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If you think USC football is overrated, you might be right. Underrated? Might be right!

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The Trojans have an excellent quarterback, way too much talent, and finally some depth. They had most of that last year, too.

Confused? Check out the advanced-stats glossary here.

1. I know. Really, I do.

The Pac-12 South has so much going for it.

Its worst team, Colorado, has improved significantly under Mike MacIntyre but went 0-9 in conference last year, 0-5 against the South. Its second-worst team, Utah, is a legitimate top-40 team, perhaps top-30. Both Arizona schools have made great hires and are reaping the rewards. UCLA is recruiting as well as UCLA should always recruit, has won 29 games in three years, and has finished ranked in the AP top 20 in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 1997-98.

Meanwhile, the monster lurks. From 2002 to 2008, USC won 11.7 games per year and finished fourth or better every season, before NCAA sanctions and an iffy hire left the Trojans fragile and discombobulated. Lane Kiffin led a thin squad to a 10-2 record in 2011's no-postseason campaign, and the Trojans began 2012 ranked No. 1 in the country. But they've gone 26-14 since -- good considering the sanctions, awful considering the talent.

Just as we race to announce up-and-coming programs are dead, we're in an even faster race to proclaim a blueblood is back among the ruling class. We were hilariously premature in 2012, and it wasn't hard to think 2014, with new coach Steve Sarkisian, was going to be when everything fell into place.

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.

[I]f you're looking for a sleeper, a team built to exceed conventional wisdom's expectations, I have a pretty boring answer for you. USC's going to be damn good.

In my defense, I don't make those announcements every year. I said USC wasn't deserving of No. 1 hype in 2012 (though I may or may not have said No. 3 was a solid guess) and said Kiffin only had a "decent" chance of surviving 2013 as head coach. So I'm forgiven, right?

Regardless, USC was pretty damn good last year. The Trojans won nine games despite a tough division and finished 16th in the F/+ rankings, only one spot behind the year before. Considering the turnover on defense and in the coaching booth, that's not terrible. They whomped Notre Dame in the regular season finale and appropriately manhandled bad teams (average score against teams worse than 70th in F/+: USC 47, Opponent 17).

But the four losses were more memorable than the nine wins combined, and they contributed to the post-Pete Carroll "USC's fragile!" meme. First, they traveled across the country and gave up 452 rushing yards to BC in a six-point loss. Then they played the most miserable Hail Mary defense ever in a home loss to Arizona State. They traveled to Utah, got stuffed on fourth-and-short with a chance to put the game away, then allowed the winning touchdown with eight seconds remaining. And they got their doors blown off by UCLA.

2014 was memorable, with baffling wins and stupefying losses, and it confirmed the best and the worst of our assumptions.

And that means we can once again see whatever we want. Quarterback Cody Kessler returns to preside over a wealth of blue-chip options behind one of the country's more experienced lines. The defense returns 17 of its 22-man two-deep and boasts loads of juniors and seniors up front and potential all-world sophomores in the back. Young players like Adoree' Jackson and JuJu Smith bring USC-esque swagger, and coordinators Clay Helton and Justin Wilcox are now in the second year of implementing systems.

At the same time, Kessler will be distributing the ball without last year's starting running back and four of his top six passing targets, and as experienced as they may be, both lines were disappointing last year.

And yes, Steve Sarkisian is still the coach. From a quality perspective, Sarkisian has long been hard to read; the former BYU quarterback and USC offensive coordinator resurrected Washington's crumbled program nearly overnight -- it took him two years to go from zero to seven wins -- but managed only one top-20 F/+ result in five seasons. And some memorable late-game brainfarts gave critics ample ammunition.

Rampant underachieving ... long-awaited breakthrough ... if last year is any indication, there will be memorable results either way.

