No. 4 USC
Clay Helton is a first-time head coach who was supposed to be in the middle of an extensive rebuild. Instead, he's in the middle of a championship chase.
"We know the expectations. We welcome them," he said this summer. "We look at it as an opportunity, not an obligation. We came to USC to win championships and that will always be our goal.”
Sam Darnold and Ronald Jones will pace an offense that's looking for new receiving weapons, while Cameron Smith and Iman Marshall headline a defense aiming to generate more pressure.
2016 Record: 10-3 (7-2, Pac-12)
USC failed to win at least 10 games in a season zero times between 2002-08. They did so five times between 2009-15. After their road loss to Utah in Week 4 last year put them at 1-3, it seemed like a safe bet they'd fail to reach 10 wins again for the third-straight season.
“It was really about our intensity on the field,” safety Chris Hawkins said. “Everybody wasn’t giving 100 percent.”
Then a players-only meeting lit the fuse on a Sam Darnold-manufactured cannon and the Trojans exploded for a nine-game winning streak included wins over both Pac-12 division champs Colorado and Washington and Big Ten champ Penn State.
"Do I wish we won every game? Yes, of course,” head coach Helton said. “[W]e didn’t play great ball early.”
Head Coach: Clay Helton (2nd year, 10-3 overall*)
Clay Helton was not the sexy or headline-grabbing hire. Heck, he wasn't even a popular hire (from the outside, not from the inside). But he was clearly the right hire. He is a no-frills guy who is bringing USC back to national championship contention without much glitz, glamour and self-promoting hype.
Helton took over as permanent head coach in late November 2015, and 21 months later, is executing his plan to perfection.
“It was one of the most rewarding experiences of my coaching career,” Helton said after critics pelted the program for losing three of their first four games last year. “Do you have a true belief in your plan and your process? It was put to the ultimate test. Do you believe in the men that surround you? The answer was yes: I believed in our plan, and I believed in the men that surrounded me.”
*Only includes win total from 2016, his first full season as permanent head coach.
Key Returning Offensive Players
QB Sam Darnold, RB Ronald Jones, WR Deontay Burnett, TE Daniel Imatorbhebhe, G Viane Talamaivao, G Toa Lobendahn, C Nico Falah
As good as the USC offense was after Sam Darnold took over in Week 4, they could be a lot better. The vertical passing game must improve, along with red zone offense and turnovers.
Of course, Darnold is lethal in a clean — or mostly clean — pocket (below), but he's also darn good when pressured. He ranked second in the FBS in adjusted completion percentage (67.6 percent) while under pressure and first when blitzed (79 percent), according to Pro Football Focus.
"He's the best college quarterback I've seen at anticipating since Andrew Luck," said Stanford head coach David Shaw, who has repeatedly gushed over Darnold. "When you evaluate quarterbacks who can play at the next level, you're looking for guys who can see a play before it happens and get the ball out of their hands quick. He's the best I've seen in years."
Deontay Burnett is the new No. 1 receiving target, even if he thinks he's not.
“I wouldn’t consider myself ‘the guy,’” Burnett said in late July. “We have a lot of talent at the receiving corps.”
The 6-foot, 170-pounder averaged a modest 11.1 yards per catch (56 receptions, 622 yards) and exploded for 13 catches for 164 yards and three touchdowns in the Rose Bowl.
“He’s just a shut-up-and-work guy,” Helton said of Burnett, comparing to him to former USC receivers Robert Woods, Marqise Lee and Nelson Agholor. “You can’t tell the difference between a practice and a game with that kid. It’s not about the hype, it’s just about playing ball each and every day. He might be the smallest horse in the stable, but he makes the biggest impact, and he does it in a workmanlike attitude.”
Ronald Jones leads one of the deepest running backs group in the country, and an offensive line is in decent shape given their losses. Guard Toa Lobendahn is the ultimate Swiss army knife lineman. He has 21 starts across four different positions.
