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Anything from 4-8 to 11-1 is on the table for USC this year. Have fun with that, Clay Helton

Helton is overseeing tons of changes after USC’s first losing season in 18 years, and the schedule has nothing but tricky test after tricky test. Yikes.

NCAA Football: Notre Dame at Southern California
Clay Helton
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Bill C’s annual preview series of every FBS team in college football continues. Catch up here!

In last year’s USC preview, I wrote about how a coach’s third year in charge of the Trojans tends to tell the tale. Clay Helton better hope that does not hold true.

Helton saw success even more quickly than coaches like Tollner and Smith did. After a slow start to his first season (2016), his Trojans caught fire behind redshirt freshman quarterback Sam Darnold. They won 13 games in a row into 2017, and after a rickety 2-2 stretch, they finished 5-1 that season, too. Two years in, they were 21-6, with a conference title, two major bowl appearances, and a classic Rose Bowl victory. Not bad, right?

Not great, either. USC won 11 games in 2017 due in part to both happy bounces (the Trojans were 4-1 in one-possession games) and a sketchy schedule (their S&P+ SOS ranking fell from eighth to 59th that year).

In 2018, the schedule got tougher (44th), and the breaks went away (2-4 in one-score games). USC got worse, too. The offense was up-and-down under freshman quarterback JT Daniels, and the defense slid for the second straight year.

The result was something unfathomable: a losing season.

Lane Kiffin disappointed in his final seasons as USC’s head coach, but he went 7-6 in 2012 and was 3-2 in 2013 when he got dumped. Pete Carroll’s last season was pretty listless, in part because of a freshman quarterback. But the Trojans still went 9-4.

USC finished 5-7 last year. Even for a team with a young QB, that’s mind-blowing. The Trojans had suffered one losing season in the last 28 years (5-7 in 2000).

Helton had evidently built up just enough goodwill in his first two years to save his job, but he did quite bit of shuffling on his staff. He brought in fired Bowling Green head coach Mike Jinks as new RBs coach, hired journeyman Greg Burns as new DBs coach, brought Boise State defensive line coach Chad Kauha’aha’a to town in the same role, and promoted former WVU defensive coordinator Joe DeForest from analyst to OLBs coach.

He also made two offensive coordinator hires. First, he scooped up fired Texas Tech head coach Kliff Kingsbury in a move that appeared to be one of the offseason’s true home runs. USC desperately lacked a clear offensive identity last year with Tee Martin running the show, and few have stronger identities, or offensive track records, then Kingsbury.

Kingsbury’s track record was so strong, in fact, that he was hired away to become the Arizona Cardinals’ head coach weeks later. Scrambling, Helton then took a chance on another former Texas Tech quarterback and potential spread mastermind: Graham Harrell.

Harrell is basically a Younger Kliff. Both left Lubbock for journeyman pro careers, then quickly gathered steam in the coaching ranks. Kingsbury was a co-coordinator at Houston by his third year in the profession and became Texas A&M’s sole coordinator two years later. Harrell coached receivers under Mike Leach for two years, then became North Texas’ coordinator in 2016.

He did well in Denton. He inherited a truly moribund offense, one that had ranked 126th in Off. S&P+ the year before his arrival and hadn’t ranked better than 80th since rejoining FBS in the 1990s. But the Mean Green were 65th by Harrell’s second year and held steady at 67th in his third. They went from averaging 15 points per game before his arrival, to 25 in his first year, to 35 in his next two.

Harrell isn’t Kingsbury, but he’s got some chops, and he’s got a chance to save Helton’s USC tenure.

Of course, it’s at least a little bit odd that Helton didn’t more fully address his flagging defense, too. But we’ll get to that.

Offense

USC’s offense had two major things going against it last year:

  1. The Trojans weren’t truly good at anything. Kind of an issue, yeah? They were 46th in standard downs success rate and 43rd in big-play rate in open-play situations, they were 53rd in passing marginal efficiency, they were 49th in third-and-medium success rate, etc. Those are decent. They were also among USC’s best rankings.
  2. They were also truly bad in specific situations. They were 103rd in blitz downs success rate and 107th in blitz downs sack rate. Anything beyond third-and-medium, and the drive was toast. Plus, they were truly horrific with points on the line: they averaged just 4.2 points per scoring opportunity (first downs inside the opponent’s 40), 101st in FBS.

