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We don’t have to proclaim that USC football is back — the Trojans did that for us last year

Clay Helton’s Trojans are deeper and more experienced than they were last year, when they ripped off nine straight wins and finished third in the polls. Yikes.

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

USC is like an old muscle car: In the wrong hands, it stalls out and stumbles; in the right hands, it purrs and roars, faster and louder than anyone else. It is perhaps harder to find a good driver than you think it’s going to be. [...]

Local media railed against the hire and mocked [athletic director Mike] Garrett for overvaluing NFL experience and replacing one [Paul] Hackett with another Hackett. But Pete Carroll was something different. He had head coaching experience, obviously, and he paired a fantastic defensive mind with bounding charisma – he was able to recruit well enough to stockpile absurd offensive talent.

In a few brief weeks of work, Carroll landed blue-chippers like quarterback Matt Leinart and defensive lineman Shaun Cody in his February 2001 signing haul; after a 6-6 debut campaign, he inked future stars in players like offensive lineman Fred Matua, Winston Justice, and Kyle Williams, receiver Mike Williams, tight end Dominique Byrd, and safety Darnell Bing. His recruiting classes from 2003-07 were works of art, top-ranked classes all (or really close to it).

At the turn of the century, the Pac-10 was in flux. Over the seven seasons before Carroll was hired, the conference had sent seven different programs to the Rose Bowl: Oregon in 1994, USC in 1995, Arizona State in 1996, Washington State in 1997, UCLA in 1998, Stanford in 1999, and Washington in 2000. The conference produced plenty of strong teams, but consistent standouts were rare.

And then, *poof*.

The 50 Best* College Football Teams of All Time

Life as a college football blue blood isn’t necessarily easy. You don’t automatically get to win 10 or 11 games without earning them; granted, your access to blue-chip recruits is a lot more open, but a football team can fall apart in 27 different ways. Even with blue-chip talent, you still have to make solid moves to succeed.

USC is living proof of that; the Trojans have gone through plenty of iffy times as a football program. Granted, “iffy” for USC means a .500 record instead of something far worse, but top-10 finishes certainly haven’t been a birthright. They managed no such finishes between 1990-2001 (the pre-Carroll era) and only one between 2009-15 (post-Carroll).

The difference between a blue blood and others, however, is that the blue blood needs only a couple of decent breaks for everything to not only fall into place but remain in place for quite a while. Oklahoma made a terrible hire in John Blake back in the 1990s, replaced him with Bob Stoops, and had a national title within two years. USC replaced Hackett with Carroll, and by his second year USC was engaging on a string of seven straight top-five seasons. Alabama replaced Mike Shula with Nick Saban, and he needed just one reset season before embarking on nine straight top-10 finishes and four national titles in the last eight years.

Clay Helton didn’t even need a reset season; he needed a reset month. His first USC team started slowly, losing to Alabama and Stanford by a combined 79-16, so he replaced Blue-Chip QB A with Blue-Chip QB B, and *poof*. The Trojans suffered an unlucky loss at Utah on September 23 ... and didn’t lose again.

From the moment Sam Darnold took the starting QB job in Week 4, USC was different. The Trojans averaged 4.6 yards per play before he took over and 6.9 after, 20.3 points per game before and 38.6 after. USC was the only team to beat Washington in the regular season — by 13 points in Seattle, no less — and the only one besides Michigan to beat Colorado. They beat a peaking Penn State in the Rose Bowl. They didn’t let lesser teams come anywhere close.

They looked like USC is always supposed to look.

Scarier yet, they showed clear room for improvement. They didn’t produce many big plays; they allowed a few too many big plays. They weren’t all that great at finishing drives. And they were still one of the best teams in the country over the last couple of months of the season.

