed a favorite to contend for the Heisman Trophy, building off the incredible conclusion he had to the 2016 season.
But after setting a Rose Bowl touchdown record in January, Darnold has only recaptured the same magic for brief stretches. He led an impressive drive to force overtime against Texas, for example; but the game was close due to turnovers and offensive misfires.
Darnold's thrown as many interceptions through the first half of the 2017 season (9) as the entire 2016 campaign. But as Darnold develops more chemistry with a new-look wide receiving corps, look for him to start clicking in the back-half.
2. Defense making plays
Though questions might linger around the USC offense, the Trojans' defense has been spectacular through six games. USC struggled defending the run somewhat in the opener against Western Michigan, then gave up an early, 75-yard touchdown to Stanford's Heisman Trophy candidate, running back Bryce Love. Since that rush, however, the Trojans have been one of the best run-stopping teams in college football.
With the USC front flourishing, the secondary is seeing more opportunities to create turnovers. Cornerback Jack Jones has come alive heading into the midway point.
3. Getting healthy?
Perhaps the most nagging problem for USC through its first six games has been team-wide health. Running backs Ronald Jones II and Stephen Carr, tight end Daniel Imatorbhebhe, offensive linemen Toa Lobendahn, Viane Talamaivao and Chuma Edoga, wide receivers Deontay Burnett and Steven Mitchell have all missed varying lengths of time due to injury.
And that's just from the USC offense.
Porter Gustin's injury is the most noteworthy for the defensive side, but it's a thin tight-rope walk USC is on. One key injury would swing the Trojans' whole season — particularly with no bye week to get healthy. But if USC can get back a few players — restore the backfield to full strength, reintegrate Imatorbhebhe into the passing attack and have Gustin rushing quarterbacks off the edge — the Trojans become a whole lot more dangerous.
Ranking the Toughest Remaining Games on the Schedule
1. Oct. 21 at Notre Dame
USC's historic rival often presents challenges, especially in South Bend. The Fighting Irish have won the last two meetings there in games with entirely different complexions, but both similarly competitive. This year's Notre Dame bunch features one of the nation's top ball carriers, Josh Adams, and talent on defense.
2. Oct. 14 vs. Utah
The home team has dominated this series in recent years, though Utah's defensive front could break that streak if it can overwhelm a USC offensive line forced to play some youngsters.
3. Nov. 11 at Colorado
The defending Pac-12 South champions are struggling a bit, losing three straight to fall to 3-3 on the season. Still, Mike MacIntyre has one of the most talented offenses in the Pac-12 with running back Phillip Lindsay and a deep receiving corps. What's more, the mid-November atmosphere in Boulder differs dramatically from Southern California.
4. Nov. 18 vs. UCLA
After losing three straight to the Bruins from 2012-14, the Trojans seized control of the crosstown rivalry once more in '15. Now, USC aims to make it three straight — and potentially sew up the Pac-12 South at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, where a Clay Helton-coached team has never lost.
5. Oct. 28 at Arizona State
Two of the most infamous USC losses in recent years came to the Sun Devils: First was the 2013 meeting in Tempe, after which Lane Kiffin was reportedly fired on the tarmac of LAX. In 2014, Arizona State completed an improbable fourth-quarter rally with a stunning Hail Mary pass from Mike Bercovici to Jaelen Strong.
In the two meetings since, USC rolled by a combined 49 points. Still, the Sun Devils can present problems — especially if N'Keal Harry, a receiver very reminiscent of Jaelen Strong, gets loose on the USC defense.
6. Nov. 4 vs. Arizona
USC is undefeated against Arizona since losing in 2012. Before last year's thorough deconstruction of a downtrodden Wildcat bunch, each of the nine contests were decided by a single possession. Arizona's improved from 2016, but visiting the Coliseum on Homecoming might be more than the Wildcats can handle.