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USC didn't make a flashy hire this time. But anybody can win with this talent, right?

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The Trojans' post-Pete Carroll years are looking like what Bama went through after the end of Bear Bryant's reign. Hey, those two schools play in a few weeks.

Scott Olmos-USA TODAY Sports

Check out the advanced-stats glossary here. Below, a unique review of last year's team, a unit-by-unit breakdown of this year's roster, the full 2016 schedule with win projections for each game, and more.

1. Prolonging the magic

I've been spending a good portion of this offseason diving into college football's strange history. I'm done with about three-quarters of the chapters for my second book (The 50 Best* College Football Teams of All-Time), and to accompany that, I've crept back to the early-1970s in what is basically a year-to-year Study Hall almanac of sorts.

My Study Hall posts have centered around an estimated version of my S&P+ ratings, which gives teams an annual percentile grade, like standardized tests. In the history of college football, only eight programs have hit the 99th percentile in at least seven seasons. Nobody else has done it more than four times.

  • 14: Alabama
  • 11: Notre Dame
  • 8: Michigan, Oklahoma, USC
  • 7: Florida State, Miami, Nebraska

Of these eight programs, two have done all of their damage within the last 40 years (FSU, Miami), two in the last 60 (Nebraska, Oklahoma), and two haven't had a 99th-percentile team for at least 25 years (Michigan, Notre Dame).

That leaves just two programs who achieved blue-blood status nearly 100 years ago and have recently put together a run of dominant form: Alabama and USC. They play each other on the opening Saturday of the 2016 season.

Both programs have achieved all their dominance within the tenures of only four coaches. And for the most part, these successful coaches had almost no school ties before they were hired.

For Bama, Wallace Wade (99th-percentile teams: 1925, 1930) was a Brown graduate and a Vanderbilt assistant. Frank Thomas (1934, 1945) was a Notre Dame grad and former Georgia assistant and Chattanooga head coach. Bear Bryant (1971, 1972, 1973, 1977, 1978) was a Thomas protege and Bama grad, but had 13 years of head coaching experience elsewhere. Nick Saban (2009, 2011, 2012, 2014, 2015) is a Kent State grad and was a nomad.

It's the same story for USC. Howard Jones (1931, 1932) graduated from Yale and spent eight years at Iowa (and one at Duke). John McKay (1972) was an Oregon grad and had spent nine years as an Oregon assistant and just one as a USC assistant. John Robinson (1978) was also an Oregon grad and former Oregon assistant; he spent three years as McKay's offensive coordinator, then took over in 1976. Pete Carroll (2002, 2004, 2005, 2008) was another nomad and about the seventh choice for the job in late 2000.

After Bryant's retirement, Alabama tried to keep the Bear magic alive. Among the Crimson Tide's post-Bryant hires were former Bryant receiver Ray Perkins, former Bryant assistant Gene Stallings, former Bryant defensive lineman Mike DuBose and former Perkins quarterback Mike Shula. Stallings had 11 years of head coaching experience in both college and the NFL, and he was the only one to briefly succeed at an elite level. It wasn't until they brought in Saban, an outsider, that they maintained eliteness.

USC is in the middle of a similar stage. When Carroll left for the NFL, Garrett brought back former offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin. When Kiffin didn't work, new athletic director Pat Haden replaced him with Carroll's other former offensive coordinator, Steve Sarkisian. When Sarkisian was dismissed last season, Haden replaced him with Kiffin's quarterbacks coach and Sarkisian's offensive coordinator, Clay Helton.

The thinking is easy to understand: You can't do this job unless you understand it, and you can't understand it unless you've been here for a while. (At USC, that has extended to the athletic director's office -- the last three ADs have also been former USC stars: Garrett, Haden, and now Lynn Swann.)

Recent evidence doesn't support this, however.

On the bright side, this is a small sample size. Maybe Helton is the guy to break this string. He has a unique set of ties beyond Southern California. He went to school at Auburn and Houston. His pre-USC stops were in Duke, Houston, and Memphis. His dad was Howard Schnellenberger's first offensive coordinator at Miami and Houston's head coach for much of the 1990s. His experience is not Sarkisian's or Kiffin's or DuBose's or Shula's or anyone else's.

Maybe Helton will thrive. He's got talent. But it's pretty easy to feel like Haden made a lazy hire.

