Confused? Check out the glossary here.
1. Overachieving is a double-edged sword
The order matters. Obviously it does. But it's funny to think about what the story lines would be for 2013 if USC's 2011 and 2012 seasons were reversed. After a year of scuffling in the wake of serious NCAA sanctions and Pete Carroll's departure, and despite scholarship limitations creating a thin (and getting thinner) roster, Lane Kiffin's Trojans surged to 10-2 in 2011, 12th overall in the F/+ rankings. In 2012, however, with a projected first-round quarterback and perhaps the best 1-2 receiver punch in the country, the Trojans sank to 7-6 and 27th.
If we flip 2011 and 2012, we get the story of a slow, steady, and awesome build:
- 2009 (Carroll's last year): 9-4, 28th
- 2010 (Kiffin's first year): 8-5, 37th
- 2012: 7-6, 27th
- 2011: 10-2, 12th
In this scenario, we're all crowning USC a top-five team heading into 2013, even with the loss of quarterback Matt Barkley; hell, we made them preseason No. 1 last year because of a single rebound season. (We just trip over ourselves to proclaim a national power "back," don't we?)
But because the Trojans went out of order, we're talking about a program in disarray and a coach probably looking at his final year in Los Angeles. What kind of season can Kiffin pull off with a lower bar and higher pressure?
2. A good time to start over
Either because of pressure or a simple need to change, Kiffin overhauled his coaching staff this offseason. Monte Kiffin, his father, retired as defensive coordinator and was replaced by former Cal D.C. Clancy Pendergast. Mike Summers, former offensive line coach for Kentucky, Arkansas, Louisville, and the Atlanta Falcons, was brought on as OL co-coach and run game coordinator. Tommie Robinson, former running backs coach for the Arizona Cardinals and Miami (Florida), was brought on as running backs coach and passing game coordinator. Indiana defensive co-coordinator Mike Ekeler replaced Scottie Hazelton as linebackers coach. Kyle Williams and Jon Farmerie came aboard to coach the secondary. Jaron Fairman is the new special teams coordinator.
There is new blood everywhere you look, and that potentially isn't a bad thing.
And it certainly won't hurt that the new assistants are inheriting units full of upside. Despite the scholarship limitations, despite the struggles on the field, and despite the pressure facing Kiffin, USC signed a 12-man recruiting class in 2013 that featured 10 players ranked in Rivals.com's top 100; all 12 signees ranked in the top 200. The USC program basically recruits for itself no matter who the coaches are, and while depth will continue to be an issue until the Trojans get back to 85 scholarships, lord knows there are intriguing pieces here. There always are at USC.
2012 Schedule & Results
|Record: 7-6 | Adj. Record: 11-2 | Final F/+ Rk: 27|
|Date||Opponent||Score||W-L||Adj. Score||Adj. W-L|
|1-Sep||Hawaii||49-10||W||39.7 - 26.1||W|
|8-Sep||vs. Syracuse||42-29||W||39.1 - 24.3||W|
|15-Sep||at Stanford||14-21||L||23.1 - 33.1||L|
|22-Sep||California||27-9||W||36.0 - 14.3||W|
|4-Oct||at Utah||38-28||W||45.7 - 25.7||W|
|13-Oct||at Washington||24-14||W||31.0 - 30.4||W|
|20-Oct||Colorado||50-6||W||44.1 - 27.6||W|
|27-Oct||at Arizona||36-39||L||38.1 - 28.7||W|
|3-Nov||Oregon||51-62||L||49.3 - 43.5||W|
|10-Nov||Arizona State||38-17||W||40.2 - 13.0||W|
|17-Nov||at UCLA||28-38||L||38.2 - 26.5||W|
|24-Nov||Notre Dame||13-22||L||38.8 - 31.3||W|
|31-Dec||vs. Georgia Tech||7-21||L||8.6 - 21.3||L|
|Points Per Game||32.1||40||24.3||41|
|Adj. Points Per Game||36.3||11||26.6||55|
3. A really bad October(ish)
For the first month of the season, USC didn't look the part of a No. 1 team -- the Trojans shouldn't have been No. 1 in the first place -- but the level of play was still rather high. It turned out that Stanford was really good, so a tight road loss to the Cardinal shouldn't have seemed like too much of a ding to the résumé, and USC easily handled iffy Cal and Utah squads. But beginning with the Washington game, the cracks began to show.