So is this it then? Is USC ‘back’? Long-term, we obviously don’t know. We don’t know how Helton will manage the program — how he’ll deal with personnel turnover, how he’ll develop guys, how well he’ll replace departing assistants (because when you win big, assistants get hired away to bigger jobs). In last year’s USC preview, I called the Helton hire a lazy one, and in many ways I still believe that. Hell, even the primary change he made during the season (promoting Darnold) made you wonder why he hadn’t begun the year with Darnold.

Still, we know Helton still has Darnold for another year, we know Darnold’s got running back Ronald Jones II in the backfield with him, and we know that the defense is quite a bit more experienced than it was a year ago.

When USC clicks, it usually takes the Trojans quite a while to un-click. But while we yet don’t know if this is the start of a decade-long run of dominance, we know this: USC could be very, very good in 2017.

NCAA Football: Rose Bowl Game-Penn State vs Southern California
Clay Helton
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

2016 in review

2016 USC statistical profile.

Indeed, you have to wonder how successful USC could have been if Darnold had gotten the nod from the beginning. Granted, nothing was going to get the Trojans past Alabama on opening weekend, and for all we know, Darnold getting lit up by the Crimson Tide may have stunted his development. But odds are good that the Trojans would have gotten past Stanford, and with just a hair more experience, maybe Darnold could have made one more play against Utah.

Ifs, buts, candy, nuts, etc. What we know for sure is that USC was a tremendous team over the last nine games.

  • First 4 games (1-3): Avg. percentile performance: 61% | Avg. yards per play: Opp 5.8, USC 5.4 (minus-0.4) | Avg. score: Opp 29, USC 22 (minus-7)
  • Last 9 games (9-0): Avg. percentile performance: 90% | Avg. yards per play: USC 6.8, Opp 5.2 (plus-1.6) | Avg. score: USC 40, Opp 22 (plus-18)

The Darnold offense got all the attention, but it’s worth noting that Clancy Pendergast’s defense pretty quickly rounded into form, too. Indeed, the Trojans suffered quite a few defensive breakdowns — only 157 gains of 10-plus yards (20th in FBS) but 19 gains of 40-plus (100th) — but they still allowed only 20 points per game in conference play, 17.4 after the first two games. That’ll play with any team, but especially with this offense.


USC offensive radar

Full advanced stats glossary.

Mike Leach’s air raid offense at Washington State is ruthlessly efficient. It’s content with spreading you from sideline to sideline and deploying a dink-and-dunk passing game until you crack. The air raid was created in part to counter talent disadvantages, and in its current form in Pullman, it doesn’t really have the pieces or capability to destroy you with explosiveness.

USC has no talent disadvantages to counter but, in terms of efficiency and explosiveness, basically ran the same offense last year.

USC offensive efficiency & explosiveness

Granted, opponent adjustments were kinder to the Trojans, but both USC and Wazzu made their gains a few yards at a time. When you’ve got an awesome quarterback and can count on mostly avoiding drive-killing mistakes, that’s fine. But it was a hint that USC’s offense isn’t fully weaponized yet. Yikes.

Darnold’s consistency was jarring for a redshirt freshman. He started 10 games and completed between 62 and 72 percent of his passes each time. His passer rating slipped under 140 in just one start — it fell all the way to 139 in an easy win at UCLA. He took almost no sacks, and while his 2.5 percent INT rate was a smidge higher than you’d like to see, it’s not that high. And again, he was a damn redshirt freshman.

Darnold wasn’t the only young backfield weapon to seize a starting job midseason. Ronald Jones II began the year in a bit of a sophomore funk, falling behind Justin Davis on the depth chart and averaging just 4.2 yards per carry through five games. But when Davis got hurt, Jones got more carries and began to find a hell of a rhythm. He averaged 5.1 per carry against Colorado and Arizona, then 7.8 over the final five games of the regular season.