This is Bill C's daily preview series, working its way through every 2016 team. Catch up on the Pac-12 so far!

2015 Schedule & Results

Record: 8-6 | Adj. Record: 12-2 | Final F/+ Rk: 17 | Final S&P+ Rk: 17
Date Opponent Opp. F/+ Rk Score W-L Percentile
Performance
Win
Expectancy
vs. S&P+ Performance
vs. Vegas
5-Sep Arkansas State 71 55-6 W 100% 100% +31.9 +22.0
12-Sep Idaho 114 59-9 W 99% 100% +11.2 +7.0
19-Sep Stanford 6 31-41 L 78% 47% -17.2 -20.0
26-Sep at Arizona State 50 42-14 W 97% 100% +24.6 +22.5
8-Oct Washington 13 12-17 L 61% 24% -24.9 -22.0
17-Oct at Notre Dame 7 31-41 L 67% 32% -8.1 -3.0
24-Oct Utah 22 42-24 W 80% 69% +12.2 +14.5
31-Oct at California 29 27-21 W 74% 55% +0.5 0.0
7-Nov Arizona 77 38-30 W 82% 83% -15.3 -10.0
13-Nov at Colorado 94 27-24 W 68% 65% -17.1 -13.5
21-Nov at Oregon 23 28-48 L 15% 0% -24.7 -16.0
28-Nov UCLA 28 40-21 W 73% 45% +16.4 +16.0
5-Dec vs. Stanford 6 22-41 L 45% 4% -18.3 -14.5
30-Dec vs. Wisconsin 32 21-23 L 71% 37% -5.1 -5.0

Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
S&P+ 39.6 15 24.7 43
Points Per Game 33.9 37 25.7 50

Part of Haden's rationale for promoting Helton from interim head coach to full-timer is that he steered the USC ship pretty well following Sarkisian's awkward dismissal. Under strange circumstances, avoiding collapse is an accomplishment.

That said, the on-field quality regressed significantly after Sarkisian's departure.

  • First 5 games:
    Record: 3-2 | Average percentile performance: 87% (~top 15) | Yards per play: USC 7.5, Opp 5.0 (+2.5)
  • Next 5 games:
    Record: 4-1 | Average percentile performance: 74% (~top 35) | Yards per play: USC 6.0, Opp 5.8 (+0.2)
  • Last 4 games:
    Record: 1-3 | Average percentile performance: 51% (~top 65) | Yards per play: Opp 6.6, USC 5.0 (-1.6)

Maybe there were morale reasons. But even accounting for the fact that the schedule was pretty brutal -- three S&P+ top-15 opponents in the first six games, six more opponents ranked 32nd or better thereafter -- USC was a shadow of itself late in the season. The Trojans rallied to thump UCLA and secure the Pac-12 South, but after winning four games in a row in October and November, USC faded.

Maybe it would have happened no matter who was in charge. Helton now gets to prove himself with a full year's template.

Offense

FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE
Raw Category Rk Opp. Adj. Category Rk
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 1.27 62 IsoPPP+ 112.3 35
EFFICIENCY Succ. Rt. 44.7% 30 Succ. Rt. + 112.2 23
FIELD POSITION Def. Avg. FP 29.5 59 Def. FP+ 26.4 10
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Scoring Opportunity 4.9 28 Redzone S&P+ 111.0 33
TURNOVERS EXPECTED 15.6 ACTUAL 12 -3.6
Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 38 29 23 35
RUSHING 70 33 31 42
PASSING 31 31 24 33
Standard Downs 27 18 35
Passing Downs 42 49 39
Q1 Rk 37 1st Down Rk 26
Q2 Rk 16 2nd Down Rk 31
Q3 Rk 35 3rd Down Rk 44
Q4 Rk 43

Quarterback

Note: players in bold below are 2016 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.

Player Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Comp Att Yards TD INT Comp
Rate
Sacks Sack Rate Yards/
Att.
Cody Kessler 298 446 3536 29 7 66.8% 38 7.9% 6.8
Max Browne 6'5, 220 Jr. 5 stars (6.1) 0.9939 8 12 113 0 0 66.7% 0 0.0% 9.4
Jalen Greene 6'1, 200 So. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8700
Sam Darnold 6'4, 225 RSFr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9319
Matt Fink 6'3, 195 Fr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8724

3. Max Browne and blue-chip potential

When you're merely good at USC, you don't garner the respect you should. Cody Kessler was efficient and accurate; he took too many sacks and didn't have the strongest arm, but he was reliably got the ball to his playmakers.

