What a year it was for the USC Trojans in 2016. After opening their season with a thorough and humiliating loss to Alabama, the Men of Troy would also fall to Stanford and Utah before rattling off nine straight wins, including a dramatic come-from-behind victory against Penn State in the Rose Bowl. Whatever USC (and fans) felt at the start of the season, those feelings were a distant and unwanted memory by the time the Trojans hoisted the Rose Bowl on Jan. 2 in Pasadena.
But does last season’s furious finish signal USC is back? If the Trojans wish to crash the College Football Playoff this season they will have to do so without the benefit of a bye during the regular season. USC’s schedule is anything but easy, including non-conference matchups with Texas and Notre Dame as well as the usually rugged Pac-12 slate. But first up for Clay Helton’s team is the opener at home against Western Michigan.
The Broncos, who won the MAC and went undefeated in the regular season before losing to Wisconsin in the Cotton Bowl, are no longer P.J. Fleck’s team. Gone also are wide receiver Corey Davis, the fifth overall pick in this year’s NFL draft, and quarterback Zach Terrell. New head coach Tim Lester, a former WMU quarterback himself, and offensive coordinator Kevin Johns also have to replace the team’s two other leading receivers from last season as well as two starters up front. The cupboard is not completely bare, however, and while an upset of USC appears to be a Herculean task, especially in the Coliseum, a competitive loss would be a great start for Lester in his debut as a head coach on the FBS level.
The Trojans, meanwhile, are loaded with talent, starting with Heisman Trophy favorite Sam Darnold at quarterback. USC did lose some quality players, including a pair of starting offensive linemen, wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and all-purpose weapon Adoree’ Jackson, but recruiting hasn’t been an issue for the Trojans. With just 10 starters returning, there are numerous new faces ready to step up and become household names.
This is supposed to be a tune-up game for USC prior to its matchup with Stanford with Texas to follow. While Western Michigan doesn’t compare to the Cardinal or Longhorns when it comes to talent, the Trojans will still no doubt like to come out and make a statement, especially considering how last season’s opener went.
Western Michigan at USC
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 2 at 5:15 p.m. ET
TV: Pac-12 Networks
Spread: USC -27.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Can Sam Darnold pick up where he left off?
There’s no denying the ability of Darnold. As a prospect, he’s currently the presumptive No. 1 quarterback for the 2018 NFL Draft, assuming he declares. However, there are a lot of things that could go wrong between now and then. Darnold need only look at former Trojan Matt Barkley’s run of luck to see how everything can change in an instant. Fortunately, Darnold has traits Barkley never possessed; namely his elusiveness in the pocket.
USC fans are hungry for another national title, or at least a return among college football’s elite, and the belief is that this team is a legitimate contender in both respects. And much of the optimism centers around Darnold, who along with reigning Heisman winner Lamar Jackson and two-time finalist Baker Mayfield, among others, is considered to be one of the nation’s top quarterbacks even though he doesn’t even have a full season’s worth of starting experience under his belt.
If Darnold can build off of last season’s success, the Trojans could very well be in the thick of the conversation for a spot in the College Football Playoff. But besides being the face of one of college football’s most storied programs, Darnold also will have to deal with all of the talk about the next level, as fan bases of certain NFL teams have already started dreaming about taking him in next year’s draft. There are enough distractions already when it comes to simply being USC’s quarterback and that’s before you throw the NFL into the mix. Is Darnold, only a sophomore, ready for this spotlight or will it be too much too soon? The Trojans need Darnold at his best on the field if they want to contend for a national title. Fortunately, he strikes me as the type of guy who will focus on finishing the mission at hand before worrying about what comes next.
2. USC needs more from its backfield
Ronald Jones II had a suboptimal sophomore season when compared to his electric and record-breaking freshman campaign. The sophomore slump is called that for a reason and much of what he’s worked on this offseason is a result of that. While Jones cannot be expected to carry the full load, he is the Trojans’ No. 1 running back and he will set the tone for this backfield.
Aca’Cedric Ware and Vavae Malepeai are likely going to fill in behind Jones. Malapeai had outstanding spring and fall camps. He’s shown that he can be elusive, shifty and has flashed impressive breakaway speed. He also seems focused on being a complete back (read: pass protection) and USC will need every available blocker to make sure Sam Darnold gets through a season without taking too much punishment.
3. Trojans’ defense must take the next step
When defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast returned to USC last year fans were happy, looking forward to a return to his preferred, aggressive style of play. However, this wasn’t something that materialized with last year’s defense, as the Trojans were 80th in stuff rate and 93rd in Adjusted Sack Rate, according to SBNation’s Bill Connelly. This is something USC will have to improve upon if the Trojans want to compete for a Pac-12 title and spot in the College Football Playoff.
Linebackers Cam Smith and Porter Gustin will be their usual disruptive selves in the middle of the defense, while Ajene Harris, Iman Marshall and Chris Hawkins man the secondary. Harris is making the switch from wide receiver to defensive back, so there may be some early growing pains for him. The pieces are in place for this edition of USC’s defense to be pretty good, if not better. Opening up against a Western Michigan team that is starting over in many respects on offense should serve as a decent barometer.
To put it simply, Western Michigan lacks the firepower to compete with USC over the course of four quarters. Much of the nation is ensorcelled by the Trojans and Sam Darnold, and past displays of his ability auger well for USC’s high expectations. This is a very capable team and head coach Clay Helton would love nothing more than for his style of play to roll into 2017 the way it ended ‘16. If USC is able to integrate the newer components with the veteran playmakers, the Men of Troy have the right blend to materialize a conquest not generated by their marching band, but rather by their blistering offense and stifling defense.
Should USC struggle in this game and show signs of weakness, the online vituperation will be at an all-time high. It would remind folks of the Hawaii game and the 2012 season that wasn’t, but that’s not likely to be the order of the day. USC has more than enough talent, coaching, play designs, and ability to prevent this game from stunting the start of what is expected to be a highly successful season. The last thing the Trojans wants is a cloud of doubt hanging over their head before they play Stanford and Texas. The Trojans would prefer their afternoon in the Coliseum goes off without a hitch and casually remind folks that their Rose Bowl win portends bigger and better things to come.
Prediction: USC 42, Western Michigan 16
— Written by Josh Webb, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California.