2014 Schedule & Results

Record: 9-4 | Adj. Record: 10-3 | Final F/+ Rk: 16
Date Opponent Opp. F/+ Rk Score W-L Percentile
Performance
Adj. Scoring
Margin
Win
Expectancy
30-Aug Fresno State 102 52-13 W 94% 37.2 100%
6-Sep at Stanford 18 13-10 W 53% 1.5 10%
13-Sep at Boston College 36 31-37 L 32% -10.8 5%
27-Sep Oregon State 74 35-10 W 95% 38.0 100%
4-Oct Arizona State 27 34-38 L 48% -1.2 12%
11-Oct at Arizona 28 28-26 W 77% 16.9 80%
18-Oct Colorado 83 56-28 W 96% 42.0 100%
25-Oct at Utah 29 21-24 L 52% 1.4 28%
1-Nov at Washington State 77 44-17 W 88% 27.2 99%
13-Nov California 65 38-30 W 91% 31.3 99%
22-Nov at UCLA 12 20-38 L 21% -19.0 1%
29-Nov Notre Dame 34 49-14 W 100% 60.3 100%
27-Dec vs. Nebraska 30 45-42 W 74% 14.9 56%

Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
S&P+ 37.6 19 23.5 35
Points Per Game 35.8 23 25.2 46

2. No place like Los Angeles

The wretched Arizona State Hail Mary took place at the L.A. Coliseum, but USC's other poor moments were away from home.

  • Average Percentile Performance (home): 87% (~top 15 | record: 5-1)
  • Average Percentile Performance (road): 54% (~top 60 | record: 3-3)

Granted, most of the worst opponents had to come to USC, while only one of six top-30 opponents did, so if there was any sort of "overwhelm opponents when you have an athletic advantage but struggle when you have to outcraft them" vibe, the Trojans were destined to look like a bad road team. Still, this was a rather significant home-road split, and it held USC back.

For what it's worth, of this year's five projected top-25 opponents (No. 4 Oregon, No. 7 UCLA, No. 11 Stanford, No. 16 Notre Dame, No. 24 Arizona State), only two visit the Coliseum (Stanford, UCLA). If USC is entertaining thoughts of a Pac-12 South title, the Trojans will have to play quite a bit better away from home.

Offense

FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE
Raw Category Rk Opp. Adj. Category Rk
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 0.90 37 IsoPPP+ 115.3 36
EFFICIENCY Succ. Rt. 44.2% 43 Succ. Rt. + 112.8 26
FIELD POSITION Def. Avg. FP 29.1 55 Def. FP+ 105.1 19
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Trip in 40 5.1 12 Redzone S&P+ 117.5 26
TURNOVERS EXPECTED 15.4 ACTUAL 12 -3.4
Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 31 34 27 36
RUSHING 68 73 50 82
PASSING 15 20 16 21
Standard Downs 58 54 61
Passing Downs 6 5 10
Q1 Rk 20 1st Down Rk 44
Q2 Rk 62 2nd Down Rk 53
Q3 Rk 30 3rd Down Rk 41
Q4 Rk 60

Quarterback

Note: players in bold below are 2015 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.

Player Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Comp Att Yards TD INT Comp
Rate
Sacks Sack Rate Yards/
Att.
Cody Kessler 6'1, 215 Sr. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9311 315 452 3826 39 5 69.7% 32 6.6% 7.4
Max Browne 6'5, 220 So. 5 stars (6.1) 0.9939 3 7 30 0 0 42.9% 0 0.0% 4.3
Jalen Greene 6'1, 195 RSFr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8700
Ricky Town 6'3, 200 Fr. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9602
Sam Darnold 6'4, 215 Fr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9319

3. Apparently a USC QB can be underhyped

USC had its offensive issues last year. The Trojans couldn't run efficiently or explosively, and while they were tremendous on passing downs, they faced too many; perhaps as a consequence, their fortunes tended to fade as a game wore on. They scored 167 points in the first quarter, 117 in the second, 110 in the third, and 72 in the fourth.

It goes without saying that the run must improve. But at the very least, the Trojans have Kessler.

Is it possible for a USC quarterback to be underrated? Just wondering because, despite facing a high amount of passing downs, Kessler completed 70 percent of his passes with a 39-to-5 TD-to-INT ratio. That's remarkable. And while there were plenty of quick passes among those completions, he was sometimes hitting guys downfield, too.

He took too many sacks, and his play-it-safe tendencies meant he could be baited into checking down; against Stanford, Arizona State, and UCLA, he averaged just 9.6 yards per completion and produced a passer rating under 122 in each game.