With Kessler, USC's offense was perfectly decent last year, even though it faded with each progressing month. He set the bar in a relatively strange place: high enough that his successor might not clear it and low enough that a QB living up to a blue-chip recruiting rating could clear it by a long shot.

Max Browne was Kessler's backup for the last two years, which is to say that he wasn't as good as Kessler. But as a big-armed junior, he still seems to have plenty of raw tools.

If Browne is able to take advantage of another potentially amazing receiving corps, the Trojans could make enough big plays to live up to assumed upside. But we know almost nothing about his decision-making ability.

Running Back

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Rushes Yards TD Yards/
Carry
Hlt Yds/
Opp.
Opp.
Rate
Fumbles Fum.
Lost
Justin Davis TB 6'1, 200 Sr. 4 stars (6.0) 0.9525 169 902 7 5.3 4.8 42.6% 1 0
Ronald Jones II TB 6'1, 195 So. 4 stars (6.0) 0.9821 153 987 8 6.5 7.1 41.8% 1 0
Tre Madden TB 85 452 5 5.3 5.0 42.4% 0 0
Cody Kessler QB 23 99 4 4.3 5.8 30.4% 4 4
Dominic Davis TB 5'10, 180 So. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8868 14 69 0 4.9 4.4 42.9% 0 0
Aca'Cedric Ware TB 6'0, 195 So. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8711 12 36 1 3.0 1.5 41.7% 0 0
Adoree' Jackson WR/CB 5'11, 185 Jr. 5 stars (6.1) 0.9959 7 36 0 5.1 10.6 28.6% 1 0
James Toland IV TB 5'11, 195 Jr. NR NR
Vavae Malapeai TB 6'0, 190 Fr. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9147







Receiving Corps

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Targets Catches Yards Catch Rate Target
Rate
Yds/
Target
%SD Success
Rate
IsoPPP
JuJu Smith-Schuster WR 6'2, 220 Jr. 5 stars (6.1) 0.9901 135 89 1454 65.9% 30.8% 10.8 60.7% 54.8% 1.80
Steven Mitchell Jr. WR 5'10, 190 Jr. 4 stars (6.0) 0.9698 55 37 335 67.3% 12.5% 6.1 65.5% 47.3% 1.14
Darreus Rogers WR 6'1, 215 Sr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9503 44 28 289 63.6% 10.0% 6.6 54.5% 43.2% 1.41
Adoree' Jackson WR/CB 5'11, 185 Jr. 5 stars (6.1) 0.9959 28 27 414 96.4% 6.4% 14.8 71.4% 53.6% 2.70
Justin Davis TB 6'1, 200 Sr. 4 stars (6.0) 0.9525 23 18 189 78.3% 5.2% 8.2 52.2% 47.8% 1.52
Tyler Petite TE 6'5, 235 So. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9141 23 15 145 65.2% 5.2% 6.3 65.2% 39.1% 1.50
De'Quan Hampton WR 6'4, 225 Sr. 4 stars (6.0) 0.9044 22 15 165 68.2% 5.0% 7.5 59.1% 59.1% 1.18
Tre Madden TB 21 17 133 81.0% 4.8% 6.3 47.6% 47.6% 1.20
Jalen Greene QB/WR 6'1, 200 So. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8700 18 10 104 55.6% 4.1% 5.8 61.1% 55.6% 0.91
Taylor McNamara TE 6'5, 245 Sr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9069 13 12 83 92.3% 3.0% 6.4 69.2% 76.9% 0.74
Deontay Burnett WR 6'0, 170 So. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8584 11 10 161 90.9% 2.5% 14.6 54.5% 81.8% 1.47
Isaac Whitney WR 6'3, 220 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8733 11 8 112 72.7% 2.5% 10.2 54.5% 54.5% 1.84
Jahleel Pinner FB 10 5 22 50.0% 2.3% 2.2 70.0% 40.0% 0.49
Ronald Jones II TB 6'1, 195 So. 4 stars (6.0) 0.9821 9 7 39 77.8% 2.1% 4.3 66.7% 44.4% 0.83
Dominic Davis TB 5'10, 180 So. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8868 8 7 102 87.5% 1.8% 12.8 62.5% 62.5% 1.91
Ajene Harris WR 5'11, 190 So. 3 stars (5.6) 0.7941
Jack Jones WR/CB 5'11, 170 Fr. 5 stars (6.1) 0.9853
Tyler Vaughns WR 6'2, 180 Fr. 5 stars (6.1) 0.9800
Michael Pittman Jr. WR 6'4, 210 Fr. 4 stars (6.0) 0.9645
Josh Imatorbhebhe WR 6'2, 210 Fr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9294
Trevon Sidney WR 5'11, 170 Fr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9336
Cary Angeline TE 6'6, 230 Fr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.9023
Velus Jones Jr. WR 6'0, 185 Fr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8727

