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The big 2014 USC football guide: Trojans are sleepers? Welcome to 2014

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Last year, stats pointed to Michigan State and Oklahoma State as the country's biggest sleepers. This year, the answer's a lot more boring. USC is still thin and breaking in a new coach, but the Trojans are going to be really, really good.

SB Nation 2014 College Football Countdown

Confused? Check out the advanced-stats glossary here.

1. "Team A is overrated"

It is in our nature to see the outliers first. It is also in our nature to try to discount anything that doesn't match our own perceptions. In this way, numbers are anti-social. They disagree with you, and they never back down when they do so. You can say, "Yeah, but..." as many times as you want; the same numbers are going to just keep staring back at you.

There are flaws in the F/+ rankings, the same way that there are flaws in all rankings. They only measure what they are designed to measure, and nothing more, and in a season that includes only 12-14 games for 125+ teams, they just won't have as much data as they want to have.

False impressions creep in, especially considering the effects of injuries and other mitigating factors that the rankings aren't designed to observe. But they can still drop some pretty clear hints.

(I've used this example before, but it's a pretty good one, so bear with me.)

See if you can pick out the strangest outliers in the 2011 F/+ rankings. The top three teams were, to anybody's eyeballs, the top three teams of 2011. And you had some nice teams a bit further down -- 10-4 Georgia at No. 14, 11-2 Arkansas at No. 16, etc. But you also had 8-5 Notre Dame at No. 13 and 7-6 Texas A&M at No. 15. Which teams' rankings do you suppose people complained the most about?

Now let's move to 2012. Again, the top of the rankings make perfect sense -- national champion Alabama at No. 1, a 12-1 Oregon team at No. 2, a Texas A&M with two tight losses (to the No. 4 and No. 10 teams, no less) and the only win over Alabama at No. 3. Further down, we've got 8-5 Oklahoma State at No. 12 (ahead of 11-2 South Carolina and 12-0 Ohio State) and 7-6 Michigan State at No. 15 (ahead of 10-4 Nebraska, 11-2 Clemson, and 11-2 Louisville).

We saw these teams as mediocre, squads that couldn't close games, and teams playing mediocre bowls in which they belonged. The next year, we were talking about all four as major rebounds. Notre Dame and A&M went 15-11 in 2011 and 23-3 in 2012. Michigan State and Oklahoma State went 15-11 in 2012 and 23-4 in 2013.

Granted, this doesn't always work. But generally, teams that seem strangely high in the F/+ rankings are probably high because they aren't far away from a much better record. And if they return the right pieces and get a bit more luck the next year, that better record usually comes.

Great! Neat! So which underdogs can we expect to break through, based on stat outliers?

Oh. No. 11 USC.

Welcome to 2014, in which the program that won 82 games and generated seven straight top-five AP finishes from 2002-08, then finished 10-2 and sixth in 2011, is your national sleeper. How boring.

USC had just enough well-timed dud performances to allow us to understate what the Trojans did for much of the 2013 season. There is no excuse for the Washington State loss, and losing to Arizona State and UCLA by a combined 42 points is not particularly heartening. And they tended to save their absolute best performances for mediocre opponents -- Boston College, Oregon State, Fresno State. (Yes, they did beat Stanford, which counts as a strong performance. But they were outgained and reliant on turnovers; it wasn't their best performance of the season.)

Finishing 10-4 with shaky early quarterback play, midseason coaching drama, and some of the worst depth in the country thanks to NCAA sanctions is no small feat. And with a new coach and higher levels of experience, USC isn't too many ifs away from becoming really good.

Unless you're a USC fan, that's probably not what you wanted to hear. And it's not what new head coach Steve Sarkisian wants to hear, either. It's a lot easier to fly under the radar in your first season in charge.