Kessler doesn't carry much of a swagger, and he does tend to take safe throws more often than not. So maybe that damages his "USC QUARTERBACK" cred. But you can win a lot of games with this guy, especially if you provide him with a running game.

Running Back

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Rushes Yards TD Yards/
Carry
Hlt Yds/
Opp.
Opp.
Rate
Fumbles Fum.
Lost
Javorius Allen TB
276 1489 11 5.4 5.4 39.1% 3 2
Tre Madden (2013) TB 6'1, 225 Sr. 4 stars (5.9) 0.8959 138 703 3 5.1 4.5 38.4% N/A N/A
Justin Davis TB 6'1, 195 Jr. 4 stars (6.0) 0.9525 129 595 4 4.6 4.2 38.0% 4 3
James Toland IV TB 5'11, 185 So. NR NR 29 102 0 3.5 2.5 37.9% 0 0
Cody Kessler QB 6'1, 215 Sr. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9311 23 76 2 3.3 2.9 43.5% 2 0
Soma Vainuku FB 6'0, 255 Sr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8740 7 40 1 5.7 4.2 42.9% 0 0
Max Browne QB 6'5, 220 So. 5 stars (6.1) 0.9939 4 13 0 3.3 1.5 25.0% 0 0
Nelson Agholor WR NR 4 3 0 0.8 0.0% 2 1
Jahleel Pinner FB 5'11, 240 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8777
Ronald Jones II TB 6'0, 185 Fr. 4 stars (6.0) 0.9821
Dominic Davis TB 5'10, 175 Fr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8868
Aca'Cedric Ware TB 6'0, 200 Fr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8711







4. No excuses for the ground game

It made sense that USC's run game might struggle, considering the youth up front. Of the seven linemen who started a game last year, four were freshmen and two were sophomores. That's young. And better defensive fronts were able to render USC one-dimensional.

Against the four worst teams on the schedule, Buck Allen averaged 6.4 yards per carry; against everybody else, he averaged 5. He had random excellent games (49 for 359 against Stanford and Arizona) and random awful ones (36 for 91 against BC and Cal), but in USC's four losses, he averaged 3.9 per carry.

Thanks to line experience alone, we can assume USC's ground game improves. The Trojans return everybody who started a game, including all-conference center Max Tuerk, the only senior. Former five-star Zach Banner begins his second season starting at tackle, and while it goes without saying that most of the two-deep is former blue-chippers, they're now experienced blue-chippers.

So what about the backs? Allen's gone, but Tre Madden is back. Madden started 2013 well (first five games: 110 carries, 583 yards) but has constantly battled injuries. He missed 2012 with a knee injury, parts of 2013 with a hamstring issue, and 2014 with turf toe. It's hard to assume he'll be the go-to guy all year, but between junior Justin Davis and the latest batch of four-star freshmen, one assumes the backs will be decent enough to take advantage of solid blocking.

The run game just has to be good enough to keep Kessler out of second-and-9s and third-and-7s. The line alone could assure that.

Receiving Corps

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Targets Catches Yards Catch Rate Target
Rate
%SD Yds/
Target
NEY Real Yds/
Target
RYPR
Nelson Agholor WR
134 104 1313 77.6% 30.0% 63.4% 9.8 97 9.9 198.0
JuJu Smith WR 6'2, 215 So. 5 stars (6.1) 0.9901 82 54 724 65.9% 18.4% 59.8% 8.8 74 8.8 109.2
Javorius Allen TB
54 41 458 75.9% 12.1% 57.4% 8.5 -23 8.5 69.0
George Farmer WR
31 25 314 80.6% 7.0% 54.8% 10.1 23 10.3 47.3
Darreus Rogers WR 6'1, 215 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9503 29 21 245 72.4% 6.5% 55.2% 8.4 -3 8.3 36.9
Randall Telfer TE
28 21 197 75.0% 6.3% 71.4% 7.0 -50 6.9 29.7
Bryce Dixon TE 6'4, 240 So. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9492 25 14 198 56.0% 5.6% 64.0% 7.9 24 8.1 29.9
Justin Davis TB 6'1, 195 Jr. 4 stars (6.0) 0.9525 20 13 92 65.0% 4.5% 50.0% 4.6 -65 4.6 13.9
Steven Mitchell WR 5'10, 190 So. 4 stars (6.0) 0.9698 14 7 82 50.0% 3.1% 64.3% 5.9 -7 5.6 12.4
Adoree' Jackson ATH 5'11, 185 So. 5 stars (6.1) 0.9959 12 10 138 83.3% 2.7% 75.0% 11.5 22 10.6 20.8
Ajene Harris WR 5'11, 185 So. 3 stars (5.6) 0.7941 5 4 38 80.0% 1.1% 40.0% 7.6 -9 6.3 5.7
Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick TE 6'4, 250 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9516
Christian Tober WR 5'8, 175 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) NR
Robby Kolanz WR 5'10, 175 Jr. NR NR
Aaron Minor WR 6'1, 200 So. NR NR
De'Quan Hampton WR 6'4, 220 Jr. 4 stars (6.0) 0.9044
Isaac Whitney WR 6'3, 205 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8733
Tyler Petite TE 6'6, 235 Fr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9141