4. Seductive skill guys

If Browne is a Tee Martin, USC's offense will be just fine. Martin, USC's offensive coordinator, succeeded Peyton Manning at Tennessee in 1998, and while his natural gifts didn't match Manning's, he did a lovely job of distributing the ball and keeping things moving forward. It didn't hurt that he had an incredible selection of skill guys: receiver Peerless Price (61 catches, 920 yards); running backs Travis Henry, Travis Stephens, and Jamal Lewis (combined: 1,944 rushing yards); etc.

Browne might not have a line as effective as Tennessee's that year, but he has the athletes.

Ronald Jones II was reasonably efficient and all sorts of explosive while rushing for 987 yards as a freshman last year. He and veteran Justin Davis could make for a wonderful duo.

The receiving corps features one of the nation's best: junior JuJu Smith-Schuster, who combined high-level efficiency (55 percent success rate) with explosiveness (16.3 yards per catch) and one hell of a stiff arm.

Smith-Schuster probably didn't get as much help as he should have from his supporting cast -- the No. 2 and 3 targets (Steven Mitchell Jr. and Darreus Rogers) averaged just 6.3 yards per target -- but there are more options this year. Helton's first signing class featured six high-upside freshman targets, including five-stars Jack Jones and Tyler Vaughns. Jones appears to be an Adoree' Jackson clone (Jackson splits time at receiver and cornerback), and with this many high-ceiling guys, the odds are good that Smith-Schuster will see more support this year.

And if he does, then ... yikes. Browne will only have to be decent for the offense to end up back in the Off. S&P+ top 15.

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 103.2 3.00 3.44 41.1% 68.8% 19.4% 84.0 4.0% 11.9%
Rank 55 47 45 35 44 68 89 44 122
Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. 2015 Starts Career Starts Honors/Notes
Zach Banner RT 6'9, 360 Sr. 5 stars (6.1) 0.9683 14 27 2015 2nd All-Pac-12
Max Tuerk C 5 38
Chad Wheeler LT 6'6, 310 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8257 13 35
Toa Lobendahn C 6'3, 295 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9383 7 20
Viane Talamaivao RG 6'2, 315 Jr. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9608 8 19
Damien Mama LG 6'4, 325 Jr. 4 stars (6.0) 0.9808 13 17
Khaliel Rodgers C 6'3, 315 Jr. 4 stars (6.0) 0.9373 6 9
Chris Brown LG 6'5, 300 So. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9079 2 2
Nico Falah C 6'4, 280 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9130 1 1
Chuma Edoga RT 6'4, 290 So. 4 stars (6.0) 0.9877 1 1
Jordan Simmons RG 6'4, 325 Sr. 5 stars (6.1) 0.9654 0 0
Clayton Johnston RT 6'6, 285 So. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8913 0 0
Jordan Austin OT 6'5, 300 So. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8400 0 0
Roy Hemsley LT 6'5, 310 RSFr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8872

Cole Smith C 6'4, 280 RSFr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8640

Nathan Smith OT 6'6, 275 Fr. 4 stars (5.9) 0.8998

E.J. Price OT 6'6, 325 Fr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9560

Frank Martin II OT 6'5, 310 Fr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9152

5. Whole vs. sum of parts

Of course, you still need an offensive line. While USC's line was blocking for a freshman running back (part of the time, anyway) and protecting a QB who had the tendency to hold onto the ball too long, USC's line stats were still quite a bit worse than its overall offensive stats. That tends to suggest you have a problem up front.

