It has been a while since the University of Southern California Trojans last contended for a national championship. That was back in 2008, which does seem like a lifetime, but it was really just five coaches and eight years ago. Yet here we are on the cusp of the 2016 season and that feeling of being stuck in neutral remains with the Trojans.
The loss to Wisconsin in the Holiday Bowl to end the 2015 season was, literally, very predictable. So predictable, in fact that I wrote about how USC would likely lose – in the event the Trojans did lose – on multiple occasions, including once for Athlon Sports. The USC Trojans are an extremely talented team, unfortunately they’re also the most predictable team in the Pac-12, or they were under the leadership of former athletic director Pat Haden, who has since retired and was replaced by former USC and NFL legend Lynn Swann.
From the outset, Swann set a tone that things around USC would be headed in a different direction. He seems bound and determined to restore USC to the greatness he knows the Trojans can produce, but one has to wonder exactly how much faith he has in a coach that he didn’t choose and was given an extension before trotting his team out to be embarrassed on national television by Stanford in the Pac-12 Championship Game.
The differences in the front office aren’t the only changes for the Trojans. There is almost an entirely new coaching staff, plus one or two rehires. USC also lost a number of talented players to the NFL whose production will need to be replaced and the Trojans won’t have much time to do it with Alabama looming as the season opener. So, first let’s take a look at USC through the lens of everything gelling from the outset, then we’ll take a look at USC through Murphy’s Law lens.
Three Reasons USC Will Reach the College Football Playoff in 2016
1. Better QB Play
It’s pretty simple: Cody Kessler was an average quarterback with an abnormal statistical season. Even in his outstanding junior campaign, Kessler was still a flat track bully, rarely posting good numbers against top competition. There can also be no doubting his over reliance upon Juju Smith-Schuster and how his myopic quarterback play was harmful to the team and something USC receivers were all too happy to see gone this spring. Kessler was a great Trojan, but he was a mediocre quarterback.
Max Browne and Sam Darnold open up a host of new offensive options for the Trojans. While Browne is a pocket passer like Kessler, he is more refined with his ball distribution. He also has a bigger build, stronger arm, and an other-worldly passing efficiency trait that has followed him for much of his career. Just spreading the ball out could open up USC offense to the point where it is more dangerous.
In the event that Darnold is given the keys to the car, he represents a more athletic breed of quarterback. To put it simply, Darnold brings with him an electric skill set that USC hasn’t had in a number of years. He’s a proficient passer with a strong arm, but he also has the means to keep defenses honest with his legs. He’s also not shy about taking a hit, though this is something head coach Clay Helton will encourage his young quarterback very strongly to avoid if at all possible. That hard-nosed approach saw Darnold on the sidelines because of a concussion last year while his high school team was in the fourth quarter of a close game. Darnold only had one setting that night – win – and he ended up pushing his body too far. USC will happily take his extraordinary bursts of speed, but the hope is that he will slide more often than not – and slides better than Browne while we’re at it. Okay, that last one was just a joke and meant to be funny for those who get it.
2. Ronald Jones II
RoJo 2.0, Texas Tesla, or whatever else you want to call him, is a major reason why the Trojans can compete for the golden tube of lipstick. Jones literally burst onto the scene last year with his famous horse-buck kick before blazing past opponents for big gains. He also had an extremely ridiculous run against Arizona that left people comparing him to a certain recently-retired NFL running back known as “Money.”
Jones had 987 rushing yards last year as a true freshman, breaking the long-held record of USC legend, Charles White. The record had stood for 39 years and the challenges of a lot of really talented running backs. Jones finished 18th nationally in yards per carry and second in the Pac-12. If he averages 6.5 yards a carry again in 2016, USC should have quite a bit of advantageous field position over the course of the year.
Of course, Jones does need to work on his ability to catch out of the backfield. It was a known weakness last year, but it’s something he’s been drilling and drilling. The only problem with drilling is that nobody knows how it will affect his mental confidence until its game time. It stands to reason, however, that Jones will be just fine and that his catching woes will become a thing of the past. He’s simply too talented and driven.
3. Aggressive Defensive Play
One thing USC never managed under former defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox was an aggressive defensive scheme. There were far too many times last year when the Trojans were bullied and physically bested by their opponents. Enter new defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast and his 5-2 scheme known for getting after opposing quarterbacks.