Key Returning Defensive Players
DE Rasheem Green, LB Uchenna Nwosu, LB Porter Gustin, LB Cameron Smith, CB Iman Marshall, S Chris Hawkins,
USC will have at least one all-conference player at all three defensive levels, led by Iman Marshall at cornerback. Called a "perfectionist" by Helton, Marshall's numbers didn't improve from his freshman (2015) to sophomore (2016) years but he became a much more disciplined, refined playmaker.
“He's really not comfortable or satisfied with where his game is,” Helton said of the junior who has six interceptions the last three years. “You see him after every practice working one little tool that he can put in his toolbox, and I appreciate that as a coach."
They're looking for more disruption from the front seven after averaging just two sacks (68th in the FBS) and 5.5 tackles for loss per game (85th). Linebacker Porter Gustin is their only returning player who had more than 7.5 tackles for loss last year. He's flanked by senior Cameron Smith, who will miss the first half of the opener after being ejected in the second half of the Rose Bowl.
Defensive end Rasheem Green, a former five-star, top-25 recruit, took a big step forward as a sophomore with six sacks, but the coaching staff repeatedly says he can be a dominant player.
“I think that he has a pretty high skill set,” said defensive line coach Kenechi Udeze. “I just want to see him capitalize on everything that God’s given him.”
Notable Player Losses
WR Juju Smith-Schuster, WR Darreus Rogers, OT Zach Banner, OT Chad Wheeler, G Damien Mama, DT Stevie Tu'ikolovatu, LB Michael Hutchings, CB Adoree' Jackson, S Leon McQuay III
Zach Banner, Chad Wheeler and Damien Mama leave three big holes — literally — on the offensive line. Banner and Wheeler were All-Pac-12 First-Team selections and Mama, who did not allow a single sack last season, made the Second Team.
Juju Smith-Schuster earned most the headlines the last three years, and rightfully so (213 receptions, 3,092 yards, 25 touchdowns), but don't forget about Darreus Rogers, who left with 127 career catches for 1,487 yards and 11 scores.
Defensively, they lost Adoree' Jackson, an elite corner and return man who left a year early, along with tackle Stevie Tu'ikolovatu and safety Leon McQuay III. Jackson had five interceptions, 11 passes defended and four return touchdowns in 2016.
Notable Player Additions
WR Tyler Vaughns, WR Velus Jones Jr., DE Marlon Tuipulotu, LB Levi Jones, S C.J. Pollard
USC won't have another true or redshirt freshman make a Darnold-like impact this year, but they do have a bunch of first-year players who will play big snaps.
Four-star true freshman defensive Marlon Tuipulotu ran with the first team during much of spring practice, as did redshirt freshman receiver Tyler Vaughns.
"I didn’t have the right mindset at the beginning of spring I needed if I wanted to start,” Vaughns said early in fall camp. “I was lackadaisical. But then I went home (before the second week) and my parents and older brothers got on me.”
P.J. Fleck is no longer rowing the boat in Kalamazoo, nor are Corey Davis or Zach Terrell and others. However, the Broncos still return enough talent to flirt with 10 wins and compete with good Power Five programs.
In addition to the home games against the Cardinal and Longhorns, the Trojans also host Utah (Nov. 14) and UCLA (No. 18). Their notable road games include Washington State (Sept. 29), Notre Dame (Oct. 21) and Colorado (Nov. 11).
|Saturday, Sept. 2||vs. Western Michigan|
|Saturday, Sept. 9||vs. Stanford|
|Saturday, Sept. 16||vs. Texas|
|Saturday, Sept. 23||at Cal|
|Friday, Sept. 29||at Washington State|
|Saturday, Oct. 7||vs. Oregon State|
|Saturday, Oct. 14||vs. Utah|
|Saturday, Oct. 21||at Notre Dame|
|Saturday, Oct. 28||at Arizona State|
|Saturday, Nov. 4||vs. Arizona|
|Saturday, Nov. 11||at Colorado|
|Saturday, Nov. 18||vs. UCLA|