Posted on June 16, 2020
With the college football season fast approaching, we continue our twelve-part 2020 Pac-12 football previews with the USC Trojans. The weekly series culminates in Week Zero with a conference-wide preview, complete with projected win-loss records and season predictions.
General Outlook: The Stars May be Aligned for a USC Run
Overview: Expectations are high in Los Angeles, as usual, with a promising group of new assistants and a Top 10 recruiting class in the works. Sophomore quarterback Kedon Slovis is poised to take another leap forward in Graham Harrell’s Air Raid system, while USC’s beleaguered defense looks to play up to its talent for a change under Todd Orlando. All the pieces are in place for a big run.
Best-Case Scenario: Slovis and an army of offensive weapons lead USC to a 10-win season that culminates in a South Division championship, if not a Pac-12 title and a New Year’s Six bowl. The defense makes significant strides, and Clay Helton secures his second victory over Notre Dame, returning the Trojans to national relevancy.
Worst-Case Scenario: The Trojans stumble early, suffering an embarrassing opening-week defeat at the hands of Alabama. The defense, denied an opportunity to learn Orlando’s system in spring drills, gives up too many points, and Harrell’s offensive firepower is squandered. Disgruntled boosters finally get their wish, with Helton fired at midseason.
What Should Happen: With a season of experience in Harrell’s offense, Slovis leads the Trojans to a South Division championship. The sophomore quarterback is surrounded by enough talent to thrust the program back into the national spotlight. The changes on the defensive staff allow the offense to build insurmountable leads. USC’s recruiting momentum continues, reestablishing the Trojans as a dominant player in the Pac-12 and beyond.
What Must Happen: USC’s defense needs to improve on the 29.4 points per game it allowed last season. Without a transformation on that side of the ball, Slovis and his talented supporting cast will have little margin for error, particularly if the line isn’t able to protect the quarterback and open holes for whoever emerges as the go-to running back.
Greatest Strength: An Abundance of Offensive Weapons
After setting an NCAA record for completion percentage as a freshman, Slovis begins his second season as a legitimate Heisman contender. He’ll have every opportunity to live up to
those high expectations in tandem with what could be the strongest receiving corps in the Pac-12. Tyler Vaughns, Amon-Ra St. Brown, and Drake London can all light up the edge, and tight-end Daniel Imatorbhebhe provides good hands and needed beef off the line. Heralded transfer Bru McCoy and true freshman Gary Bryant Jr. add to the unit’s potency. Kyle Ford’s recent ACL injury puts his production in doubt.
The Trojans figure to be a threat on the ground as well, with solid returning depth at running back. Sophomore Markese Stepp appears primed for a breakout season, and senior leaders Stephen Carr and Vavae Malepeai should contribute a consistent one-two punch out of the backfield. Up front, Alijah Vera-Tucker anchors an offensive line which brings back three starters: The group should provide plenty of holes for the backs, and ample time for Slovis to make throws.
Biggest Concern: A Talented but Under-performing Defense
There’s no getting around the defensive struggles that have plagued the Trojans during the Helton Era. The entire defensive staff was revamped in an attempt to address the issues. While that appears to have been the right move, it opens the door for early-season struggles as the players adjust to a new system. The condensed training camp and lack of spring ball didn’t help.
Fortunately, the defense returns most of its starters, including future NFL first-rounder Jay Tufele, and emerging star Drake Jackson on the defensive line. Jackson, a sophomore who earned Freshmen All-American honors in 2019, led the team in both sacks and tackles-for-loss, and should also play on Sundays.
USC boasts stellar starters in the secondary, with safeties Talanoa Hufanga and Isaiah Pola-Mao beginning their third years as starters, and a solid group of returning cornerbacks. The linebacker position is another matter altogether, with questions at nearly every spot, and Eli’jah Winston breaking an ankle in preseason.
Deciding Factors: Helton’s Leadership and the New Coaches
Helton’s leadership will likely define the season. Fair or not, the blame for any early defeats will inevitably fall on his shoulders, while his new assistants stand to reap the credit for any upset wins. A blowout loss to Alabama would amplify the drumbeat for a change at the top, and a string of losses anywhere in the season could trigger Helton’s firing. As long as the Trojans remain competitive, and are able overcome any early stumbles, a decision on the head coach’s future will likely be deferred until the end of the season.
Ultimately, Orlando’s defense will make or break USC’s season in 2020. If it holds up its end of the bargain, the offense should be more than capable of keeping most opponents in the rear-view mirror. Conversely, if the unit continues to give up yards and points in chunks, the domino effect will reverberate like a concert at The Wiltern.
Schedule Analysis: Key Games and Opportunities
The season rocket-launches with a breathlessly hyped barometer test against Alabama at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. The neutral-site matchup pits the Trojans against a projected playoff team, providing both legendary programs with an opportunity to make an impression on the College Football Playoff Committee. No doubt, the margin of victory will be a topic of deliberation when the Committee convenes to discuss this year’s invitations, and the implications for the Pac-12’s reputation is clear.
The Trojans get a cupcake in New Mexico at the Coliseum the following week, followed by a virtual crapshoot in Palo Alto—depending on how rehabilitating Stanford performs—as conference play kicks off. Contests against Arizona State, Utah, and California pose bigger challenges before a daunting stretch against upper-echelon Pac-12 programs that offer resume-building opportunities.
The heart of conference play serves up what are expected to be a pair of wins over Colorado and Arizona, punctuated by the highly anticipated matchup with Oregon in Eugene. Barring a stumble, that heavyweight bout could provide a Conference championship preview with Playoff implications on the line for both teams. And there’s a good possibility College Game Day will be in attendance.
Whatever happens in that season-defining contest, the Trojans will have to guard against a pair of trap games the following two weeks against Washington and UCLA, though USC should be favored in both.
Capping off the year, Slovis & Company host Notre Dame at the Coliseum in a matchup that could tip the scales for or against the Pac-12’s image at a critical time. Assuming everything goes as planned, a victory over the Fighting Irish could cement the Trojans’ re-emergence on the national stage, while also saving Helton’s job for another year.
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