5. Few worries out wide

There are two ways to look at the state of USC's receiving corps:

  1. Nelson Agholor, George Farmer, tight end Randall Telfer, and Allen (a strong receiver out of the backfield) are gone. They accounted for more than 55 percent of USC's targets last year and averaged a robust 9.2 yards per target.
  2. Yeah, but ... JuJu! And Darreus Rogers! And sometimes Adoree'! And a couple of star JUCO transfers!

Both are legitimate. Agholor was a big-time No. 1 target, combining a nearly 80 percent catch rate with 12.6 yards per catch. He was good enough to be the No. 20 pick in the NFL Draft. Plus, Telfer was drafted as well, and Farmer was an underrated weapon.

But two 2014 blue-chippers proved their worth immediately; Smith and Jackson combined to catch 68 percent of their throws for 13.5 yards per catch. Jackson was also a high-level cornerback in his day job. Rogers hinted at Farmer-esque production. Throw in yet another former blue-chipper (sophomore Steven Mitchell) and JUCOs De'Quan Hampton and Isaac Whitney, and it would appear Kessler still has a bounty. (Update: Would-be starting tight end Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick will sit out the season to focus on academics.)

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 104.4 2.79 3.44 38.2% 62.0% 19.3% 107.9 4.4% 8.9%
Rank 54 88 48 76 104 67 56 57 86
Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Career Starts Honors/Notes
Max Tuerk C 6'6, 285 Sr. 4 stars (6.0) 0.9693 33 2014 1st All-Pac-12
Chad Wheeler LT 6'7, 280 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8257 22
Aundrey Walker LT
17
Toa Lobendahn LT 6'3, 290 So. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9383 13
Zach Banner RT 6'9, 360 Jr. 5 stars (6.1) 0.9683 13
Viane Talamaivao RG 6'2, 320 So. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9608 11
Damien Mama LG 6'4, 355 So. 4 stars (6.0) 0.9808 4
Khaliel Rodgers LG 6'3, 305 So. 4 stars (6.0) 0.9373 3
Giovanni Di Poalo C
0
Nathan Guertler RT
0
Jordan Simmons RG 6'4, 325 Jr. 5 stars (6.1) 0.9654 0
Nico Falah LT 6'4, 285 So. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9130 0
Chris Brown LG 6'5, 295 RSFr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9079
Jordan Austin RT 6'5, 280 RSFr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8400
Chuma Edoga LT 6'4, 280 Fr. 4 stars (6.0) 0.9877
Roy Hemsley RT 6'5, 315 Fr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8872

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Defense

FIVE FACTORS -- DEFENSE
Raw Category Rk Opp. Adj. Category Rk
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 0.81 38 IsoPPP+ 116.5 28
EFFICIENCY Succ. Rt. 41.0% 64 Succ. Rt. + 104.7 48
FIELD POSITION Off. Avg. FP 28.7 98 Off. FP+ 101.0 51
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Trip in 40 4.0 31 Redzone S&P+ 91.1 98
TURNOVERS EXPECTED 26.9 ACTUAL 23.0 -3.9
Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 78 33 38 28
RUSHING 27 34 37 47
PASSING 118 31 51 21
Standard Downs 37 48 30
Passing Downs 20 27 20
Q1 Rk 3 1st Down Rk 28
Q2 Rk 41 2nd Down Rk 30
Q3 Rk 43 3rd Down Rk 43
Q4 Rk 97