Adj. Points Per Game (first 5 games): USC 36.7, Opponent 24.7 (plus-12.0)
Adj. Points Per Game (next 4 games): USC 40.6, Opponent 32.6 (plus-8.0)
Adj. Points Per Game (last 4 games): USC 31.5, Opponent 23.0 (plus-8.5)
The defense fell apart briefly but significantly; the damage was bad enough that our impression of USC's defense as a whole was rather negative even though the unit was between above average and good for most of the year. But allowing 588 yards to Arizona and 730 to Oregon kind of sets a bad tone.
The defense rebounded down the stretch, thoroughly dominating a good Arizona State offense and playing between average and well for the last three games (UCLA scored 38 points, yes, but averaged only 5.1 yards per play in the process). The problem was that the level of competition improved significantly (UCLA was both good and hot, and Notre Dame was one win away from the BCS championship game); play-calling hurt USC against Notre Dame, as well (in what was otherwise a strong performance, with a backup quarterback, against a good team), and then everything fell apart in the Sun Bowl against Georgia Tech. USC had no interest in being in El Paso, the wind wreaked havoc on the passing game, and ... yeah, USC should have just turned down the bid if it didn't want to go.
|Q1 Rk||11||1st Down Rk||11|
|Q2 Rk||7||2nd Down Rk||16|
|Q3 Rk||76||3rd Down Rk||39|
Note: players in bold below are 2013 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.
|Max Wittek||6'4, 235||So.||**** (5.9)||36||69||388||52.2%||3||5||3||4.2%||4.9|
|Cody Kessler||6'1, 215||So.||**** (5.9)||2||2||9||100.0%||0||0||0||0.0%||4.5|
|Max Browne||6'5, 215||Fr.||***** (6.1)|
4. Does USC have a quarterback?
Yes, it was really windy in El Paso. Yes, Notre Dame's defense was excellent. Yes, there could be perfectly explainable reasons for why Max Wittek was mostly ineffective when filling in for Matt Barkley at the end of last season. Wittek completed 14 of 23 passes for 186 yards, a touchdown, and two picks against Notre Dame after Barkley was injured near the end of the UCLA game. That is certainly passable; but his bowl performance -- 14-for-37 for 107 yards, a touchdown, and three picks -- was simply horrendous.
If nothing else, Wittek's work suggested that he wasn't the slam-dunk heir apparent for the starting job once Barkley was gone for good. It appears that he will still be attempting to fend off fellow sophomore Cody Kessler and five-star, blue-chip freshman Max Browne heading into fall camp. There is obvious talent here, and in Kessler, Kiffin has the type of mobile quarterback that USC has not featured in quite a while.
If quarterback play doesn't drag everything down, the USC offense could hum in 2013. The backfield is loaded with Penn State transfer Silas Redd, junior D.J. Morgan, a pair of blue-chip freshmen, and converted linebacker Tre Madden. Redd had some big games -- 21 carries for 158 yards versus Cal, 26 for 155 versus Washington, and even a combined 29 for 165 against Notre Dame and Georgia Tech while the rest of the offense was struggling -- and Morgan passed a brief, mid-season audition when Redd was hurt (19 carries for 115 yards versus Colorado and Arizona).
