The hype for USC and QB Sam Darnold has just begun

Darnold joins list of great Rose Bowl QB performances (1:02)

USC freshman quarterback Sam Darnold's masterful showing in the Rose Bowl puts him in the company of Vince Young, Mark Sanchez and Terrelle Pryor. (1:02)

The throw from USC quarterback Sam Darnold against Penn State that tied the Rose Bowl Game presented by Northwestern Mutual at 49 apiece only gets better the more you watch it.

Darnold's toss, his fifth touchdown pass of the evening, was dropped perfectly between three defenders, a coalescence of velocity and touch that you mostly see on Sundays. ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit, a former quarterback himself, reacted with awe to the 27-yard scoring strike, asking rhetorically, "How does he make that throw with that coverage?"

That seemed like a good question to ask Darnold after he'd had some time to watch and re-watch the game film of his 453-yard performance and engage in some reflection that puts his "Hello, World!" moment in perspective.

“[Receiver] Deontay [Burnett] was supposed to just run a 10-yard in, but he kind of improvised a little bit, and I knew exactly what he was doing," Darnold explained.

That response works well for a redshirt freshman on the cusp of stardom, particularly for one who is the grandson of Dick Hammer, a former USC and Olympic athlete who also was one of the original Marlboro Men. It's brief, interesting and told without flourish.

The 2016 college football season produced many stars and many star-making performances, but few players can provide such clear evidence of their value as Darnold. USC was a before/after proposition with him. As in: Before Darnold became the starting QB, the Trojans were not good. After Darnold took over, the Trojans were good.

That's an oversimplification, as most teams would have started 1-3 against USC's early-season schedule -- Alabama, Stanford and Utah combined for 33 wins. But it's difficult to question nine consecutive victories, including two over teams (Washington and Penn State) that finished ranked in the top seven.

After shuffling through hundreds of congratulatory text messages, Darnold did what most of us did. He settled in to watch the Alabama-Clemson matchup in the College Football Playoff National Championship presented by AT&T.

It would have been natural for him to root for the unbeaten Bama team that routed the Trojans in the season opener, but Darnold couldn't help but get behind the only quarterback this bowl season who produced a more epic performance than him.

“I’m really happy for Deshaun [Watson] -- he’s worked really hard for it," Darnold said. “Alabama’s been winning a lot lately, so it was nice to see someone else win it for a change.”

The next inquiry is obvious. Does Darnold see himself and USC playing in that game in the future? While he qualified his response with a requisite tribute to the "one game at time" cliche, he also allowed that, yep, he thinks about it a lot.

“I’d be lying if I said otherwise. I do envision it. I think about it all the time," Darnold said. "It would be awesome to get another crack at Alabama. I always think about that.”

USC is going to start off ranked pretty close to Alabama in the 2017 preseason -- certainly in the top 10 and likely in the top five. Darnold is the biggest reason why, but the returning cast around him is also strong despite a number of early-entry NFL defections, which USC always has.

Of course, such projections will inspire many eye rolls across college football, not just in the Pac-12. "USC is back!" is a seemingly annual staple of the preseason hype headlines, both before and after the Pete Carroll era. Who can forget 2012, when USC started off at No. 1 after a 10-win season -- in large part because of the return of quarterback Matt Barkley -- but then collapsed, losing five of its final six games to finish 7-6.

Former USC coach Lane Kiffin, you might recall, was given the boot at LAX five games into the 2013 season, and the program has pretty much mucked around amid controversies and mediocrity ever since -- at least until Darnold took over. And now the hype begins anew, fueled by a 6-foot-4, 225-pound rising sophomore with a big arm and outstanding mobility who seems an NFL certainty.

"We have a lot of the team coming back at several key positions, and it starts with the quarterback," USC coach Clay Helton said. "To have Sam gain this experience this year with this much success, obviously there will be some hype going into next year, especially with that level of talent at quarterback. But I think your team runs by your quarterback, I really do. There's not too many great quarterbacks on bad teams. To be able to have that type of triggerman is a great start."

The next chapter for Darnold, however, will be much different from the first. He's no longer an unknown, and his team is no longer an afterthought. The Trojans not only handled the Hollywood attention under Carroll but also embraced it. Yet that run of glory is now covered in a layer of dust, and subsequent coaches and teams faltered under the klieg lights.

Darnold, Helton & Co. will need to write a different script.

“You’ve got to prepare yourself for it, but at the same time, I’m not going to change," Darnold said. "I’m going to remain the same person with the same values and morals that I’ve always had.”

A key plot turn here is how the college football scene in Los Angeles has shifted so dramatically, both in terms of program and superstar. Before the 2016 season, UCLA and Jim Mora were rising, and Bruins quarterback Josh Rosen was slated for All-America coronation. Instead, the Bruins flopped, and Rosen struggled before his season ended at the midway point due to injury.

Darnold and Rosen, both Southern California products, know each other as members of the 2015 recruiting class, and they talked briefly before Rosen watched Darnold lead the Trojans to a 36-14 win in the annual rivalry game.

“We talked for a little bit -- talked about life and all that kind of stuff," Darnold said. "It was really good to talk to him. I know Josh is really looking forward to next year.”

It's difficult to imagine any fan base is anticipating next year more than USC's, and Darnold is the biggest reason why.