2013 Schedule & Results

Record: 10-4 | Adj. Record: 11-3 | Final F/+ Rk: 11
Date Opponent Opp. F/+ Rk Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L 5-gm Adj. Avg.
29-Aug at Hawaii 82 30-13 W 25.0 - 8.6 W
7-Sep Washington State 53 7-10 L 10.3 - 11.6 L
14-Sep Boston College 65 35-7 W 42.4 - 10.4 W
21-Sep Utah State 32 17-14 W 28.6 - 14.0 W
28-Sep at Arizona State 13 41-62 L 39.7 - 45.5 L 11.2
10-Oct Arizona 25 38-31 W 37.8 - 30.6 W 9.4
19-Oct at Notre Dame 26 10-14 L 25.3 - 17.8 W 11.1
26-Oct Utah 31 19-3 W 17.6 - 10.6 W 6.1
1-Nov at Oregon State 42 31-14 W 36.3 - 22.8 W 5.9
9-Nov at California 103 62-28 W 44.3 - 32.1 W 9.5
16-Nov Stanford 3 20-17 W 27.6 - 23.6 W 8.8
23-Nov at Colorado 95 47-29 W 32.4 - 29.5 W 7.9
30-Nov UCLA 15 14-35 L 27.1 - 28.9 L 6.2
21-Dec vs. Fresno State 49 45-20 W 37.2 - 9.7 W 9.0
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk Spec. Tms. Rk
F/+ +6.5% 37 +21.5% 5 +1.0% 46
Points Per Game 29.7 59 21.2 16
Adj. Points Per Game 30.8 50 21.1 12

2. Not much changed

There wasn't some late-season surge on which USC can hang its hat. That would be another positive sign for 2014, considering the number of returnees, but it's not really there. Instead, the Trojans were simply volatile early -- great against BC, borderline-awful against Wazzu and Arizona State -- and steady late.

  • Adj. Points Per Game (first 5 games): USC 29.2, Opponent 18.0 (plus-11.2)
  • Adj. Points Per Game (last 9 games): USC 31.7, Opponent 22.8 (plus-8.9)

One would think it would be the other way around. When your head coach gets fired five games into the season, you might assume that the team would then rally around its interim coach, especially when that interim is the charismatic Ed Orgeron. But you might also assume that the effect would wear off, and over the course of nine remaining games, there would be some pretty well-defined ups and downs. Instead, there was only one real down (UCLA), a couple of real ups (Stanford, Fresno State), and some generally solid, steady play.

The Trojans handled their business against Arizona (yards per play: USC 7.3, UA 6.6). They outplayed Notre Dame (USC 5.1, ND 4.4) but lost because of some drive-finishing stumbles (two missed field goals, two late turnovers on downs). They dominated a slipping Utah offense (USC 4.2, Utah 2.9). They lit up a slipping Oregon State defense (USC 7.5, OSU 6.1) and a plain-old-bad Cal defense (USC 9.8, Cal 5.0). And after the Stanford win, they did what they needed to against Colorado (USC 6.3, CU 4.9).

Orgeron was almost certainly never going to get the full-time head coaching position, but an exhausted-looking loss to UCLA clinched that. Still, until UCLA they were basically an unlucky bounce or two in South Bend away from a 7-0 record under ol' Ed. And with interim coach Clay Helton leading the way, the Trojans were flawless in the Vegas Bowl.

After the train wreck of the September losses to Wazzu and ASU, the Trojans made something of 2013.

Offense

FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE
Raw Category Rk Opp. Adj. Category Rk
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 1.22 30 IsoPPP+ 106.5 33
EFFICIENCY Succ. Rt. 41.1% 78 Succ. Rt. + 103.4 46
FIELD POSITION Def. Avg. FP 28.3 38 Def. FP+ 106.5 8
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Trip in 40 4.2 72 Redzone S&P+ 121.4 13
TURNOVERS EXPECTED 19.8 ACTUAL 17 -2.8
Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 74 41 47 71
RUSHING 63 38 52 30
PASSING 72 36 48 101
Standard Downs 35 28 56
Passing Downs 51 79 6
Q1 Rk 25 1st Down Rk 22
Q2 Rk 32 2nd Down Rk 52
Q3 Rk 45 3rd Down Rk 56
Q4 Rk 73

Quarterback

Note: players in bold below are 2014 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.