And of course, the receiving corps features the best receiver in the country. Kind of an important detail.
|Silas Redd||RB||5'10, 200||Sr.||**** (6.0)||167||905||5.4||5.5||9||+11.6|
|D.J. Morgan||RB||5'10, 190||Jr.||**** (5.9)||41||201||4.9||4.2||1||-2.6|
|Marqise Lee||FL||6'0, 195||Jr.||**** (6.0)||13||106||8.2||7.4||0||+4.4|
|Soma Vainuku||FB||6'0, 250||So.||**** (5.8)||7||26||3.7||2.1||0||-0.6|
|Javorious Allen||RB||6'1, 215||So.||*** (5.7)||6||32||5.3||2.8||0||0.0|
|Tre Madden||RB||6'1, 220||So.||**** (5.9)|
|Ty Isaac||RB||6'3, 215||Fr.||***** (6.1)|
|Justin Davis||RB||6'1, 200||Fr.||**** (6.0)|
|Marqise Lee||WR||6'0, 195||Jr.||**** (6.0)||168||118||1721||70.2%||10.2||39.6%||65.5%||10.2||271.1|
|Xavier Grimble||TE||6'5, 250||Jr.||**** (6.0)||39||29||316||74.4%||8.1||9.2%||66.7%||8.2||49.8|
|Nelson Agholor||WR||6'0, 185||So.||***** (6.1)||31||19||340||61.3%||11.0||7.3%||54.8%||10.9||53.6|
|Randall Telfer||TE||6'4, 250||Sr.||**** (5.8)||21||12||100||57.1%||4.8||5.0%||52.4%||4.6||15.8|
|Soma Vainuku||FB||6'0, 250||So.||**** (5.8)||16||8||50||50.0%||3.1||3.8%||62.5%||3.1||7.9|
|Silas Redd||RB||5'10, 200||Sr.||**** (6.0)||12||9||113||75.0%||9.4||2.8%||41.7%||8.8||17.8|
|Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick||TE||6'5, 245||So.||**** (5.8)||2||2||12||100.0%||6.0||0.5%||50.0%||6.4||1.9|
|George Farmer||WR||6'1, 205||Jr.||***** (6.1)||2||1||7||50.0%||3.5||0.5%||0.0%||2.8||1.1|
|George Katrib||WR||6'1, 180||So.||NR|
|Robby Kolanz||WR||5'11, 175||RSFr.||NR|
|Steven Mitchell||WR||5'10, 176||Fr.||**** (6.0)|
|Darreus Rogers||WR||6'2, 210||Fr.||**** (5.8)|
5. Do we appreciate Marqise Lee enough?
It's a silly question to ask of the 2012 Biletnikoff winner -- a status that suggests we appreciate him a good amount -- but for a stretch in 2012, Marqise Lee was the most dominant player in college football, regardless of position, and it wasn't very close.
From the Colorado game on October 20 to the UCLA game on November 17, Lee caught 53 of 78 passes for 924 yards and seven touchdowns. (He also returned 14 kickoffs for an average of 31.4 yards each.) That's more than 17 yards per catch with almost a 70 percent catch rate. For a 13-game season, that projects to 203 targets, 138 catches, 2,400 yards, and 18 touchdowns. That is ridiculous (and almost certainly unsustainable). To find a similar stretch by a receiver, you might have to go back to Missouri's Danario Alexander in 2009 (57-for-73, 943 yards, eight touchdowns in the final five games of the regular season).
For one reason or another, it is sometimes difficult for a receiver to get too involved in the Heisman race, but that would more than do it. As USC began to struggle, Lee attempted to do absolutely everything in his power to carry the Trojans to victory; that stretch won him the Biletnikoff.
Of course, Lee suffered a couple of ill-timed fumbles against both Oregon and UCLA, and he certainly didn't have the same rapport with Wittek as he did with Barkley (11-for-18, 116 yards). Plus, he now takes the field without Robert Woods, now a Buffalo Bill. There is certainly plenty of reason to doubt Lee could duplicate or improve upon his insane 2012 numbers. But still, his ceiling is disturbingly high.