So basically, they didn’t have anything they knew they could lean on, and in key “gotta make a play” moments, they cratered. That was, shall we say, suboptimal.

If nothing else, Harrell brings an identity to the table, even if it’s not necessarily the hardcore air raid identity you might be imagining.

Graham Harrell’s offensive footprint

Category North Texas Rk Nat'l Avg
Category North Texas Rk Nat'l Avg
Standard downs run rate 51.4% 111 59.6%
Passing downs run rate 25.7% 115 34.8%
Adjusted pace* 1.1 82 0.0
Pct of solo tackles created 74.8% 51 73.2%
Havoc rate allowed 15.9% 68 15.8%

Harrell’s offense indeed threw the ball a lot, but this wasn’t necessarily an offense built around spreading you from sideline to sideline and creating space and solo tackles.

The biggest defining factor for North Texas was variety. Eight players ended up with at least three intended touches (carries plus pass targets) per game. Three running backs combined to average 24.4 carries and 3.8 targets per game, two receivers finished with between 90 and 110 targets, and two more had between 50 and 70. Plus, the tight were targeted nearly four times per game, too.

NCAA Football: Southern California at UCLA
Michael Pittman Jr.
Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

USC certainly has the skill corps for such variety.

  • The receiving corps returns three heavy-usage receivers — Tyler Vaughns, Amon-Ra St. Brown, and Michael Pittman Jr. were all targeted at least 80 times last year — plus an interesting tight end in Josh Falo. St. Brown was a particularly efficient option, Pittman was all-or-nothing, and Vaughns was basically in-between.
  • Leading rusher Aca’Cedric Ware, easily last season’s most efficient rusher, is gone, but returnees Vavae Malepeai and Stephen Carr combined for 174 carries and caught 23 of 27 passes last year, albeit for minimal yardage. Malepeai clears the efficiency bar, and Carr’s a former top-20 recruit.
  • This being USC, there is the requisite batch of young blue-chippers: sophomore receiver Devon Williams, redshirt freshman back Markese Stepp, and incoming freshman receivers Bru McCoy (who had one of the strangest post-signing day recruitments you’ll ever see), Kyle Ford, and Drake London, plus tight end Ethan Rae.
NCAA Football: Notre Dame at Southern California
JT Daniels
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Granted, you still need a quarterback delivering the ball to the skill corps. Harrell had a hell of a quarterback at North Texas in Mason Fine, and he at least has candidates here. Sophomore Jack Sears was efficient in his lone appearance, going 20-for-28 for 235 yards against Arizona State, but the assumption is obviously that Daniels will retain his job.

Daniels’ freshman year was a roller coaster. He was overwhelmed in losses to Stanford and Texas, but he began to find a rhythm before a midseason concussion (which forced him to miss ASU) threw him off-track.

  • Daniels’ first three games (1-2): 57% completion rate, 12.2 yards/completion, 113.8 passer rating
  • Next three games (3-0): 60% completion rate, 14.1 yards/completion, 149.8 passer rating
  • Last five games (1-4): 61% completion rate, 11.6 yards/completion, 128.1 passer rating

One assumes Harrell and Daniels will form a nice bond, but we won’t know for sure until it happens.

One thing that could get in the way of a happy QB-OC marriage: a rebuilt offensive line. Three starters are gone, including all-conference tackle Chuma Edoga. If there’s a silver lining, it’s that a lot of guys saw action on last year’s banged up line, so including Tennessee grad transfer Drew Richmond, there are six guys with starting experience. That’s something.

Defense

To be sure, the offense was the worse of USC’s two units last year. But the defense’s regression rang some alarm bells as well.

Clancy Pendergast’s second stint as USC defensive coordinator continued where his first left off. The Trojans ranked sixth in Def. S&P+ in 2013, and after a two-year absence he returned and led them to ninth in 2016. But they slipped to 24th in 2017, and last fall they were an almost inexplicable 34th.

As with the offense, USC just didn’t have any truly dominant strengths. They were pretty good at forcing third-and-longs, they created some negative run plays and limited your big pass plays, and they got their hands on a decent number of passes.

They also ranked a thoroughly mediocre 51st in marginal efficiency (45th rushing, 56th passing), 93rd in marginal explosiveness, and 88th in points allowed per scoring opportunities. (USC sacrificed so damn many points with red zone failures on both ends.)

