To continue our offseason evaluations, we're running through three questions facing each Pac-12 team entering 2017. We'll continue with USC.
1. How will the Trojans deal with expectations?
After finishing the season with nine straight wins, including one against Big Ten champion Penn State in the Rose Bowl Game presented by Northwestern Mutual, the Trojans figure to be a preseason top-5 team next season. Since opening at No. 1 in the preseason AP poll in 1979, the Trojans have been a preseason top-10 team on 21 occasions. In two of those seasons (2003 and 2004), they finished atop the final AP poll, but 15 times they finished lower in the final poll or unranked (five times). The last two times they appeared in the preseason top 10 (2012 and 2015), the Trojans went on to lose six games. The point here is that while, yes, there should be a healthy amount of optimism about USC headed into 2017, recent history shows that other USC teams with comparable expectations failed to meet them.
2. What will QB Sam Darnold do for an encore?
Talk about setting a high bar. All Sam Darnold did was rescue the Trojans from what looked like a potentially bowl-less season and lead them to a No. 3 ranking in the final AP poll. He was 9-1 as the starting quarterback and in the only game it lost, USC didn’t punt until late in the fourth quarter and lost on a last-minute touchdown pass. Conventional wisdom says he should be better as a second-year starter, but, again, let’s temper expectations just a tad. We saw this across town at UCLA with Josh Rosen. He was hailed as a Heisman Trophy favorite after a promising freshman season before the Bruins’ offense sputtered and Rosen’s season was cut short due to injury. USC isn’t changing coordinators and has a lot more coming back than UCLA did, so it’s not exactly an apples-to-apples comparison, but it’s similar enough to acknowledge.
The reality here is that Darnold may very well be the best player in college football next season. He has that type of ceiling. It’s also worth noting that he is eligible to leave for the NFL following the season, so it could -- and coach Clay Helton has begrudgingly admitted as much -- be his final season.
3. How much will not having a bye week matter?
The Pac-12 recently released its complete 2017 schedule, which led to some discussion about the Trojans’ lack of a bye week. They open Sept. 2, and play every week until the regular season culminates Nov. 18, at home against UCLA. There is one Friday game -- at Washington State (Sept. 29) following a road game against Cal -- with all the rest on Saturdays.
We’ve known for a long time who would be on the schedule and where those games would be played, so the only unknown was the order. The lack of a bye week is obviously less than ideal, but, all things considered, the way the rest of the schedule sets up is manageable. In 1 1/2 seasons as the head coach, Helton is undefeated at home. The Trojans get Western Michigan, Stanford and Texas all at home to open the year. Two of those teams (WMU and Texas) will be playing with new head coaches and Stanford’s only game prior to its trip to USC will be in Australia against Rice. If the Trojans get through that stretch undefeated, the game in Pullman and the trip to Notre Dame three weeks later look like the most likely pitfalls.
The Trojans don’t play Washington or Oregon and if they win the Pac-12 South, they’ll have a bye week headed into the Pac-12 title game. Let’s get way ahead of ourselves some more: If it’s Washington coming out of the North, the Huskies finish the year with UCLA, Oregon, Stanford, Utah and Washington State in the five weeks leading up to the title game. That’s a much more taxing way to end the season compared to USC, even without a midseason bye.