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Three offseason questions: USC Trojans

It’s a slow time of year in college football. Spring practices are over, the NFL draft has come and gone, leaving four long months before college football returns to our television screens. We’ll take a look at some questions facing each Pac-12 team over the next couple weeks. Next up: USC.

Are the Trojans national-title contenders?

Absolutely. Contenders, of course, is a broad term, but after running off nine straight wins to finish the 2016 season, USC enters 2017 with as much momentum as any team in college football. The Trojans are undoubtedly the favorite in the Pac-12, which puts them squarely in the College Football Playoff mix. They don’t have a bye week, but a challenging schedule – it includes Western Michigan, Texas and Notre Dame out of conference -- still sets up well. The Trojans get Stanford, Utah and UCLA at home, miss Washington and Oregon, and their only short week (at Washington State, Sept. 29) comes after what shouldn’t be a very taxing game against Cal. Then, if they win the South, they would have a bye week going into the Pac-12 title game. USC is a regular recipient of offseason hype, but this time it feels deserved.

How can QB Sam Darnold improve after his outstanding debut season?

A lot of his improvements won’t be obvious. For him, it’s all about getting better at the so-called little things: becoming more comfortable reading defenses at the line, changing play calls, contributing to the game-planning, etc. He needs to cut down on his turnovers, but if he stops taking chances, it would take away from the big plays that make him such a special player. Quarterbacks coach Tyson Helton has often compared Darnold to Brett Favre, and as was the case with Favre, you take the bad with the good because the good is next-level stuff. Still, Darnold had a four-game stretch with six interceptions, which is more than the staff should be completely comfortable with.

Can the offensive line get -- and stay -- healthy?

Obviously there is no way to know, but USC’s health up front is its primary concern headed into next year. Four-fifths of USC’s projected starting line had injury issues during spring ball, and while none of those injuries are expected to keep any of them sidelined when the seasons begins, it’s a huge red flag. Toa Lobendahn didn’t practice as he continues to rehab from a knee injury that ended his 2016 season in last year’s season opener against Alabama. Viane Talamaivao needed surgery for a torn bicep. Nico Falah dealt with a back injury and Chuma Edoga didn’t play in the spring game due to a wrist injury. They’ve all proven to be effective Pac-12 players, so the line could, in fact, be really good, but these consistent setbacks could be problematic.