Player Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals Comp Att Yards TD INT Comp
Rate
Sacks Sack Rate Yards/
Att.
Cody Kessler 6'1, 210 Jr. 4 stars (5.9) 236 362 2967 20 7 65.2% 30 7.7% 7.1
Max Wittek 14 26 212 0 1 53.8% 4 13.3% 6.3
Max Browne 6'5, 220 RSFr. 5 stars (6.1)
Jalen Greene 6'2, 200 Fr. 3 stars (5.7)

3. New Cody

It took a little while, but Cody Kessler finally settled in as USC's starting quarterback in 2013. He will be Sarkisian's first USC starter, and if the last six games are any indication, he'll be fine.

  • First 8 games: 132-for-222 (59%), 1,677 yards (12.7/comp), 9 TD (4.0%), 7 INT (3.1%)
  • Last 6 games: 118-for-168 (70%), 1,502 yards (12.7/comp), 11 TD (6.5%), 2 INT (1.1%)

There were sketchy moments in the early going. In wins over Hawaii, Washington State, and Utah State, Kessler completed only 53 percent of his passes at 9.7 yards per completion. That's awful even before you take into account the fact that he had Marqise Lee and Nelson Agholor at his disposal. The frustratingly conservative, pro-style passing game of then-head Lane Kiffin and coordinator Clay Helton didn't suit the explosive personnel, and when combined with an injury to Lee, it took a while for the passing game to click.

The passing didn't get much more aggressive when Kiffin left, but Kessler got better at it. He was 31-for-38 for 417 yards against Oregon State and Cal, then went a mistake-free 25-for-37 for 288 against Stanford. And in the bowl game against Fresno, he was both accurate and unshackled: 22-for-30, 344 yards, four touchdowns, one pick.

Fresno State might not be the new normal here, especially with Helton still in charge of the offense, but Kessler's performance from basically the Oregon State game on might represent sustainable improvement. He'll have to make do with a line that didn't live up to its recruiting rankings last year (and must replace three three-year starters), and he won't have Lee this year. Plus, he might be asked to run a bit more, which might or might not work out fine. (And hey, if he gets hurt running, there's a five-star redshirt freshman backing him up.)

But he'll have enough weapons around him to do some damage ... if the Kessler of the last half of the season is the real Kessler.

Running Back

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals Rushes Yards TD Yards/
Carry
Hlt Yds/
Carry
Opp.
Rate
Tre Madden RB 6'1, 225 Jr. 4 stars (5.9) 138 703 3 5.1 4.5 38.4%
Javorius Allen RB 6'1, 220 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 134 774 14 5.8 7.8 38.8%
Silas Redd RB 81 376 1 4.6 3.6 38.3%
Justin Davis RB 6'1, 195 So. 4 stars (6.0) 53 361 6 6.8 8.4 43.4%
Ty Isaac RB 40 236 2 5.9 6.0 42.5%
Cody Kessler QB 6'1, 210 Jr. 4 stars (5.9) 12 73 1 6.1 12.8 25.0%
John Akiba RB 9 36 0 4.0 2.0 22.2%
Soma Vainuku FB 6'0, 270 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 8 78 1 9.8 12.6 50.0%
Marqise Lee WR 6 7 0 1.2 2.6 33.3%
Max Wittek QB 6 0 1 0.0 0.0%