And even without Woods, he should have help. Nelson Agholor thrived as a true freshman in a backup role, tight ends Xavier Grimble and Randall Telfer are solid weapons, and two more four-star true freshmen enter the fray this fall. Depth might be an issue in the trenches, but it most certainly is not at the skill positions.
|Khaled Holmes||C||38 career starts; 2012 1st All-Pac-12|
|John Martinez||RG||6'2, 310||Sr.||**** (5.9)||25 career starts|
|Kevin Graf||RT||6'6, 300||Sr.||**** (6.0)||25 career starts|
|Marcus Martin||C||6'3, 310||Jr.||*** (5.6)||22 career starts|
|Aundrey Walker||LT||6'6, 300||Jr.||**** (5.9)||7 career starts|
|Max Tuerk||LG||6'6, 285||So.||**** (6.0)||6 career starts|
|Abe Markowitz||LG||1 career start|
|Jeremy Galten||RG||1 career start|
|Nathan Guertier||LT||6'5, 275||Jr.||NR|
|Giovanni Di Poalo||LG||6'4, 275||Jr.||**** (5.8)|
|Cyrus Hobbi||C||6'3, 285||So.||**** (5.8)|
|Zach Banner||RT||6'9, 345||RSFr.||***** (6.1)|
|Jordan Simmons||RG||6'4, 335||RSFr.||***** (6.1)|
|Chad Wheeler||RT||6'7, 275||RSFr.||*** (5.5)|
|Khaliel Rodgers||OL||6'3, 300||Fr.||**** (6.0)|
|Nico Falah||LT||6'6, 285||Fr.||**** (5.8)|
6. A damn fine line (for the most part)
USC's 2012 schedule featured quite a few top-notch, run-stuffing defensive lines, from Stanford (No. 4 in Adj. Line Yards) to California (No. 13), to Utah (No. 24), to UCLA (No. 32). Despite a little bit of youth (three freshmen or sophomores getting starting experience) and a tough slate, the offensive line did quite well in terms of creating opportunities for its backs and was at least above-average at protecting the quarterback. (Anthony Barr's assault of Barkley was the exception, not the rule.)
There is all but infinite room for improvement in terms of breakdowns -- USC's No. 123 ranking in Power Success Rate and No. 97 ranking in Stuff Rate are both unadjusted for opponent but still awful -- but that should improve with experience. Five players return with starting experience (85 career starts), and there is a multitude of former star recruits entering the rotation. Marcus Martin takes over for the excellent Khaled Holmes at center, and this line should improve on last year's inconsistency.
In all, there is absolutely reason to worry about USC's quarterback play. Wittek didn't inspire confidence, and the alternatives are an untested sophomore and an untested true freshman. But you can do your quarterback quite a few favors with deep units at running back and receiver and a solid line.
|Q1 Rk||44||1st Down Rk||47|
|Q2 Rk||14||2nd Down Rk||27|
|Q3 Rk||83||3rd Down Rk||63|
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Leonard Williams||DE||6'5, 270||So.||**** (6.0)||13||47.5||6.1%||13.5||8||1||4||0||2|
|George Uko||DE||6'3, 275||Sr.||**** (6.0)||13||21.5||2.8%||9||5||0||1||1||1|
|J.R. Tavai||DE||6'2, 270||Jr.||*** (5.6)||10||13.5||1.7%||2.5||0||0||1||0||0|
|Greg Townsend, Jr.||DE||6'3, 275||Jr.||**** (5.9)||10||13.0||1.7%||1.5||1.5||0||0||0||0|
|Antwaun Woods||NT||6'1, 315||So.||**** (5.8)||13||11.5||1.5%||4.5||3||0||0||0||0|
|Charles Burks||DE||5'11, 230||So.||*** (5.7)|
|Cody Temple||NT||6'2, 300||So.||*** (5.5)|
|Kenny Bigelow||NT||6'3, 300||Fr.||***** (6.1)|
7. 3-4 Compatibility Grade: A-
It's rather genius if you think about it. One of USC's biggest issues last season was a lack of depth on the line. What a perfect time to move to a 3-4 defense, huh? Don't have enough linemen? Play fewer linemen!
Morgan Breslin. Russ Isabella, US Presswire.