This makes sense. USC dealt with instability and injury on the line last year, starting 10 guys at least once and seven guys at least five times. And seven of the 10 one-time starters were either freshmen or sophomores.

With all-conference tackle Zach Banner returning, the line does have one star. And if it can mostly stick with whatever the projected starting five ends up becoming, that should help significantly. But we'll see how much of these line problems was due to inexperience and how much was due to lack of pure quality.

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Defense

FIVE FACTORS -- DEFENSE
Raw Category Rk Opp. Adj. Category Rk
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 1.27 73 IsoPPP+ 106.8 42
EFFICIENCY Succ. Rt. 42.6% 77 Succ. Rt. + 114.8 21
FIELD POSITION Off. Avg. FP 28.0 108 Off. FP+ 31.1 40
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Scoring Opportunity 4.3 55 Redzone S&P+ 105.8 42
TURNOVERS EXPECTED 18.0 ACTUAL 23.0 +5.0
Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 65 35 21 42
RUSHING 41 30 11 38
PASSING 94 47 37 54
Standard Downs 33 14 48
Passing Downs 40 39 33
Q1 Rk 71 1st Down Rk 27
Q2 Rk 27 2nd Down Rk 59
Q3 Rk 18 3rd Down Rk 41
Q4 Rk 29

6. Welcome back, Clancy

Cal's average Def. S&P+ ranking in its five years before hiring Clancy Pendergast: 48.8.

In the three years since he left: 102.

That makes what he did at Cal pretty impressive. His three Golden Bears defenses ranked 21st, 26th, and 48th.

In his lone year as Lane Kiffin's DC at USC in 2013, his Trojan D ranked eighth. It hadn't been better than 29th in the four previous years and hasn't been better than 35th since.

Pendergast gets results and seems to get them rather quickly. So what can he do in his second USC debut?

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 107.7 2.96 3.16 36.7% 58.1% 17.6% 130.1 6.5% 9.2%
Rank 40 81 59 48 25 96 23 22 30
Name Pos Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Delvon Simmons DT 14 44.5 5.5% 10.5 4.0 0 2 2 0
Greg Townsend Jr. DE 14 32.0 3.9% 7.0 2.0 0 0 0 0
Antwaun Woods DT 14 28.5 3.5% 7.0 3.0 0 0 0 0
Stevie Tu'ikolovatu
(Utah)
DT 6'1, 320 Sr. NR NR 13 21.5 3.3% 6.0 2.0 0 2 0 1
Scott Felix RUSH
14 21.5 2.6% 5.5 4.0 0 0 0 1
Porter Gustin RUSH 6'5, 260 So. 5 stars (6.1) 0.9811 14 19.5 2.4% 6.5 5.5 0 0 0 0
Claude Pelon DE 10 19.0 2.3% 2.5 1.5 0 0 1 0
Noah Jefferson NT 6'6, 315 So. 4 stars (6.0) 0.9026 14 17.5 2.1% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Rasheem Green DT 6'5, 280 So. 5 stars (6.1) 0.9893 14 12.5 1.5% 1.0 0.5 0 0 0 1
Kenny Bigelow Jr. DT 6'3, 295 Jr. 5 stars (6.1) 0.9949 13 8.5 1.0% 3.0 3.0 0 1 0 0
Jabari Ruffin RUSH 6'3, 245 Sr. 4 stars (6.0) 0.9719 14 7.0 0.9% 0.0 0.0 0 0 1 0
Don Hill DE 6'2, 240 So. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8626 5 5.0 0.6% 0.5 0.0 0 0 0 0
Malik Dorton DT 6'2, 280 So. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8769
Jacob Daniel NT 6'4, 310 So. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9646
Christian Rector DT 6'5, 275 RSFr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8753
Josh Fatu DT 6'3, 290 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8278
Oluwole Betiku Jr. RUSH 6'3, 250 Fr. 4 stars (6.0) 0.9875
Connor Murphy DE 6'7, 255 Fr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9063

