USC will begin its season Saturday against Western Michigan with hopes of beginning a national championship run. It has been 13 years since it last accomplished such a feat. Amid the lofty preseason expectations for the fourth-ranked Trojans, here’s what to watch:
1. Does Sam Darnold have a reliable target?
He had at least two last season. Although Darnold was adept at distributing passes to a variety of targets, he was able to lean on both JuJu Smith-Schuster and Darreus Rogers in critical moments. The two outside receivers departed, leaving USC with a mostly new group of starters beyond slot receiver Deontay Burnett. Veterans Jalen Greene and Steven Mitchell get the first crack at starting spots in place of Smith-Schuster and Rogers.
2. Will Darnold be protected?
Another question for USC’s offense revolves around the talent surrounding the Heisman Trophy frontrunner. USC debuts new starting tackles this season — Toa Lobendahn, who returns to left tackle after stints at center, and Chuma Edoga, who takes over at right tackle. Edoga started twice last season in place of Chad Wheeler, who was dealing with plantar fasciitis. So, both have experience, but Darnold was also rarely touched last season, sacked only six times in his 10 starts. Part of that was due to Darnold’s vision and ability to move his feet to evade pass-rushers, but it certainly helped to have two seniors at the tackle spots.
3. Is there explosiveness on the roster?
Take USC’s win over Notre Dame in the regular season finale last November. Adoree’ Jackson, the cornerback and a dazzling returner, took a kick and a punt for a touchdown, along with snagging a 52-yard scoring pass. They were game-changing plays, and without them, it might have been a closer game than a 45-27 rout. Jackson, a junior, declared early for the NFL Draft. Jack Jones and Ajene Harris have auditioned as the kick returners in camp, but can anyone duplicate Jackson’s transcendent playmaking skills and big-play potential?
4. Can the defense avoid the big ones?
To be sure, USC’s defense should be tough to move on. The Trojans return a majority of their starters on that side of the ball and nine of the 11 starters are upperclassmen. It’s a significant reason, beyond the presence of Darnold, that USC is expected to compete for a playoff berth. But the unit also allowed far too many big plays in 2016. Last season, the Trojans’ defense 107th among the 128 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in IsoPPP, a…