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Hayes Pullard||MLB||6'1, 230||Sr.||**** (5.8)||13||81.0||10.5%||8||2||1||1||1||0|
|Lamar Dawson||WLB||6'2, 230||Jr.||**** (5.9)||12||57.0||7.4%||2||0||2||2||1||0|
|Morgan Breslin||OLB||6'2, 250||Sr.||**** (5.8)||13||51.5||6.7%||19.5||13||0||4||1||1|
|Anthony Sarao||WLB||6'0, 215||Jr.||**** (5.8)||13||33.0||4.3%||4||3||0||1||0||1|
|Devon Kennard (2011)||OLB||6'3, 260||Sr.||***** (6.1)||12||21.5||3.3%||4||2||0||0||0||0|
|Marquis Simmons||OLB||6'1, 220||Sr.||**** (5.9)||12||7.5||1.0%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Simione Vehikite||LB||5'11, 220||Sr.||** (5.4)||12||6.0||0.8%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Will Andrew||MLB||6'2, 235||Sr.||NR||13||5.0||0.6%||1.5||0||0||0||0||1|
|Kevin Greene||OLB||6'4, 255||Sr.||*** (5.7)||11||4.0||0.5%||2||2||0||0||2||1|
|Scott Starr||WLB||6'3, 220||RSFr.||**** (5.8)||3||1.0||0.1%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Jabari Ruffin||OLB||6'3, 225||RSFr.||**** (6.0)|
|Nick Schlossberg||WLB||6'2, 215||RSFr.||NR|
|Quinton Powell||OLB||6'2, 220||Fr.||**** (5.8)|
|Michael Hutchings||MLB||6'2, 215||Fr.||**** (5.9)|
8. In theory, this could work
USC's lack of size up front was evident, but the 3-4 setup should help. The role of 3-4 OLB is perfect for both Morgan Breslin (a pass-rushing wrecking ball who got pushed around a bit on standard downs) and Devon Kennard. Kennard, a former blue-chipper, bounced from position to position in the 4-3, playing at defensive end, middle linebacker and outside linebacker in his first three seasons. (He missed last season with a pectoral injury.) If Kennard can unearth any of the five-star potential he showed in high school, he and Breslin could form an outstanding combination alongside tackling machine Hayes Pullard. And Leonard Williams seems like he could be dynamite moving to the 3-4 end position.
(And naturally, a couple of four-star freshmen enter the mix as well. Life is really hard at USC.)
The trick for 3-4 compatibility, however, will be at nose tackle. USC will have size, but it will be very young size. It appears the top three nose tackles will be sophomore Antwaun Woods, sophomore Cody Temple, and five-star freshman Kenny Bigelow. They average 6'2, 305, but they also combined for just 11.5 tackles last year. If Bigelow turns into Williams II, then the 3-4 could thrive enough that we might wonder why the Trojans didn't move to this before 2013.
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Dion Bailey||SS||6'0, 200||Sr.||**** (5.9)||13||64.0||8.3%||8||1||4||5||1||0|
|Torin Harris||CB||6'0, 190||Sr.||**** (5.8)||10||26.0||3.4%||1||0||0||6||0||0|
|Josh Shaw||SS||6'1, 195||Jr.||**** (6.0)||13||24.0||3.1%||2||0||2||6||0||0|
|Anthony Brown||CB||5'9, 180||Jr.||*** (5.7)||12||15.0||1.9%||0||0||0||2||0||0|
|Gerald Bowman||FS||6'1, 195||Sr.||**** (6.0)||13||8.5||1.1%||0||0||1||0||0||0|
|Demetrius Wright||FS||6'1, 195||Sr.||**** (5.9)||13||6.5||0.8%||0.5||0||0||0||0||0|
|Kevon Seymour||CB||6'0, 175||So.||**** (6.0)||8||4.0||0.5%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Ryan Dillard||CB||5'10, 185||So.||NR||10||3.0||0.4%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Ryan Henderson||CB||5'10, 170||So.||*** (5.7)||3||3.0||0.4%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Devian Shelton||CB||6'1, 185||RSFr.||**** (5.8)|
|Rob Dooley||SS||6'1, 190||RSFr.||NR|
|Leon McQuay III||FS||6'1, 190||Fr.||***** (6.1)|
|Su'a Cravens||SS||6'1, 215||Fr.||***** (6.1)|
|Chris Hawkins||CB||5'11, 185||Fr.||**** (6.0)|
9. Whole vs. sum of parts
T.J. McDonald was good. Nickell Robey was good. Dion Bailey is a hard-hitting play-maker. Jawanza Starling was solid. Torin Harris and Josh Shaw showed pretty good ball skills. In theory, this should have been one of the country's best secondaries last year. But despite a top-30 pass rush, and despite opponents' collective tendency to run the ball against a weak USC run defense, the Trojans' pass defense was only solid, not great.