Receiving Corps

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals Targets Catches Yards Catch Rate Target
Rate
%SD Yds/
Target
NEY Real Yds/
Target
RYPR
Marqise Lee WR 91 57 791 62.6% 24.9% 54.5% 8.7 91 8.9 114.0
Nelson Agholor WR 6'1, 190 Jr. 5 stars (6.1) 89 56 918 62.9% 24.4% 50.6% 10.3 232 10.8 132.3
Darreus Rogers WR 6'1, 215 So. 4 stars (5.8) 34 22 257 64.7% 9.3% 33.3% 7.6 -9 6.7 37.0
Javorius Allen RB 6'1, 220 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 29 22 252 75.9% 7.9% 36.0% 8.7 6 9.9 36.3
Xavier Grimble TE 28 25 270 89.3% 7.7% 72.0% 9.6 10 8.9 38.9
Tre Madden RB 6'1, 225 Jr. 4 stars (5.9) 19 15 201 78.9% 5.2% 23.5% 10.6 36 5.5 29.0
De'Von Flournoy WR 13 9 135 69.2% 3.6% 60.0% 10.4 30 6.9 19.5
Randall Telfer TE 6'4, 260 Sr. 4 stars (5.8) 13 6 78 46.2% 3.6% 46.2% 6.0 -9 6.5 11.2
Soma Vainuku FB 6'0, 270 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 11 9 74 81.8% 3.0% 70.0% 6.7 -23 5.9 10.7
Jahleel Pinner FB 5'11, 235 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 10 7 33 70.0% 2.7% 55.6% 3.3 -48 3.2 4.8
Silas Redd RB 10 10 45 100.0% 2.7% 30.0% 4.5 -54 4.2 6.5
Victor Blackwell WR 6'1, 195 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 5 4 49 80.0% 1.4% 0.0% 9.8 5 3.4 7.1
Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick TE 6'4, 250 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 4 1 4 25.0% 1.1% 100.0% 1.0 -18 1.1 0.6
George Farmer WR 6'1, 220 Jr. 5 stars (6.1)
Steven Mitchell WR 5'10, 180 RSFr. 4 stars (6.0)
JuJu Smith WR 6'2, 210 Fr. 5 stars (6.1)
Rahshead Johnson WR 5'11, 175 Fr. 4 stars (5.9)
Bryce Dixon TE 6'4, 240 Fr. 4 stars (5.8)

4. Nelson and a hell of a supporting cast

Hey, we finally joined Facebook!

Plans change.

Heading into 2013, USC returned both all-world receiver Marqise Lee and 900-yard running back Silas Redd; after 181 and 179 intended touches (targets plus carries) respectively in 2012, there was reason to assume the 2013 offense would be built around the duo. But Lee missed three games with injury and limped through others, while Redd played in only six games.

The future came early, with sophomores Tre Madden and Javorious Allen turning into the team's feature backs and sophomore Nelson Agholor spending part of the year as the No. 1 target. And while USC didn't have a top-10 offense last year, it survived, especially as Kessler grew into his role.

Agholor ended up in some ways playing the role of 2012 Marqise Lee. Lee averaged 10.2 yards per target as he overtook Robert Woods as the No. 1 option that year, and Agholor averaged 10.3 in 2013. Granted, the similarities don't go much further -- Agholor had lower catch rates and a higher per-catch average, making him more of an all-or-nothing guy to an extent. Plus, he was targeted just 89 times in 13 games, as opposed to the double-digits-per-game targeting of Lee in 2012. But we were looking for signs of a sky-high ceiling from this former five-star prospect, and we saw plenty of them last fall: seven catches for 161 yards against Arizona, eight for 104 against Stanford, five for 94 against Fresno State.

Agholor and Kessler will have help in the passing game, as well. Darreus Rogers was sufficient as a freshman No. 3. Allen and Madden showed quite a bit of potential out of the backfield: anything better than six or seven yards per target is pretty good for running backs/checkdown options, and the duo combined to average 9.4. If another wideout emerges -- juniors George Farmer or Victor Blackwell, redshirt freshman Steven Mitchell, either of two potential two-way blue-chippers (JuJu Smith, Adoree' Jackson) -- then Kessler should have more than enough options, especially considering Madden, Allen, and Justin Davis all showed a solid mix of efficiency and explosiveness in the ground game.