Linebackers

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Su'a Cravens OLB 14 66.0 8.1% 15.0 5.5 2 6 2 0
Cameron Smith MLB 6'2, 245 So. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9189 10 63.0 7.7% 1.0 1.0 3 3 0 0
Anthony Sarao WLB 14 45.5 5.6% 5.0 3.0 0 0 0 0
Olajuwon Tucker MLB 6'3, 230 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8871 8 32.0 3.9% 3.5 2.5 0 0 0 0
Lamar Dawson LB 8 23.0 2.8% 1.0 0.5 0 2 1 0
Uchenna Nwosu OLB 6'3, 235 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8306 14 22.5 2.8% 1.5 0.0 0 1 0 0
Osa Masina OLB 6'4, 230 So. 4 stars (6.0) 0.9845 12 21.0 2.6% 1.5 0.0 0 0 0 1
Michael Hutchings MLB 6'1, 215 Sr. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9496 12 9.0 1.1% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Quinton Powell WLB 6'2, 200 Sr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9259 13 9.0 1.1% 0.0 0.0 0 0 1 0
Reuben Peters MLB 6'0, 225 So. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8111 6 3.5 0.4% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
John Houston Jr. WLB 6'3, 220 RSFr. 5 stars (6.1) 0.9759








7. If this defense underachieves...

...it will be because of the front seven. Pendergast's lone USC defense was fine against the run and spectacular against the pass, and considering turnover, we might see something similar this year.

There are plenty of former star recruits in the mix, but USC has to replace five of last year's top six tacklers on the line and three of five at linebacker. Granted, plenty of linebackers saw the field last year because of injury, but the Trojans must still replace their best run-defending LB in Su'a Cravens.

The USC line had just begun to overcome the depth issues associated with NCAA sanctions; now it has to start over. Goodness knows there's talent -- former blue-chipper Porter Gustin looks like a lab-created rush end. Utah graduate transfer Stevie Tu'ikolovatu proves a boost of experience, as well.

Still, this line didn't provide as much disruption as recruiting rankings would suggest last year, and now most of the first and second string have been lopped off.

Here's where new leadership could provide a boost. Helton didn't stop at bringing in a new defensive coordinator; he rebooted the rest of the defensive staff as well. Former assistant strength coach Kenechi Udeze is the new defensive line coach, Johnny Nansen has moved from running backs coach to linebackers, and secondary coach Ronnie Bradford was brought in from Louisiana Tech. Change doesn't mean improvement, but when it's accompanied by change on the two-deep, it might not be the worst thing in the world.

Secondary

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Chris Hawkins FS 5'11, 185 Jr. 4 stars (6.0) 0.9740 14 55.0 6.8% 1.5 0 2 0 0 1
Iman Marshall CB 6'1, 200 So. 5 stars (6.1) 0.9985 14 53.0 6.5% 0 0 3 9 0 0
Adoree' Jackson CB/WR 5'11, 185 Jr. 5 stars (6.1) 0.9959 14 29.0 3.6% 0 0 1 8 1 0
John Plattenburg SS 5'11, 180 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8819 13 28.5 3.5% 3.5 1 2 0 0 0
Marvell Tell III SS 6'3, 190 So. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9709 10 27.5 3.4% 1 0 0 4 0 0
Kevon Seymour CB 11 21.0 2.6% 1 0 1 0 0 0
Jonathan Lockett CB 5'11, 180 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9231 12 17.5 2.1% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Leon McQuay III FS 6'1, 195 Sr. 5 stars (6.1) 0.9842 9 14.0 1.7% 1.5 0 0 3 1 0
Matt Lopes S 5'11, 195 Jr. NR NR 9 11.0 1.4% 1.5 0 0 0 0 0
Isaiah Langley CB 6'0, 170 So. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9533 11 10.0 1.2% 0 0 0 1 0 0
Ykili Ross S 6'0, 200 RSFr. 4 stars (6.0) 0.9587
Jack Jones WR/CB 5'11, 170 Fr. 5 stars (6.1) 0.9853
C.J. Pollard DB 6'1, 185 Fr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8999
Jamel Cook DB 6'3, 185 Fr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.9526








8. Almost guaranteed improvement in the back

The USC pass defense was less than the sum of its parts in 2015; despite a top-25 pass rush, the Trojans ranked just 47th in Passing S&P+. But thanks to ever more injuries and shuffling, the top five tacklers in the secondary were all freshmen and sophomores. Even blue-chippers are going to battle through mistakes for a while.

