2021 Pac-12 Football Previews: USC Trojans

The clock is ticking to get it done in Los Angeles, with 2021 a possible make-or-break year

Posted on July 12, 2021

  By Dane Miller, SuperWest Sports

This USC outlook is the sixth of 12 preseason previews to appear over as many weeks as we count down the days to the start of the Pac-12 season on August 28th.

Each preview is comprised of nine sections: OverviewBest-Case ScenarioWorst-Case ScenarioWhat Should HappenWhat Must HappenGreatest StrengthBiggest ConcernDeciding Factors, and Schedule Analysis.

Nothing is set in stone as rosters and depth charts continue to evolve over the summer. In the end, preseason prognostications often prove to be no better than good guesses at best.


Entering the seventh season under Clay Helton, USC has yet to reach the College Football Playoff and holds just a single appearance in a New Year’s Six Bowl.

The clock is ticking on the time to get it done in Los Angeles, with the 2021 season a possible make-or-break year for Helton.

Fortunately, one of the nation’s most touted recruiters has settled into his role with the program, helping to secure the seventh-best recruiting class in the country.


Donte Williams emerged as a superstar recruiter at Oregon, garnering a reputation as one of the best in the business, before returning home to USC.

His acumen helped him land defensive lineman Korey Foreman, the Trojans’ second-highest rated recruit since the rankings began. Listed by 247Sports as the No. 1 recruit in the Class of 2021, the freshman projects to make an impact from the opening snap of the season.

And with the return of what might be the best receiver in the Pac-12 in Drake London, the expectations in L.A. might finally match reality.

Best-Case Scenario

After playing through an apparent nagging shoulder injury during the 2020 season, Kedon Slovis returns to his 2019 form. With weapons all around him, the third year under Graham Harrell’s Air-Raid is his finest.

The 17-to-7 touchdown to interception ratio is substantially improved with better decision making and more accurate throws. London dominates opposing secondaries, while Bru McCoy and Colorado transfer K.D. Nixon exploit defenses for chunk gains.


Texas running back transfer and former four-Star recruit Keaontay Ingram ignites a Trojan rushing attack that has faltered under Harrell’s system, easing the pressure on Slovis when throwing the ball.

The improved rushing threat forces defenses out of the zone looks opponents, so often employed last year, resulting in more open lanes for Slovis to pass into.

The slightly more balanced attack paves the way to an 11-win, Pac-12 South Championship season, with a New Year’s Six bowl appearance on the line in the Championship Game.

Worst Case Scenario

Slovis can’t shake the injury bug, forcing Helton to play true freshman Jaxson Dart or Miller Moss. And while the second-string option plays as well as could be expected, the breadth of the playbook just isn’t available, resulting in an offense that stumbles at times.

The inability of Harrell’s system to run the ball effectively becomes more pronounced, with Ingram and Vavae Malepeai unable to consistently take the burden off their true freshman quarterback.

Pac-12 USC football
Korey Foreman | USC Athletics

The saving grace is a strong defensive line. Foreman combines with Alabama transfer Ishmael Sopsher, Nick Figueroa, and lineman-linebacker hybrid Drake Jackson, as the four wreck havoc on opposing lines all year.

Despite the inconsistent availability of Slovis, the Trojans put together an eight-win season.

What Should Happen

London, McCoy, and Nixon lead a reloaded receiving corps that’s boosted by Texas transfer Jake Smith and four-Star freshman Kyron Ware-Hudson.

The USC passing attack puts up more than 400 yards per game, while the running backs collectively exceed 150 yards on the ground per night.

The nearly two turnovers per game posted in the 2020 season is drastically reduced, as Slovis has a more effective run game to rely on.

The skilled USC secondary continues its tear, led by Isaiah Pola-Mao and Chris Steele. Texas safety transfer Xavion Alford and Auburn safety transfer Chris Thompson Jr. carve out defined roles and become part of the rotation.