Offensive Line

Category Adj.
Line Yds
Std.
Downs
LY/carry
Pass.
Downs
LY/carry
Opp.
Rate
Power
Success
Rate
Stuff
Rate
Adj.
Sack Rate
Std.
Downs
Sack Rt.
Pass.
Downs
Sack Rt.
Team 107.3 3 2.5 38.4% 67.7% 21.2% 79.0 8.2% 7.1%
Rank 39 57 117 75 69 92 96 115 69
Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals Career Starts Honors/Notes
Marcus Martin C 35 1st All-Pac-12
Kevin Graf RT 38
John Martinez RG 30
Max Tuerk C 6'6, 285 Jr. 4 stars (6.0) 20
Aundrey Walker RG 6'6, 315 Sr. 4 stars (5.9) 17
Chad Wheeler LT 6'7, 280 So. 3 stars (5.5) 14
Abe Markowitz C 1
Nathan Guertler RT 6'5, 270 Sr. NR 0
Giovanni Di Poalo LG 6'4, 280 Sr. 4 stars (5.8) 0
Erick Jepsen RG 6'2, 295 Jr. NR 0
Zach Banner RT 6'9, 350 So. 5 stars (6.1) 0
Khaliel Rodgers RG 6'2, 295 RSFr. 4 stars (6.0)
Nico Falah LT 6'4, 285 RSFr. 4 stars (5.8)
Damien Mama OG 6'5, 370 Fr. 4 stars (6.0)
Viane Talamaivao C 6'3, 330 Fr. 4 stars (5.9)
Toa Lobendahn LG 6'3, 280 Fr. 4 stars (5.8)
Chris Brown OT 6'5, 295 Fr. 4 stars (5.8)
Jordan Austin LT 6'5, 280 Fr. 3 stars (5.6)

5. Holes up front

Agholor emerged, Kessler was great over the home stretch, the running backs were solid ... okay, that's great. So why did USC rank only 37th in Off. F/+ last year with all of these great weapons?

Well, inconsistency played a large role, especially with Kessler's feckless early performances. But the line was and is the concern. Despite three players entering their third years as starters (counting John Martinez, who started only five games last year), USC ranked 39th in Adj. Line Yards (down from 17th in 2012). And despite a passing game based mostly on shorter passes (to really good receivers), the Trojans ranked 96th in Adj. Sack Rate (down from 16th).

Sure, a first-time starting quarterback had a role to play in the latter, and no matter how high the ceiling, the non-Redd running backs were two sophomores and a freshman. That's going to lead to inconsistency. But despite 25 career starts, Martinez wasn't consistent enough to hold on to his starting job, and it took much of the year to figure out the optimal rotation.

Six linemen started at least five games, and only three of them return. With a new offensive line coach with a hell of a résumé (Tim Drevno, former OL coach for Jim Harbaugh at Stanford and for the 49ers) and a more experienced backfield, maybe weakness becomes strength. And with the recruiting rankings involved here (of the 14 current linemen listed above, 10 were given four-star ratings or higher), that wouldn't be a shock.

But this line wasn't supposed to be a weakness last year. It bears the burden of proof.

Defense

FIVE FACTORS -- DEFENSE
Raw Category Rk Opp. Adj. Category Rk
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 1.14 62 IsoPPP+ 107.1 33
EFFICIENCY Succ. Rt. 34.0% 6 Succ. Rt. + 124.4 7
FIELD POSITION Off. Avg. FP 30.4 65 Off. FP+ 104.6 15
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Trip in 40 3.8 21 Redzone S&P+ 102.7 46
TURNOVERS EXPECTED 23.4 ACTUAL 23.0 -0.4
Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 13 5 7 11
RUSHING 14 24 11 35
PASSING 32 5 6 2
Standard Downs 6 6 15
Passing Downs 13 8 67
Q1 Rk 8 1st Down Rk 6
Q2 Rk 6 2nd Down Rk 50
Q3 Rk 39 3rd Down Rk 16
Q4 Rk 47

6. Good coordinator + good pieces

While plenty of iffy defensive coordinators have become or remained employed this offseason, one of the best appears to be be sitting this season out.