In this way, the losses of McDonald, Robey and Starling might not hurt as much as it would seem on paper. It does mean that, despite the return of Bailey, Harris and Shaw, USC will likely be relying on at least one of three blue-chip freshmen (including two five-star guys ... IT'S SO HARD BEING USC) to come through at a high level. But when you've got three blue-chippers, the odds are decent that one will come through. With the front seven likely capable of rushing the passer at a top-30 level again, USC's secondary should once again ensure a top-30 pass defense overall.
|Andre Heidari||5'10, 210||Jr.||40||61.7||13||32.5%|
|Craig McMahon||6'1, 190||Jr.||37||61.1||17||45.9%|
|Andre Heidari||5'10, 210||Jr.||39-41||8-10||80.0%||2-6||33.3%|
|Alex Wood||5'10, 175||So.||8-8||0-0||N/A||0-0||N/A|
|Marqise Lee||KR||6'0, 195||Jr.||30||28.5||1|
|Nelson Agholor||KR||6'0, 185||So.||5||24.2||0|
|Special Teams F/+||23|
|Field Goal Pct||97|
|Kick Returns Avg||4|
|Punt Returns Avg||92|
2013 Schedule & Projection Factors
|28-Sep||at Arizona State||36|
|19-Oct||at Notre Dame||13|
|1-Nov||at Oregon State||22|
|Five-Year F/+ Rk||10|
|Two-Year Recruiting Rk||6|
|TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin*||-2 / -6.6|
|Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.)||15 (8, 7)|
Note: The projected rankings are now pulled from the Football Outsiders Almanac 2013, which will be available to order later Monday through Football Outsiders.
10. Be 6-0 when you head to South Bend
USC has plenty of concerns heading into 2013. The quarterback question marks are obvious, a change in defensive alignment always raises at least some possibility for struggle, the Trojans will be counting on some youth in the secondary, and as the spring proved (USC was missing 20+ players to injury at one point and was filling out the two-deep with walk-ons), despite a ridiculously high percentage of blue-chippers, the roster is still tamped down because of sanctions and scholarship limitations, and the Trojans simply won't be able to withstand a run of injuries without a solid drop-off.
One has to figure Lane Kiffin needs a pretty damn good season to keep his job (at least if you believe the hot seat reports we all write), but he'll have at least a decent chance of pulling off exactly that. USC plays only three teams projected better than 30th in the F/+ rankings (two away from L.A., granted), and five of the Trojans' first six games are at home (with only one opponent in that stretch projected better than 52nd). Surviving the Arizona State game will be rough -- I expect ASU to exceed its No. 36 projection by a decent margin -- but if USC can begin the season 6-0, the odds of a 10-win season (or better) will be quite good. But an early home slip-up to Utah state or Arizona could spell doom.
Even if you, like most, don't really care for Lane Kiffin, USC should be a fun team to watch in 2013. Marqise Lee is amazing, the personnel should translate well to an attacking 3-4 (perhaps the most fun defense to watch, even when it's breaking down), and even if things go wrong, it's sometimes fun watching a blue-blood fall apart, yes? For one reason or another, you won't want to miss many USC games this fall. And will it really surprise you if the Trojans finish in the top 10 despite the naysaying?