Pac-12 USC football
USC’s Isaiah Pola-Mao | Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

And in the linebacker room, Kana’I Mauga and Ralen Goforth lead the way as the defense improves on its 2.6 turnovers forced per game.

What Must Happen

Improving the nation’s eighth-worst rushing attack is a must for the Trojan offense to be at its most effective. Too many times opposing coordinators were content to play zone and sit back in pass coverage without even a semblance of a threat to run.

usc logoSlovis’ lack of mobility hampers what otherwise would be an effective deterrent, putting the onus on Harrell to design better plays for his backs.

Screen plays may be utilized to force defenses out of their zones, but the introduction of two tight end sets may be necessary to generate more yards on the ground.

Yet, there’s no question that 97.3 yards rushing per game is just not going to get it done, no matter how potent the passing attack is this season.

Greatest Strength

Securing the seventh-best recruiting class in the country was a substantial win over the offseason. The class includes 14 four-star freshmen, adding depth that will be felt for years to come.

And the Trojans hit the transfer market with success.

Pac-12 USC football
CU transfer KD Nixon | Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

Seven former four-star prospects were added via the portal, putting a total of 22 new four or five-star recruits on the roster.

Depth like that can be the difference between good teams and great ones, as the injuries in a grueling 12-game season mount.

Highlighted by Foreman, the new faces should keep the victories churning, as the “Next Man Up” philosophy remains front and center.

Biggest Concern

The second-string quarterback in Los Angeles is an open question. In most seasons, the second option at USC has the skill to start at most Power 5 programs in the country.


And while Dart appears likely to have the backup job secured, the true freshman is yet to play in a college game. If something were to happen to Slovis, the four-star talent could be forced to take the field.

History in L.A. has shown that might turn out to be a boon for the team, but that’s not always the case.

Vanderbilt graduate transfer Mo Hasan suffered an ACL injury during the Spring Game, putting the impending spotlight even brighter on Dart.

Yet, if Dart is the real deal, as some expect, the Trojans will be just fine.

Deciding Factors

With an offensive system almost entirely focused on passing, protecting the quarterback comes at a premium. Last season, the USC offensive line gave up an average of 2.5 sacks per game.

That ranked the unit the 84th-best in the country, though their position was arguably skewed by the number of passes the Trojans attempt per game.

Still, that must be improved, especially in the Red Zone where USC ranked a similar 85th in the country in efficiency.

Pac-12 USC football
Meg Oliphant/Getty Images

Both problems could be solved with a stronger rushing attack. Pass-heavy offenses almost always struggle within the opponents 20-yard line, while run-heavy systems shine in the same area of the field.

Putting it together in the Red Zone at a higher clip might turn out to be the difference between a New Year’s Six Bowl and another season perceived as a failure.

Schedule Analysis

USC’s nonconference slate consists of matchups with San Jose State, Norte Dame, and BYU, each of which are spread out across the season.

The Spartans are a Week One cupcake, while the battle with the Fighting Irish is the seventh game of the year, and the test against the Cougars caps the season in late November.

USC should finish no worse than 2-1 against its nonconference opponents, with a chance for a special season if the program comes away with a victory in South Bend.

Pac-12 play begins with winnable matchups against Stanford, Washington State, Oregon State, and Colorado. Anything less than a 5-0 start to the year and a Top 10 ranking by early October would be a let-down.

The most difficult part of the season follows, with games against Utah, Norte Dame, and Arizona State, along with a matchup against Arizona after the battle in South Bend. The games against the Utes and the Wildcats are in the Coliseum, and should end in victories.

But the roadies against the Sun Devils and Irish might not end well.

This four-game stretch will likely define the season, and a 3-1 mark should be enough for a South Championship.

The year ends with winnable games against California, UCLA, and BYU.

Depending on how the stretch from mid-October to early-November goes, the Trojans could end the year with as many as 11 wins, or as few as nine. Assuming Slovis plays to his potential and the ground game is improved, a double-digit win-total appears likely.

—More from Dane Miller—