In 2010, Clancy Pendergast inherited a California defense that had ranked 72nd in Def. F/+ in 2009. He averaged a No. 49 ranking over three seasons in Berkeley, peaking at 31st in 2011. When Jeff Tedford was fired, Pendergast wasn't retained, and Cal's defense plummeted to 99th.

Pendergast landed in a pretty good spot, replacing Monte Kiffin at USC. He immediately got results: after ranking 25th and 33rd in Def. F/+ in 2011-12, the Trojans surged to fifth last fall. They had some tenuous moments right before and after Kiffin was fired -- Arizona State and Arizona combined for 1,120 yards and 93 points -- but for most of the rest of the season, they held opponents far below season averages. And they did so with shaky, sanctions-related depth and some injuries in the secondary.

For the second straight season, however, Pendergast found himself a victim of a coaching change. When Sarkisian was hired, he wanted to bring in his own D.C., and Pendergast found himself unemployed.

One really can't blame Sarkisian. New coordinator Justin Wilcox has his own set of turnarounds on the résumé. The 37-year-old from Eugene, Oregon, crafted the No. 4 and 14 defenses at Boise State in 2008-09, then moved on to salvage Tennessee's defense. In 2011, the Vols improved from 49th to 35th. Wilcox landed with Sarkisian in 2012, and his first Washington defense improved from 100th to 37th.

In three jobs over the period of six seasons, Wilcox has fielded only one unit that didn't either rank among the nation's best or improve dramatically. Pendergast's fate is unfortunate, but Wilcox should be able to do plenty of damage with the unit he inherits, at least if injury luck cooperates.

Defensive Line

Category Adj.
Line Yds
Std.
Downs
LY/carry
Pass.
Downs
LY/carry
Opp.
Rate
Power
Success
Rate
Stuff
Rate
Adj.
Sack Rate
Std.
Downs
Sack Rt.
Pass.
Downs
Sack Rt.
Team 107.4 2.58 3.22 38.3% 64.5% 18.3% 129.8 5.9% 8.2%
Rank 38 22 55 53 47 77 15 30 36
Name Pos Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Leonard Williams DE 6'5, 300 Jr. 4 stars (6.0) 13 52.0 7.2% 12.5 5.0 0 0 1 0
George Uko DE 14 24.0 3.3% 7.0 5.0 0 0 1 0
Antwaun Woods NT 6'1, 325 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 13 13.5 1.9% 2.0 1.0 0 1 0 0
Joey Augello NT 6'0, 290 Jr. NR 3 2.0 0.3% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Greg Townsend Jr. DE 6'3, 275 Jr. 4 stars (5.9)
Delvon Simmons DT 6'5, 295 Jr. 4 stars (5.9)
Cody Temple NT 6'2, 310 Jr. 3 stars (5.5)
Kenny Bigelow DT 6'3, 310 RSFr. 5 stars (6.1)
Claude Pelon DT 6'4, 295 Jr. 4 stars (5.8)







7. Questionable depth up front

USC's line rotation up front last year was, shall we say, sparse. The players who played were quite strong: at nose tackle, Antwaun Woods ate blockers like [insert Los Angeles food reference here ... fish tacos? Chicken and waffles? Overpriced burgers? your choice], Leonard Williams proved big and quick enough (even with a torn labrum) to be a natural, dominant 3-4 end, George Uko was a strong pass rusher, and natural OLB J.R. Tavai was able to hold his own when asked.

But there really wasn't a second string. These players got almost all of the snaps. Predictably, they faded. (Just look at the per-quarter rankings above.)

Williams and Woods return, as do plenty of former star recruits. But it would behoove Wilcox to rotate more players. The sooner, the better. You could run on USC, especially in the second half. A deeper line will help in that regard, but "depth" does require some untested players to prove themselves.