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 112.9 2.85 2.49 36.8% 69.0% 18.7% 70.3 4.0% 5.6%
Rank 24 56 13 37 76 75 109 83 97
Name Pos Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Leonard Williams DE
13 64.0 8.5% 9.5 7.0 1 3 3 0
Delvon Simmons DT 6'5, 295 Sr. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9496 13 34.0 4.5% 2.5 1.0 0 1 0 0
Antwaun Woods NT 6'1, 320 Sr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9282 12 27.0 3.6% 1.0 1.0 0 1 0 0
Claude Pelon DE 6'4, 300 Sr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8994 13 16.0 2.1% 6.0 2.5 0 2 0 0
Greg Townsend Jr. DE 6'3, 275 Sr. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9788 9 7.5 1.0% 3.0 2.0 0 0 0 0
Cody Temple NT 6'2, 310 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8351 13 7.5 1.0% 3.0 2.0 0 0 0 0
Kenny Bigelow Jr. DT 6'3, 290 So. 5 stars (6.1) 0.9949
Malik Dorton DE 6'2, 275 RSFr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8769
Rasheem Green DT 6'5, 285 Fr. 5 stars (6.1) 0.9893
Jacob Daniel NT 6'4, 325 Fr. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9646
Noah Jefferson DT 6'6, 330 Fr. 4 stars (6.0) 0.9026








6. Loads of experience up front

The biggest concern for last year's defense, besides the vagaries of a coaching change, was depth. Scholarship restrictions make this a constant fear, and USC basically employed a first string with no backups in 2013.

In Justin Wilcox's new 3-4 scheme, the Trojans saw the same last year. Only four linemen made more than 7.5 tackles, the linebacking corps lost Lamar Dawson to injury, and the secondary lost presumptive starter Josh Shaw for 10 games to injury and oddity.

A lack of depth caused predictable problems. USC faded dramatically as a game wore on (first in Q1 S&P+, 97th in Q4), and in general, the line was only good against the run and not great. Plus, the Trojans lacked any sort of consistent pass rush up front, which put pressure on a young secondary to hold its coverage. That was often a failed recipe.

Top-10 draft pick Leonard Williams is gone, but the other three regulars and two primary backups are back, and all five are seniors. End Claude Pelon hinted at a 2015 breakout -- he made only 16 tackles, but six were behind the line, 2.5 were sacks, and he also batted down a couple of passes -- and lord knows there's a new crop of blue-chippers waiting for an opportunity. Five-star tackle Kenny Bigelow missed last season with injury, and there more big-time freshmen could play a role, especially five-star Rasheem Green.

This appears to be a perfect marriage of experience and depth, and it's the first time USC has had either in a while.

Linebackers

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Hayes Pullard MLB
13 74.0 9.9% 5.5 0.0 1 8 0 1
Su'a Cravens SLB 6'1, 225 Jr. 5 stars (6.1) 0.9960 13 58.5 7.8% 17.0 5.0 3 9 0 0
Anthony Sarao WLB 6'0, 235 Sr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9225 13 56.0 7.5% 1.0 1.0 2 3 0 0
J.R. Tavai RUSH
11 43.0 5.7% 13.5 7.0 0 2 3 0
Scott Felix RUSH 6'2, 240 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9409 13 31.0 4.1% 5.0 1.5 0 2 1 0
Lamar Dawson (2013) MLB 6'1, 230 Sr. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9366 7 27.0 3.7% 3.5 1.5 0 2 0 0
Michael Hutchings WLB 6'1, 225 Jr. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9496 13 15.0 2.0% 0.0 0.0 1 0 0 0
Quinton Powell SLB 6'2, 205 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9259 13 8.0 1.1% 2.0 1.0 0 0 0 0
Uchenna Nwosu SLB 6'3, 210 So. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8306 12 7.0 0.9% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Olajuwon Tucker WLB 6'3, 235 So. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8871 7 3.0 0.4% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Jabari Ruffin RUSH 6'3, 245 Jr. 4 stars (6.0) 0.9719
Joel Foy WLB 6'1, 225 So. NR NR
Don Hill RUSH 6'2, 245 RSFr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8626
Porter Gustin RUSH 6'5, 250 Fr. 5 stars (6.1) 0.9811
John Houston Jr. SLB 6'3, 220 Fr. 5 stars (6.1) 0.9759
Osa Masina WLB 6'4, 245 Fr. 4 stars (6.0) 0.9845
Cameron Smith MLB 6'2, 245 Fr. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9189