Injuries didn’t help. Only one of six regular linebackers played in all 12 games — star linebacker Porter Gustin was on his way to a 20-TFL season but missed the last six contests — and the defensive backs rotation was a revolving door as well.

Still, the bar’s high when you recruit like USC recruits.

Washington State v USC
Talanoa Hufanga (15) and John Houston Jr. (10)
Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

The injuries may turn into a saving grace this year. While the Trojans rank 21st in offensive returning production, they are a woeful 118th on defense, primarily because of what they lose in the secondary. Five of last year’s top six DB tacklers are gone (including draftees Iman Marshall and Marvell Tell III), but at least the replacements saw decent playing time.

There are quite a few exciting sophomores in the defensive back eight, but they’re still going to be sophomores. Corners Greg Johnson and Olaijah Griffin, safeties Talanoa Hufanga and Isaiah Pola-Mao, and linebackers Palaie Gaoteote IV and Kana’i Mauga were all well-touted recruits, and all flashed disruptive potential. But yikes, there’s some serious youth here. Senior inside linebackers John Houston Jr. and Jordan Iosefa are going to have to carry serious weight from a leadership perspective.

NCAA Football: Southern California at Oregon State
Brandon Pili (91) and Christian Rector (89)
Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

The line isn’t exactly full of veterans either; end Christian Rector is the only senior in the rotation. But sophomore tackles Jay Tufele and Marlon Tuipulotu were among last year’s best defenders, and junior nose Brandon Pili has been around the block. JUCO end Nick Figueroa and blue-chip freshman Drake Jackson will need to fill rotation spots pretty quickly, but the starting lineup up front will be strong.

Special Teams

At least one unit rebounded in 2018. After bombing from 19th to 89th in Special Teams S&P+, USC split the difference and ended up 50th last fall, thanks primarily to strong place-kicking from Chase McGrath and, after McGrath tore his ACL, Michael Brown.

With Brown, McGrath, kickoffs specialist Alex Stadthaus, and return men Velus Jones Jr. and Tyler Vaughns, the unit returns mostly intact. The only loss comes at punter, but since USC ranked 112th in punt efficiency, new blood there probably isn’t a bad thing.

2019 outlook

2019 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
31-Aug Fresno State 51 7.7 67%
7-Sep Stanford 32 3.2 57%
14-Sep at BYU 50 2.6 56%
20-Sep Utah 17 -2.1 45%
28-Sep at Washington 15 -9.4 29%
12-Oct at Notre Dame 12 -10.9 27%
19-Oct Arizona 52 7.8 67%
25-Oct at Colorado 68 6.5 65%
2-Nov Oregon 20 -0.6 49%
9-Nov at Arizona State 49 2.3 55%
26-Nov at California 60 4.8 61%
23-Nov UCLA 63 10.2 72%
Projected S&P+ Rk 29
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 26 / 45
Projected wins 6.5
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 17.0 (14)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 16
2018 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -10 / -6.4
2018 TO Luck/Game -1.5
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 61% (79%, 43%)
2018 Second-order wins (difference) 7.0 (-2.0)

Since Carroll’s peak ended in 2008, USC’s existence has been one of brief bursts and steady slides. Helton didn’t invent this phenomenon.

Still, the rapidity of the regression is alarming, and again, it wasn’t just an offense problem last year.

Helton did make some intriguing moves. Harrell might not be Kingsbury (yet), but he proved quite a bit at North Texas, and if the defensive issues were due more to all the shuffling in the back eight, and not any major structural or tactical issues, then maybe things will end up alright there. The turnover in the back is alarming, though.

Helton is coaching for his job, and hoo boy, is the schedule packed with possible anxiety. The Trojans face nine games projected within one score, including each of the first four games of the year (Fresno State, Stanford, at BYU, Utah).

With just a little bit of variation in play, the Trojans could be 4-0 or 1-3 when they head to Washington on September 28. If Harrell’s offense finds its rhythm quickly, a 10-win season is all sorts of conceivable. If it doesn’t, or if the defense falls off of an inexperience-driven cliff, 4-8 is on the table as well.

Have fun with that, Trojan fans.

Team preview stats

All 2019 preview data to date.