Linebackers

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Hayes Pullard MLB 6'1, 235 Sr. 4 stars (5.8) 14 69.0 9.5% 5.5 0.0 1 6 0 0
Devon Kennard OLB 14 47.0 6.5% 13.0 9.0 0 4 0 1
J.R. Tavai OLB 6'2, 250 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 12 46.0 6.4% 8.0 3.5 0 0 0 0
Anthony Sarao WLB 6'0, 220 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 14 31.0 4.3% 2.5 0.0 0 1 1 0
Lamar Dawson WLB 6'1, 230 Sr. 4 stars (5.9) 7 27.0 3.7% 3.5 1.5 0 2 0 0
Quinton Powell WLB 6'2, 200 So. 4 stars (5.8) 14 18.5 2.6% 2.0 1.0 0 0 0 0
Jabari Ruffin OLB 6'3, 240 So. 4 stars (6.0) 13 16.5 2.3% 1.0 1.0 0 0 1 0
Michael Hutchings MLB 6'1, 210 So. 4 stars (5.9) 14 16.0 2.2% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Morgan Breslin OLB 5 12.0 1.7% 8.0 4.5 0 0 0 0
Scott Starr OLB 6'2, 230 So. 4 stars (5.8) 6 6.5 0.9% 0.0 0.0 0 1 0 0
Marquis Simmons OLB 4 5.0 0.7% 1.0 1.0 0 0 0 0
Charles Burks OLB 5'11, 225 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 12 2.5 0.3% 1.0 1.0 0 0 0 0
Nick Schlossberg WLB 6'0, 215 So. NR
Olajuwon Tucker ILB 6'3, 220 Fr. 4 stars (5.8)








Secondary

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Josh Shaw FS 6'1, 200 Sr. 4 stars (6.0) 14 55.0 7.6% 5.5 0 4 7 0 0
Dion Bailey FS 14 53.0 7.3% 6.5 0.5 5 6 1 0
Demetrius Wright FS 14 47.5 6.6% 2.5 0 0 3 0 0
Su'a Cravens SS 6'1, 225 So. 5 stars (6.1) 13 46.0 6.4% 2.5 0 4 1 2 0
Kevon Seymour CB 6'0, 185 Jr. 4 stars (5.9) 14 43.5 6.0% 2 0 1 6 0 0
Torin Harris CB 14 24.0 3.3% 0 0 1 7 0 0
Leon McQuay III SS 6'1, 185 So. 5 stars (6.1) 14 15.0 2.1% 0 0 1 4 1 0
Anthony Brown CB 5'9, 190 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 2 7.5 1.0% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Ryan Dillard CB 5'9, 185 Jr. NR 10 5.0 0.7% 1 0 0 0 0 0
Devian Shelton CB 6'1, 180 So. 4 stars (5.8) 1 2.0 0.3% 0 0 0 2 0 0
Rob Dooley SS 6'1, 195 So. NR 8 2.0 0.3% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Gerald Bowman S 6'0, 205 Sr. 4 stars (6.0)
Kevin Carrasco CB 6'0, 185 So. NR
Chris Hawkins CB 5'11, 185 RSFr. 4 stars (6.0)
Matt Lopes S 5'11, 180 RSFr. NR
Elijah Steen CB 6'0, 190 So. NR
JuJu Smith S 6'2, 210 Fr. 5 stars (6.1)
Adoree' Jackson CB 5'11, 185 Fr. 5 stars (6.1)
Jonathan Lockett CB 5'11, 175 Fr. 4 stars (5.8)

8. You know the back seven's pretty good...

...when you can talk yourself into little or no drop-off despite the loss of Devon Kennard and Dion Bailey. The former finally found his niche as a 3-4 OLB in 2013, serving as one of the best pass rushers on the West Coast. The latter moved from corner to safety and finished with the rare combination of 6.5 tackles for loss and 11 passes defensed. Demetrius Wright and Torin Harris are also gone in the secondary, while Kennard's OLB counterpart Morgan Breslin has also departed.

Eh. They're fine anyway.

