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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
|13-Sep||at Boston College||36||31-37||L||32%||-10.8||5%|
|1-Nov||at Washington State||77||44-17||W||88%||27.2||99%|
|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.
|FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|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|
|Q1 Rk||20||1st Down Rk||44|
|Q2 Rk||62||2nd Down Rk||53|
|Q3 Rk||30||3rd Down Rk||41|
Note: players in bold below are 2015 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.
|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.
|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|
|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.
|Rivals||247 Comp.||Targets||Catches||Yards||Catch Rate||Target
|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|
|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|
|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:
- 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.
- 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.)
|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|
|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|
|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|
|FIVE FACTORS -- DEFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|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|
|Q1 Rk||3||1st Down Rk||28|
|Q2 Rk||41||2nd Down Rk||30|
|Q3 Rk||43||3rd Down Rk||43|
|Rivals||247 Comp.||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|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.
|Rivals||247 Comp.||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|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|
|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.
|Rivals||247 Comp.||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|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|
|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.
|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%|
|Alex Wood||5'10, 175||Jr.||48||62.9||14||0||29.2%|
|Alex Wood||5'10, 175||Jr.||12-12||0-0||N/A||0-0||N/A|
|Adoree' Jackson||KR||5'11, 185||So.||23||29.7||2|
|JuJu Smith||KR||6'2, 215||So.||11||12.0||0|
|Adoree' Jackson||PR||5'11, 185||So.||2||6.0||0|
|Special Teams F/+||46|
|Field Goal Efficiency||17|
|Punt Return Efficiency||25|
|Kick Return Efficiency||12|
|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
|Date||Opponent||Proj. S&P+ Rk|
|26-Sep||at Arizona State||24|
|17-Oct||at Notre Dame||16|
|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
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.