Between extreme continuity (nine of 10 are back), increased experience (five of those nine are now juniors, plus one senior), and the potential upgrade in competition thanks to another batch of potential impact youngsters (sophomore Isaiah Langley, redshirt freshman Ykili Ross, freshmen Jack Jones, C.J. Pollard, and Jamel Cook), it was safe to assume USC's pass defense would improve. And that's without noting Pendergast's typically awesome pass defenses and his adaptability in defending spread offenses. But this unit has speed to burn and is far less green than it was a year ago.

Special Teams

Punter Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Punts Avg TB FC I20 FC/I20
Ratio
Kris Albarado 65 41.0 3 31 16 72.3%
Kicker Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Kickoffs Avg TB OOB TB%
Alex Wood 65 61.3 10 4 15.4%
Matt Boermeester 6'0, 180 Jr. 22 62.4 1 0 4.5%
Place-Kicker Ht, Wt 2016
Year
PAT FG
(0-39)
Pct FG
(40+)
Pct
Alex Wood 54-56 9-12 75.0% 4-5 80.0%
Matt Boermeester 6'0, 180 Jr. 4-4 0-0 N/A 0-0 N/A
Returner Pos. Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Returns Avg. TD
Adoree' Jackson KR 5'11, 185 Jr. 30 23.0 0
Justin Davis KR 6'1, 200 Sr. 11 19.2 0
Adoree' Jackson PR 5'11, 185 Jr. 24 10.5 2
Christian Tober PR 2 1.5 0
Category Rk
Special Teams S&P+ 39
Field Goal Efficiency 71
Punt Return Success Rate 83
Kick Return Success Rate 55
Punt Success Rate 21
Kickoff Success Rate 53

9. Losing solid legs

Adoree' Jackson was all-or-nothing in the return game, taking two punts for scores last year after scoring on two kick returns the year before. He had a lot of nothing returns as well, but he's as dangerous as they come.

That said, losing Kris Albarado and Alex Wood hurts. Wood was volatile -- super accurate on longer kicks but inconsistent no shorter ones -- but Albarado's punts were both high and reasonably long. Wood probably fell into the "replaceable" category, especially with his short kickoffs, but Albarado was particularly solid.

2016 Schedule & Projection Factors

2016 Schedule
Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
3-Sep vs. Alabama 1 -9.6 29%
10-Sep Utah State 73 20.0 88%
17-Sep at Stanford 16 -1.6 46%
23-Sep at Utah 39 6.0 64%
1-Oct Arizona State 57 17.1 84%
8-Oct Colorado 82 23.0 91%
15-Oct at Arizona 64 11.1 74%
27-Oct California 49 16.0 82%
5-Nov Oregon 18 5.8 63%
12-Nov at Washington 10 -3.2 43%
19-Nov at UCLA 12 -2.7 44%
26-Nov Notre Dame 11 4.0 59%
Projected wins: 7.7
Five-Year F/+ Rk 33.0% (14)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 2 / 2
2015 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 11 / 2.4
2015 TO Luck/Game +3.3
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 66% (54%, 77%)
2015 Second-order wins (difference) 7.6 (0.4)

10. No easing into this

USC will boast a new (full-time) head coach, quarterback, defensive line, and defensive coaches. This is the type of year when you want to feast on a couple of mid-major cupcakes before getting into the meat of your schedule.

Instead, the Trojans are doing the opposite. Three weeks in, USC will have already faced the defending national champion on neutral turf and the defending Pac-12 champion on the road. That would be a brutal way to start for the most experienced two-deep and coaching staff in the country.

Going by S&P+ projections, USC has a 12 percent chance of starting 3-0, a 44 percent chance of starting 2-1, a 40 percent chance of starting 1-2, and a 5 percent chance of starting 0-3. That feels optimistic, but here's your reminder that S&P+ projects USC eighth in the country.

If USC is somehow 2-1 after three games, the Trojans will probably be the Pac-12 favorite. But a 1-2 start won't be the end of the world. USC will have a lot of time to recover before a brutal three-game stretch to finish the season.

In a way, this schedule is a blessing. USC could lose three to five games while playing at a top-10 or top-15 level, and it's so blatantly tough that all but the least tolerant USC fan would probably give Helton a grace period.

I didn't love this hire. When you've got a chance at anybody in the country -- and we all seem to agree that USC could land just about anyone -- you don't have to settle for someone who went 5-4 in an extended audition. But Helton has rearranged his staff and is trying to put his own unique footprint on the program instead of tiptoeing gingerly in others' footsteps. That will give him a shot.