The Trojans still have Tavai, who emerged as a solid weapon at OLB following Breslin's early-season injury. They still have middle man Hayes Pullard, a steady weapon against both run (5.5 non-sack TFLs) and pass (seven passes defensed). They still have four four-star sophomore linebackers who got their feet wet last season. They still have free safety/missile Josh Shaw at free safety. They still have strong safety/nuclear missile Su'a Cravens, who could eventually transition to OLB. They still have five-star sophomore Leon McQuay III. And junior Kevon Seymour. And Anthony Brown and Devian Shelton. And a fresh load of exciting incoming freshmen. And ... well, you get the point.

Whereas the injury bug avoided the defensive line for the most part, it tested depth at linebacker and in the secondary. And the Trojans passed the test. There are still question marks regarding run defense and the trenches, but I just can't worry about the back of the defense. It's going to be damn strong.

Special Teams

Punter Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Punts Avg TB FC I20 FC/I20
Ratio
Kris Albarado 5'10, 200 Jr. 79 37.1 4 30 27 72.2%
Kicker Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Kickoffs Avg TB OOB TB%
Andre Heidari 5'11, 220 Sr. 77 62.1 19 2 24.7%
Place-Kicker Ht, Wt 2014
Year
PAT FG
(0-39)
Pct FG
(40+)
Pct
Andre Heidari 5'11, 220 Sr. 49-52 11-13 84.6% 4-9 44.4%
Returner Pos. Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Returns Avg. TD
Nelson Agholor KR 6'1, 190 Jr. 10 17.5 0
Marqise Lee KR 10 16.4 0
Nelson Agholor PR 6'1, 190 Jr. 18 19.1 2
Marqise Lee PR 8 5.8 0
Category Rk
Special Teams F/+ 46
Field Goal Efficiency 84
Punt Return Efficiency 3
Kick Return Efficiency 77
Punt Efficiency 103
Kickoff Efficiency 35
Opponents' Field Goal Efficiency 4

9. Shore up the punting game

Thanks to Nelson Agholor's punt returns and some solid kickoff coverage, USC's special teams graded out alright in 2013. But there were some issues; Agholor and Lee never did much damage in kick returns, Andre Heidari proved both strong-legged (four field goals over 40 yards) and inconsistent (three missed PATS), and the punt coverage was lacking. Kris Albarado's kicks were awfully high (30 fair catches) but awfully short. His 37.1 yard average ranked 99th among players with at least 3.6 punts per game.

If the defense is struggling against the run, USC will need some field position help.

2014 Schedule & Projection Factors

2014 Schedule
Date Opponent Proj. Rk
30-Aug Fresno State 48
6-Sep at Stanford 6
13-Sep at Boston College 69
27-Sep Oregon State 43
4-Oct Arizona State 21
11-Oct at Arizona 36
18-Oct Colorado 99
25-Oct at Utah 45
1-Nov at Washington State 68
13-Nov California 82
22-Nov at UCLA 20
29-Nov Notre Dame 25
Five-Year F/+ Rk 17.8% (20)
Two-Year Recruiting Rk 10
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin* 6 / 3.5
TO Luck/Game +0.9
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 14 (6, 8)

10. We won't have to wait too long to find out

Okay, so USC might be pretty damn good this year. If Kessler maintains his late-season form, and if the offensive and defensive lines don't regress, this is a potential top-10 team. Those aren't significant ifs.

Sometimes we have to wait a while to figure out if a team really is what we think it might be. (Case in point: 2013 Florida State.) But that won't be the case for USC this fall. In the first three weeks of the season, the Trojans will host a tricky (and beatable) Fresno State squad, head to Palo Alto to fend off a Stanford revenge attempt, and travel 3,000 miles northeast to face Boston College. That will tell us plenty right there.

The middle portion of the schedule is reasonably manageable, if still landmine-laden (at Arizona, at Utah, at Wazzu, ASU at home), and the requisite UCLA and Notre Dame games finish things off.

A top-15 team should expect to go 10-2 or so against this schedule. Hell, a truly elite team might go 10-2 with the Stanford and UCLA road games. So perhaps that tamps the expectations down a bit.

But if you're looking for a sleeper this year, a team built to exceed conventional wisdom's expectations, I have a pretty boring answer for you. USC's going to be damn good.