With Su’a Cravens gone, the Trojans will need one of their many four- and five-star recruits to step up and assume a leadership position. A couple of prime candidates to do this are MLB Cameron Smith and OLB/RE Porter Gustin. As physically dominant as they come, Smith and Gustin already showed what imposing forces they can be in a much less aggressive scheme. USC fans will be salivating at the thought of these individuals being set free to do what they do best.
If the Trojans are able to recapture some of the magic of Pendergast’s last run as USC defensive coordinator, then there is a very good chance that this defense will be better off than it was last year. At the very minimum, USC will have opposing quarterbacks running for their lives.
Three Reasons USC Will Not Make the College Football Playoff in 2016
1. Clay Helton
Outside of a single game against UCLA, USC has shown very little under Helton. He’s overseen the program on multiple occasions, but has yet to really grab a signature victory. In fact, his performance in the Pac-12 Championship Game after having the interim title removed was enough to make people question whether or not Haden had picked yet another coach he thinks can reignite the Pete Carroll era.
Helton doesn’t have a ton of experience and USC’s schedule is terrifyingly difficult. Whether or not he’s the right man for the job isn’t likely to be answered in one season, but there are sure to be periods of learning and those could cost USC when it matters most. It’s also a plus that whatever happens when the Trojans and Crimson Tide meet to open the season isn’t likely to affect either team’s chances of making the College Football Playoff in the event of a loss.
This is by no means a make-or-break year for the first-time head coach, but he will need to improve upon his 7-5 overall record if he plans on keeping the job for the long haul.
The first month of USC’s schedule is so difficult that it could see the Trojans out of Playoff contention before the season really gets underway. They open the year with Alabama in Arlington, Texas, followed by Utah State, Utah and Stanford. Three of those games are on the road, one of the three being played at a “neutral site” far closer to Tuscaloosa, Ala., than to Los Angeles.
There are no guarantees that USC even gets out of September with a winning record and that could basically put an end to the Trojans’ Playoff hopes before they ever really take flight. If September’s slate wasn’t bad enough; USC bookends its schedule with a November that includes Oregon, Washington, UCLA and Notre Dame. This schedule is the thing nightmares are made of and it definitely presents a major hurdle to the Trojans’ Playoff hopes.
3. There’s No Evidence to Suggest the Trojans Will
Put simply, USC has not looked anything close to a team that is building and getting better. Each year the Trojans seemingly have a slew of off-the-field problems and distractions, a ton of key injuries, and a steady stream of poor coaches who kept doing the same thing over and over again even when it wasn’t working. Until USC proves it is headed in the right direction, there’s no logical reason to peg the Men of Troy as a Playoff team. Things could change overnight, but as we sit here today, USC is not a team that any experts seriously expect to compete for a national title and with good reason.
The Trojans are a very talented team and have even more talented players coming in this year. It shouldn’t shock anyone if this team pulls off a few major upsets, but still finish with eight or nine wins. The schedule is not set up for this team to make a push for a spot in the College Football Playoff.
Recruiting has been good, but not as good as it has been in years past. USC also seems to be losing out on the type of recruits it was signing under Steve Sarkisian and Lane Kiffin. That said, if the Trojans win more games, people will happily take that tradeoff.
The Pac-12 isn’t getting any easier. Teams like Washington and Washington State have come into their own. The coaching changes made by Arizona could see that defense improve to the point where the Wildcats’ offense isn’t forced to win every game. Oregon is still Oregon until proven otherwise and UCLA has really turned a corner with local recruiting.
But the biggest reason USC won’t make the Playoff is because the Pac-12 tends to eviscerate its own. The North has been the stronger division for a while now and this year doesn’t look to be any different. There is a lot of talent in the South, but it’s unproven talent. USC will be good, but not Playoff good.
USC will likely compete for a Pac-12 South crown, but the Trojans are still a ways away from competing once again for college football’s biggest prize.
— Written by Josh Webb, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Webb is a recruiting analyst for BarkBoard, Scout’s Fresno State affiliate. A contributor to USCFootball.com, Scout’s USC affiliate. He is also a regular guest and contributor for CFBHuddle. Follow him on Twitter @FightOnTwist.