NCAA Football: California at Southern California
Ronald Jones II
Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

Jones provided big-play capability for an offense that otherwise didn’t show a ton of it. He will almost certainly enter 2017 as the No. 1 guy, and if he avoids another early funk, he could easily threaten to top 1,500 rushing yards. And lord knows he’ll continue to encounter competition on the depth chart — juniors Aca’Cedric Ware and Dominic Davis return, and two young four-stars (redshirt freshman Vave Malepeai and true freshman Stephen Carr) could push for carries as well.

There are question marks, however. Despite all the top-notch recruiting in the world, there’s no guarantee the explosiveness will improve, especially without top wideouts JuJu Smith-Schuster and Darreus Rogers. The duo combined for a remarkable 60 percent success rate and decent 12.8 yards per catch, and now the leading returnees on the outside are Jalen Greene and Michael Pittman Jr., who combined for 14 catches last year.

A good slot receiver can be a quarterback’s best friend, though, and USC is loaded in the slot. Junior Deontay Burnett had a 59 percent success rate and seven touchdowns as an inside receiver last year, and senior Steven Mitchell Jr. has plenty of potential if he returns to full strength after last year’s ACL tear. Tight end Daniel Imatorbhebhe averaged a couple of catches per game and 14.7 yards per catch, too, over the last eight games.

There’s youth, too, in the form of not only Imatorbhebhe and Pittman but also WR/CB combo Keyshawn Young, four four-star redshirt freshmen, five-star freshman Joseph Lewis IV, and four-star freshman tight end Josh Falo. If one or two first-year guys emerge as viable weapons, Darnold has all the targets he needs.

So that brings up the second concern: the line. USC has to replace three all-conference performers, including tackles Chad Wheeler and Zach Banner, who combined for 84 career starts. With center Toa Lobendahn’s return from injury, the Trojans do still basically return three starters. Plus, likely new starting left tackle Chuma Edoga is (go figure) a blue-chipper. Still, there’s almost nowhere to go but down, especially in pass protection. That’s a concern until proven otherwise.

NCAA Football: Rose Bowl Game-Penn State vs Southern California
Daniel Imatorbhebhe
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports


USC defensive radar

A good Clancy Pendergast is aggressive without being particularly risky about it. It’s built almost from the back forward, usually tremendous against the pass but sometimes only decent against the run.

In his first fall back in the USC defensive coordinator chair, he put together a unique combination of stats. The Trojans were efficient at the risk of giving up too many big plays (17th in success rate, 107th in IsoPPP), but they pulled that off without while making very few plays behind the line of scrimmage — they were 80th in stuff rate and 93rd in Adj. Sack Rate.

As evidenced in the win over Washington, the Trojans still figured out how to frustrate and confuse opposing quarterbacks, and the top four linebackers still combined for a solid 35.5 tackles for loss. They generated enough efficiency to offset what were some pretty significant breakdowns.

USC defensive efficiency & explosiveness

When you see who’s back, you figure out at least part of last year’s problem. The leading tackler up front is a junior (Rasheem Green), as are the two leading returnees at linebacker (Cameron Smith, Porter Gustin) and three of the top four returning defensive backs (Iman Marshall, Marvell Tell III, Ajene Harris). A lot of sophomores were playing key roles last year, and when you combine that with the general rigors of learning a new defensive system, you can probably guess that there will be some breakdowns.

Those excuses dry up this year though. The Trojans do have some pieces to replace — nose tackle Stevie Tu'ikolovatu, ILB Michael Hutchings, safety Leon McQuay III, and big-play corner Adoree’ Jackson — but are loaded with juniors and a few seniors at every level of the defense. Marshall did a pretty decent Jackson impression at times, and Gustin and Smith combined for 20 TFLs, 6.5 sacks, and eight breakups. And between seniors Josh Fatu and Kenny Bigelow Jr., juniors Malik Dorton and Jacob Daniel, and incoming blue-chippers Jay Tufele and Marlon Tuipulotu, the Trojans should have all the weapons they need on the interior.

