Photo via USATSI
After COVID-19 temporarily canceled the fall season for the Pacific-12 Conference, the Pac-12 will resume on Saturday, starting with an unusually early kickoff between the Arizona State Sun Devils and the USC Trojans. USC will play a six-game schedule, consisting of all five of their Pac-12 South division rivals and Washington State in early December.
USC is coming off a 2019 season that saw them start three different quarterbacks as J.T. Daniels tore his ACL in USC’s opening 31-23 win over Fresno State. Freshman QB Kedon Slovis made his first start the following week against Stanford and he dazzled, competing 28 of 33 passes for 377 yards and three touchdowns in USC’s 45-20 win. Matt Fink had to take over two weeks later as Slovis suffered an injury against Utah. Fink would lead USC to a 30-23 win over the 10th-ranked Utes.
Slovis led the way for the Trojans the rest of the way as he threw for 3,502 yards, 30 touchdowns and nine interceptions with a completion percentage of 71.9%, which ranked third in college football last season. USC finished the regular season 8-4, 7-2 in the Pac-12. USC lost to Iowa 49-24 in the Holiday Bowl.
Head coach Clay Helton was retained for another season despite another underwhelming season as USC continues to be stuck in mediocrity. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, USC was slated to play Alabama and Notre Dame, games which would have been indicative of the state of USC’s football program. Instead, USC gets to only play conference opponents and the overall quality of the top teams continues to diminish.
This season, USC is one of the favorites to win the Pac-12 with the most players on the preseason All-Pac-12 Football Team with six. Slovis returns to anchor what could be the best offense this season in the Pac-12. With his first season out of the way, he looks to have another great season, establishing himself as a USC great while developing his NFL prospects.
Last season, the running game was a mixed bag with Vavae Malepeai, Stephen Carr, Markese Stepp and Kenan Christon all splitting carries and stepping up while others were injured. However, Carr has stood out the most in training camp and looks to be the featured back for the Trojans this season. The three other running backs are all returning, giving the Trojans a deep backfield.
Fred Biletnikoff Award finalish Michael Pittman Jr. is gone but their top receivers, Amon-Ra St. Brown, Tyler Vaughns and Drake London are all returning for Slovis to work with. St. Brown recorded 1,042 yards on 77 catches and six touchdowns last season while Vaughns notched 912 yards on 74 catches and six touchdowns. London was solid with 567 yards on 39 catches and five touchdowns but should have a bigger role in this offense with Pittman’s departure.
The offensive line lost both their tackles, Austin Jackson and Drew Richmond, and have eight freshmen on the offensive line on their roster. However, All-Pac-12 first teamer, Alijah Vera-Tucker will provide stability at guard for the team as he’ll captain the line.
The defense struggled last season as they ranked 101st in 10+ plays allowed while allowing 27.8 points per game. This season, Todd Orlando takes control of the defense after spending the last few seasons at Texas. Outside linebacker Drake Jackson is an x-factor as he was a Freshman All-American with 5.5 sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss. Upperclassmen led the way in the trenches on the defensive line and linebacking corp but those units were plagued with inconsistencies and injuries last season. This is not a problem for the safety position as Talanoa Hufanga and Isaiah Pola-Mao return. They were the second and third-leading tacklers on the team. Hufanga forced two fumbles along with 90 tackles while Pola-Mao recorded four interceptions and 73 tackles.
Chase McGrath returns as the kicker, following a solid season as he went 14-17 on field goals last year.
Graham Harrell looks to elevate the offense to another level in his second-season as USC’s offensive coordinator and Todd Orlando looks to improve a defense which struggled to stop most teams last season. Overall, with Oregon losing a lot of talent from last season and the rest of the conference having many holes on their rosters, USC has the chance to step up and win the conference title. However, they need to work on penalties as they have ranked between 113th and 124th in penalties the last five seasons.
USC has the talent to win the conference this season. If they don’t get it done, it is clear USC will need to make a long overdue coaching change and move on from Clay Helton. Time for Helton to prove the doubters wrong.