7. Wanted: a pass rush

Okay, so the line is deeper, and the linebacking corps returns seven key juniors and seniors (including Su'a Cravens) and 12 former four- or five-star recruits. That's more four-stars than most Pac-12 rosters have, total, and Cravens is a bona fide star.

So ... out of this huge pool of talent, a blitzer will emerge, right? Right? Even with Cravens, J.R. Tavai, and Williams, USC ranked 109th in Adj. Sack Rate, which is baffling. And Williams and Tavai are gone.

USC has all the components of an excellent run defense, but stopping the pass was the problem, and while the secondary should improve with experience, the ceiling will still be lower until new havoc weapons are uncovered in the front seven.

In particular, USC needs more out of the RUSH end/OLB position. Tavai was solid with seven sacks, but if Scott Felix, Jabari Ruffin, or someone else wanted to top that number, that wouldn't be the worst thing in the world.

Secondary

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Gerald Bowman FS
12 60.5 8.1% 2.5 1 2 3 0 0
Adoree' Jackson CB 5'11, 185 So. 5 stars (6.1) 0.9959 13 47.0 6.3% 4 0 0 9 1 0
Kevon Seymour CB 6'0, 185 Sr. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9409 13 45.5 6.1% 1 0 1 13 0 0
Leon McQuay III FS 6'1, 190 Jr. 5 stars (6.1) 0.9842 13 32.5 4.3% 0.5 0 2 4 1 0
Chris Hawkins FS 5'11, 190 So. 4 stars (6.0) 0.9740 11 30.5 4.1% 1 0 1 2 0 0
John Plattenburg SS 5'11, 185 So. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8819 10 30.0 4.0% 1 0 0 1 0 0
Josh Shaw CB
3 10.0 1.3% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Jonathan Lockett CB 5'11, 180 So. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9231 12 4.5 0.6% 0 0 0 1 0 0
Matt Lopes SS 5'11, 185 So. NR NR 5 4.0 0.5% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Ryan Dillard FS 5'9, 190 Sr. NR NR 7 3.5 0.5% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Kevin Carrasco CB 6'0, 185 So. NR NR
Iman Marshall CB 6'2, 200 Fr. 5 stars (6.1) 0.9985
Marvell Tell III FS 6'2, 190 Fr. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9709
Isaiah Langley CB 6'0, 165 Fr. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9533
Ykili Ross SS 6'2, 185 Fr. 4 stars (6.0) 0.9587








8. Stability + experience = a quantum leap?

Opponents figured out that, BC game aside, the pass was the option for success. They ran just 52 percent of the time on standard downs (8 percent below the national average) and 22 percent on passing downs (11 percent below). And these averages include the BC game, in which the Eagles barely tried throwing at all.

When you don't see a pass rush, and you see freshmen in the secondary, this makes perfect sense. Still, the fact that USC ranked 20th in Passing Downs S&P+ is an encouraging sign.

Even without pressure on the QB, the young Trojan secondary was able to make plays and shut down drives when given the opportunity. They were too conservative on standard downs, but it was a start. And since freshmen become sophomores, the secondary might be ready to take its third-and-7 success and transfer it to the third-and-4s.

There's a nice mix of upperclass leadership (senior Kevon Seymour, junior Leon McQuay III) and explosive youth. Jackson made 13 havoc plays and didn't allow a touchdown pass to his man until the season finale. And a wave of other freshmen -- Chris Hawkins, John Plattenburg, Jonathan Lockett -- saw playing time.

