clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Why USC will get so much hype heading into 2017

The Trojans have the quarterback, defense, and schedule to be a force all year.

NCAA Football: Rose Bowl Game-Penn State vs Southern California Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

USC lost three of its first four games this season, then won its last nine and capped the year with a Rose Bowl thriller against Penn State. The Trojans finished the year ranked third in the AP Top 25, which is notable for one reason in particular.

Our staff put together a way-early top 25 for next year, and USC was third there, too, right behind Alabama and Ohio State. Personally, I voted USC to be No. 2.

There’s little doubt that USC will be a top-five or six team entering the 2017 season, for whatever little bit preseason rankings are worth. The Trojans have been talented but disappointing in a lot of recent seasons, but this hype will be legitimate.

The biggest reason people will love USC has a name: Sam Darnold

Darnold will be a redshirt sophomore next season, and unlike this year, he’ll be the Trojans’ starting quarterback right from the jump. Darnold began this season behind veteran Max Browne, lost his first start in USC’s fourth game, and didn’t lose again.

Every indication we’ve gotten so far is that Darnold is an elite college quarterback. His numbers speak for themselves: 67 percent completion rate, 3,086 yards (8.4 per throw), 31 touchdowns to nine interceptions, plus 62 runs for 250 yards and two more scores.

In the Rose Bowl, Darnold’s 473 total yards broke Vince Young’s game record. He pulled USC back from the abyss with two touchdown drives to tie the game in the fourth quarter, then stewarded a short field goal drive after an interception to seal the game.

No redshirt freshman quarterback since Jameis Winston in 2013 has had a better run on a stage comparable to Darnold’s. He’ll be back in LA, and he’ll presumably be even better in his second act.

Darnold’s supporting cast on offense should be strong.

The Trojans will lose some headliners. Star receiver Juju Smith-Schuster and left guard Damien Mama already declared for the NFL draft. Darnold’s offensive tackles, Chad Wheeler and Zach Banner, are both out of eligibility, so the offensive line’s going to be three-fifths new. All-purpose star Adoree’ Jackson could opt to go pro, too, which would mostly hurt the defense but would trickle down all over.

But Darnold will still have a few of his top playmakers: featured running back Ronald Jones II and Rose Bowl receiving star Deontay Burnett should be back. Backup tight end Daniel Imatorbhebhe had four touchdowns as a freshman. Plus, USC’s recruited at a top-10 level for the past few years, so it’s not like the pipeline’s empty. Darnold will still have viable people to let take the ball from him. A five-star running back, Stephen Carr, is the top commit in USC’s slated signing class.

The defense is going to be good, probably without the early hiccups.

USC gave up 29 points per game in September, then 19 in October, and 19 in November. The Trojans rounded solidly into form. (They gave up 49 against Penn State, but that game was bananas and I think it’s OK to forgive it.)

USC’s top three tacklers on defense were all underclassmen. There’s a lot of eligibility left here. Star inside linebacker Cameron Smith was a true sophomore. So were defensive end Porter Gustin and his 13 tackles for loss. The Trojans will miss senior nose tackle Stevie Tu’ikolovatu, but they’ll return much of the talent that surrounded him.

If Jackson turns pro, it’ll hurt USC, but the Trojans could merely respond by bumping up former five-star recruit Iman Marshall to be their No. 1 cornerback. He already sometimes covered opponents’ top receivers anyway.

The Pac-12 South just isn’t that scary a division.

UCLA was putrid this season. Arizona and Arizona State missed bowls, too. Colorado had a dream season and got to 10 wins, but USC’s vastly more talented. Utah was good this year and beat the Trojans dramatically in Salt Lake City, but the Utes needed some fortuitous bounces and a wild last drive. And again, USC’s vastly more talented.

USC’s non-conference schedule next year is potentially tricky, potentially not. The Trojans will play post-P.J. Fleck Western Michigan, Tom Herman’s first Texas team, and a coming-off-4-8 Notre Dame team. All of those could be tough, or none could. The Trojans will be favored against all of them, at any rate. There’s no Alabama there.

Mix all of this together, and 11-1 or so seems like a reasonable prediction.

It’ll be Clay Helton’s second year as the permanent head coach (usually a good one for new head coaches), and he’ll bring in another strong class. He’ll have his stud quarterback playing from the beginning. He’ll have a bunch of good defenders back. He’ll be in a favorable competitive climate — a division with no elite opposition, and a non-league schedule that’s respectable but not terrifying.

It’s still so early, but this all aligns really well for USC. As Alabama learned on Monday, a season can fall short of its promise in stunning, dramatic fashion. That could happen to USC or anyone else next year. But the Trojans will be in the thick of every early Playoff conversation, and they’ll belong there.