NCAA Football: Southern California at Washington
Porter Gustin
Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Because of either choice or perceived necessity, Pendergast didn’t play a ton of guys last year. The top three tacklers on the line combined for 83 percent of tackles there, the top four linebackers combined for 82 percent, and the top five in the secondary combined for 77 percent. This didn’t cost the Trojans in games — they were 16th in Q1 S&P+ and 14th in Q4 S&P+ — but they did trail off at least a bit at the end of the year.

  • First 4 games: Avg. defensive percentile performance: 45% (~top 70) | Avg. points per game: 29.3
  • Next 6 games: Avg. defensive percentile performance: 85% (~top 20) | Avg. points per game: 18.0
  • Last 3 games: Avg. defensive percentile performance: 50% (~top 65) | Avg. points per game: 30.0

Helton’s first signing class should provide a nice boost in competition everywhere you look — seven four- or five-star freshmen enter the mix, and almost entirely at different positions — but whether that competition translates into a larger rotation is up to Pendergast.

NCAA Football: Rose Bowl Game-Penn State vs Southern California
Iman Marshall
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

USC was well-rounded in special teams last year, ranking between 14th and 58th in all five efficiency categories. This fall will see a pretty significant reset though. Adoree’ Jackson is gone after returning four kicks and punts for touchdowns, and Matt Boermeester was kicked off the team this spring.

That leaves punter Chris Tilbey (whose punts were not very far but were rarely returnable), redshirt freshman place-kicker Michael Brown, and a whole bunch of auditioners in the return game. Lord knows USC has the athletes to produce another stud here, but Jackson was terrifying. There’s almost nowhere for this unit to go but down without Jackson and Boermeester.

2017 outlook

2017 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
2-Sep Western Michigan 74 26.6 94%
9-Sep Stanford 12 5.9 63%
16-Sep Texas 16 9.7 71%
23-Sep at California 55 16.0 82%
29-Sep at Washington State 40 13.2 78%
7-Oct Oregon State 54 20.8 89%
14-Oct Utah 45 19.4 87%
21-Oct at Notre Dame 17 4.7 61%
28-Oct at Arizona State 58 16.1 82%
4-Nov Arizona 68 22.8 91%
11-Nov at Colorado 50 15.3 81%
18-Nov UCLA 34 17.0 84%
Projected S&P+ Rk 7
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 7 / 14
Projected wins 9.6
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 15.1 (8)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 7 / 4
2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 0 / 0.6
2016 TO Luck/Game -0.2
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 63% (58%, 67%)
2016 Second-order wins (difference) 9.4 (0.6)

It really is scary how much better USC could have been last year. Darnold didn’t get a significant shot until Week 4, and Jones didn’t find a rhythm until a couple of weeks later. The offense had only a couple of solid big-play options, and the defense’s breakdowns were enormous. And yet, the Trojans finished ninth in S&P+, won their last nine games, and set themselves up to become Pac-12 title favorites in 2017.

Last year’s big-play weaknesses are not guaranteed to be completely fixed, and turnover on the offensive line and in special teams could result in untimely breakdowns. But in terms of raw materials, few teams have it as good as the Trojans heading into the fall. Darnold is the real deal — he’s disturbingly consistent for his experience level, and he got better with each progressive quarter last fall — and lord knows he’s still got all the talent in the world around him at the skill positions. Despite sophomores and glitches, the defense improved from 41st to 20th in Def. S&P+ and should expect to rise further.

Then there’s the schedule. The Trojans miss Washington and Oregon and get their two toughest opponents (per S&P+, that would be Stanford and Texas) at home. They are projected to win each game on the slate by at least 4.7 points and are projected to win 10 by at least 9.7.

We always race to proclaim a blueblood “BACK!!” at the first signs of life, and I know fans of opposing schools will roll their eyes at the fact that we’re doing it again with USC in 2017. But in our defense, we aren’t the ones proclaiming it — USC did that for us last year. And they’ll have a pretty good chance of doing it even louder this fall.

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