USC appears to have a decent set of four or five DBs to trot onto the field, and that's before we notice the freshman class, which includes all-world recruit Iman Marshall and three other high-four-star guys. There's still only one senior guaranteed to see the field, but I expect quite a bit of improvement.

Special Teams

Punter Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Punts Avg TB FC I20 FC/I20
Ratio
Kris Albarado 5'10, 195 Sr. 60 41.4 4 24 16 66.7%
Cody Kessler 6'1, 215 Sr. 7 33.0 3 0 3 42.9%
Kicker Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Kickoffs Avg TB OOB TB%
Alex Wood 5'10, 175 Jr. 48 62.9 14 0 29.2%
Andre Heidari 34 59.4 9 1 26.5%
Place-Kicker Ht, Wt 2015
Year
PAT FG
(0-39)
Pct FG
(40+)
Pct
Andre Heidari 49-50 6-8 75.0% 3-3 100.0%
Alex Wood 5'10, 175 Jr. 12-12 0-0 N/A 0-0 N/A
Returner Pos. Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Returns Avg. TD
Adoree' Jackson KR 5'11, 185 So. 23 29.7 2
JuJu Smith KR 6'2, 215 So. 11 12.0 0
Nelson Agholor PR 19 10.4 2
Adoree' Jackson PR 5'11, 185 So. 2 6.0 0
Category Rk
Special Teams F/+ 46
Field Goal Efficiency 17
Punt Return Efficiency 25
Kick Return Efficiency 12
Punt Efficiency 103
Kickoff Efficiency 109
Opponents' Field Goal Efficiency 12

9. Horrific coverage

That USC managed to rank in the special teams top 50 despite horrific punt and kick coverage tells you a lot about how good Jackson and Agholor were as return men (and how steady Andre Heidari was at place-kicker). But Agholor and Heidari are gone, and while Jackson could ease into the punt returns role, there's no guarantee that Alex Wood will make over 80 percent of his field goals like Heidari did.

Really, though, the coverage units were inexcusable. When you write enough of these previews, you notice a correlation between the depth of a team's receiving corps and secondary and the quality of its coverage unit. Those tend to be the guys charging down the field to tackle return men, after all. Well, the Trojans seemed to have decent depth in both of those areas, but they still managed to allow 22.5 yards per kick return (98th in FBS) and 16.3 per punt return (124th).

That can't happen. Maybe the newest batch of star recruits will take to coverage better than the last one.

2015 Schedule & Projection Factors

2015 Schedule
Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk
5-Sep Arkansas State 71
12-Sep Idaho 116
19-Sep Stanford 11
26-Sep at Arizona State 24
8-Oct Washington 55
17-Oct at Notre Dame 16
24-Oct Utah 39
31-Oct at California 51
7-Nov Arizona 34
13-Nov at Colorado 75
21-Nov at Oregon 4
28-Nov UCLA 7
Five-Year F/+ Rk 31.2% (16)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 2 / 2
2014 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 11 / 11.5
2014 TO Luck/Game -0.2
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 14 (7, 7)
2014 Second-order wins (difference) 7.9 (1.1)

10. Hell of a start, hell of a finish

Scouting the enemy

In the six games from Washington's visit on October 8 to the trip to Boulder on Nov. 13, USC plays one team projected better than 34th, and two of the three tougher opponents in that span (Utah, Arizona) visit the Coliseum.

USC needs to ace this portion of the exam, because the start and finish are rugged. After tuneups against Arkansas State and Idaho, USC welcomes Stanford, then visits Arizona State. And once back from Colorado, the Trojans head to Eugene, then welcome UCLA for a revenge opportunity.

Those four games will define USC's season. I expect all to be against top-20 foes, and how the Trojans fare will dictate whether we're talking about another four-loss, underachieving, "Sarkisian stinks!" season or the breakthrough that we assume will one day come.

Honestly? I have no idea.

Better depth should assure a four-loss floor at worst, but the way USC suffered setbacks last year -- debilitating mistakes, awful performances against rivals -- sticks in your brain. The S&P+ projections think the Trojans will fit in around 13th, about what they've been the last two seasons, and because I've talked myself into and out of this team countless times in the process of writing this, I'll just lean on what the numbers say.

A high-teens performance with about three losses? Sounds about right to me.