After ending last season with nine consecutive victories, topped by a dramatic comeback over Penn State in the Rose Bowl, USC enters this season with much fanfare. The preseason Associated Press poll and coaches poll each rank the Trojans fourth. Here’s how the team shapes up:
WHAT’S AT STAKE?
Will this be the season the Trojans live up to the billing? High expectations have not recently been easy to meet. Only three times in the past 10 years has their postseason ranking in the AP poll been higher than their preseason ranking. None were more illustrative of this than the 2015 and 2012 seasons. Under Steve Sarkisian in 2015, USC was ranked eighth in the preseason, led by senior quarterback Cody Kessler. Sarkisian was fired in mid-October and USC finished unranked at 8-6 overall. In 2012 under Lane Kiffin, USC was atop the preseason poll, led by the return of senior quarterback Matt Barkley. That team also sputtered, ending 7-6. It was the first preseason No. 1 team in almost 50 years to finish unranked at the end of a season. The Trojans are undoubtedly aware of this. “I like history lessons,” Coach Clay Helton quipped after a practice this week. Though the Trojans are coming off a Rose Bowl victory, they have gone nine years without a conference championship and 13 since a national championship. For many fans, expectations must certainly be met.
WHAT COULD GO RIGHT
The schedule turns out to be light. Seven of the 12 teams USC faces in the regular season did not make a bowl game, and though some foes such as Notre Dame, Texas and UCLA are expected to improve, they also might not. An easier road could allow USC, which should be favored in its first 12 games, to avoid too many setbacks, entering a Pac-12 championship game mostly unscathed. If the Trojans make it to Santa Clara with only one or two losses, they’ll have a chance to make the College Football Playoff.
WHAT COULD GO WRONG
The schedule could be challenging, too, of course. Stanford turns out to be as formidable as Pac-12 North counterpart Washington. Notre Dame is rejuvenated under Brian Kelly. Colorado isn’t a one-hit wonder. UCLA rebounds with a healthy Josh Rosen. That adds pressure. The Trojans do not have a regular-season bye. Injuries could mount. USC mostly avoided major injuries last fall. There is never a guarantee. And there is no veteran passer backing up Sam Darnold this season. A couple bad breaks and the Holiday Bowl might beckon.
HOW’S THE HEALTH?