Running back Ronald Jones II's potential is one of the reasons to like the Trojans' playoff chances this season
As expected, USC did not make the College Football Playoff in 2016. The Trojans were impressive in their own right, however, as they earned a trip to the Rose Bowl as one of the at-large teams playing in a New Year’s Six Bowl. And USC did more than show just up in Pasadena, coming back from a 15-point, third-quarter deficit to defeat Big Ten champion Penn State to end the season on a nine-game winning streak. Now the college football world is USC’s oyster, once again, or that’s what folks would have you believe.
Whenever the Trojans experience a modicum of success, they’re expected to win even more the following season. The logistics of that may not make much sense, but even the slightest tribulations are met with exceeding expectations. USC is not only the favorite to win the Pac-12 South this fall, but a popular playoff pick as well.
There are plenty of reasons to buy into the hype that the Trojans are once again a legitimate national title contender, but there also are some areas of concern. Which way the 2017 season goes will be up to head coach Clay Helton and his talented roster, as they look to restore the program to its glory days.
Three Reasons USC Will Make the College Football Playoff in 2017
1. Sam Darnold
Max Browne did not work out and is now at Pitt. Darnold is the undisputed leader of the Men of Troy and will be looking to build upon his amazing 2016 campaign. Darnold finished with 3,086 passing yards, another 250 rushing yards and 33 total touchdowns (31 passing, 2 rushing) with just nine touchdowns. And he did this even though Browne started the first three games. This fall, not only is the starting job all his, but Danold is a fixture on preseason watch lists for any award that he’s eligible for, including the Heisman Trophy.
How Darnold builds upon last year will determine how far USC goes in Pac-12 play. He’s not the most fundamentally sound passer, but he has the ability to put the ball on a dime if he needs to. USC will be looking for more throws to the open man and fewer throws into double- and triple-coverage, not that Darnold will shy away from taking a chance or two if an opportunity presents itself. He did last year in the Rose Bowl and found Deontay Burnett on one of the game’s more ridiculous throws. Darnold has all of the tools to move this team into the next stratosphere, but how he will do without a break (see below) is anyone’s guess.
2. Ronald Jones II
Jones did not have the year that people thought he would have coming off a record-breaking freshman campaign. Now that he is recharged and ready to start anew, USC will lean heavily on the junior running back, although he won’t carry the load alone. One area to watch is to see if Jones can improve on the 6.1 yards per carry he averaged last season, which was still good for ninth in the Pac-12. As a freshman, that number was 6.5 on 24 fewer carries (153 vs. 177 in 2016).
Jones also needs to become more of a threat in the passing game. Last season, defenses could count on him running the ball, knowing he wasn’t much of a factor (11 rec. in 13 games) as a receiver out of the backfield. If he’s willing to put in the time to improve in this department, he could develop into one of the nation’s most complete (and productive) running backs.
The Trojans’ offense is far from a one-man show on the ground, as Darnold is just as capable of making plays with his legs, but it does help to have a back that can do everything. Jones has the breakaway speed to score from anywhere on the field. He also has the vision to create where other backs might not. This is the year for him to piece it all together and become a formidable complement to his quarterback.
3. Aggressive defensive play
USC’s defense gave up its share of big plays last season, but otherwise was solid under first-year coordinator Clancy Pendergast. More importantly, this unit improved as the season progressed, although the statistics against Notre Dame and Penn State may not reflect that. With six starters and plenty of other guys that saw significant playing time returning, the expectation is that the Trojans’ defense will take that next step forward this season.
The foundational pieces are guys like linebackers Porter Gustin and Cam Smith, defensive end Rasheem Green, and cornerback Iman Marshall. They will combine with other veterans and some key newcomers, as USC will enjoy the prospect of more depth now that the impact of previous sanctions has begun to wane. Still, this isn’t a defense that lit the world on fire in 2016 and there will be quite a few players taking on new and bigger roles.
If Pendergast’s defense can limit the big plays and the front four finds the right combination, this unit should be in good position to complement the Trojans’ high-powered offense.
Three Reasons USC Will Not Make the College Football Playoff in 2017
1. Lack of a bye
USC plays its entire regular season schedule without a bye, meaning 12 straight games starting Sept. 2 all the way through Nov. 18. How that helps the Trojans in their quest to stay healthy is unclear, but at least it’s a relatively home-friendly slate. Depth and health have been issues for USC the past couple of years, largely due to the sanctions that limited scholarships, but not having a week off is one of the biggest obstacles the Trojans must deal with this season.
Should USC navigate its schedule successfully and win the Pac-12 South, it would give the Trojans a week off before the conference championship game and potentially put them in the best position to make one final statement to the College Football Playoff Selection Committee. Of course that is if USC is in the conversation to be part of the four-team field in the first place, or in the Pac-12 Conference Championship Game for that matter.
The schedule may favor USC when it comes to it getting its toughest opponents at home, but that doesn’t mean the Trojans have an easy slate. USC continues to challenge itself when it comes to non-conference matchups, as this fall has Western Michigan and Texas coming to Los Angeles and the Trojans heading to South Bend to face Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish should be an improved team following last season’s 4-8 disappointment, same for the Longhorns under new head coach Tom Herman.
It is conceivable that USC is 2-2 after the first month with games against the aforementioned Broncos and Longhorns, along with a home game against Stanford and a road date with California. Even though the Trojans will likely be the favorites in each of their non-conference games, it doesn’t mean they can’t lose one or two of those matchups either. And any slip up outside of Pac-12 play could be enough to keep USC out of the playoff.
3. There’s little evidence to suggest the Trojans will
As with last year, there isn’t any evidence that says this is USC’s year to get back to the top of the college football mountain. Yes, the Trojans won the Rose Bowl and will enter the season on a nine-game winning streak, but that doesn’t mean that team was ready to challenge the top teams either. It’s hard to see last year’s team beating Ohio State, Alabama or Clemson. USC did beat Washington in the regular season, but that was the Huskies’ only loss prior to the College Football Playoff. And don’t forget, the Crimson Tide dominated the Trojans 52-6 in the season opener.
USC rightfully earned a top-five final ranking in both polls, but winning another national championship is different than rattling off nine straight victories to finish a season that otherwise started out going the opposite direction. The four teams that made the playoff last season had offenses that ranked among the top 15 in scoring and defenses that were among the 10 most stingiest. That’s the bar the Trojans need to reach if they want to earn their first playoff appearance.
USC feels like a team that could make the College Football Playoff or one that could be 2017’s version of Penn State and be the one that just misses. Recruiting has not been an issue, even with the sanctions and coaching transitions, but now the Trojans need to take their five-star talent and get All-American performances out of those players. Last year’s Trojan team looked like one capable of winning it all. But appearances and results are two entirely different things.
Washington is currently the team to beat in the Pac-12, but Stanford and Oregon won’t give up the North without a fight. In the South, UCLA is hoping that Josh Rosen can get back to his freshman form after missing half of last season because of a shoulder injury. This also is an important season for Bruins head coach Jim Mora after two straight seasons of decline in the win column.
Pac-12 factors aside, the biggest reasons why USC may not make the playoff is a lack of a bye and another difficult non-conference schedule. Those two factors could combine and put an early damper on the Trojans’ season and kill any of the momentum built from last season.
USC should be in the running for another New Year’s Six Bowl berth, but the Trojans will come up just short of earning a spot in the playoff.
Athlon’s Projected Final Ranking: 5
Athlon’s Projected Final Record: 11-2 (8-1 Pac-12)
Bovada Projected Over/Under Odds: 9.5
5 Dimes Over/Under Odds: 9.5