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Rose Bowl Game presented by Northwestern Mutual - USC v Penn State Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

the Gekko Files: previewing USC football in 2017

Hey, did you hear that USC won the Rose Bowl?

I get it. The PAC 12 is the conference that USC built. At least, that’s the way that many pundits - particularly those on the east coast - see it.

It is a fact, however, that the predecessor to the PAC 12 - the old Pacific Coast Conference - was founded by UW, Oregon, Cal, and what is now Oregon State back in 1915 ... seven full years before USC joined it.

That is all ancient history. The conference has gone through several iterations since then and USC has been a dominating - if not the dominating - presence since 1922. Take a quick run through USC’s wiki page and the evidence pops out at you. Howard Jones, John McKay, Mike Garrett, Marcus Allen, Charles White, John Robinson, Pete Carroll, Reggie Bush, Carson Palmer, and Matt Leinart. All those Heisman trophies. All those national and conference championships.

Oh, and don’t forget that guy O.J. Can’t forget O.J.

Each one of those figures and events inspires a different image of college football and USC in the collective minds of fans all around the country. USC has rightly earned the deference given to it as the standard bearer for excellence in west coast football when viewed over the long haul.

But times have been lean for USC since the loss of Pete Carroll to the NFL and SI’s proclamation of USC as the “team of the decade”. Three failed coaches, a failed AD and no conference championships after having won seven straight up through the 2008 season (yes, we’ll put an asterisk next to 2011). No example tells this story better than the failure of the 2012 season where USC - then coached by Lane Kiffin - opened the season as the consensus #1 team in the nation only to go on and finish it 7-5 and unranked. It hasn’t exactly been the kind of cratering that UW fans saw culminate with an 0-12 season, but it’s been an unpalatable experience for a wide swath of Trojan fans.

People everywhere have been wondering when, and under what circumstances, the awakening of USC would occur. 2016 seems to have triggered in the minds of many images of grandeur for a slumbering program ready to make it back to proverbial top of the mountain.

On the surface, there seems to be merit behind the optimism. Clay Helton as head coach has reassembled a basic sense of control and fundamental soundness into the program’s foundation. Recruiting has been going swimmingly well. Sam Darnold has emerged as a legitimate Heisman candidate at QB. Last January’s offensive explosion against Penn State (we’ll just ignore the defense for the time being) was certainly a statement.

But 2017 is a different season. Despite all that it accomplished - including a win over UW in Seattle - USC still failed to win the conference or even its own division a season ago. Should we expect something different from this season?

Everybody loves the Trojans going into the season. Sam Darnold is atop just about every Heisman list. Experts everywhere have tagged USC as an almost certainty to be the PAC 12 South champion in 2017. Most oddsmakers believe that the Trojans are favorites to beat UW for the conference championship. Our rivals in Southern California are representing themselves as the single greatest threat in the conference to our Huskies and their dreams of a second straight playoff appearance.

The purple threat level has raised to def-con 1. I think we need to get into the Gekko Files.

USC’s Offense

Gekko File Preview Lists -

Strengths Weaknesses Key Players Newcomers
Strengths Weaknesses Key Players Newcomers
QB efficiency offensive line depth QB Sam Darnold WR Josh Imatorbhebe (RFr)
overall balance inexperienced receivers RB Ronald Jones RB Stephen Carr (TFr)
depth of talent OG Viane Talamaivo WR Tyler Vaughns (RFr)

We start this conversation with Sam Darnold and the USC QB position. Much has been made about the impact that he made once inserted into the starting lineup for USC a year ago. The 6’4” sophomore - then a redshirt freshman - impressed with both his mobility and his high-level of accuracy in leading the Trojans to their epic win streak to finish the season. The secret to Darnold’s success was rooted in his willingness to play within the system and his focus on incorporating star receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster into the passing game. The result was an efficient air attack that relied on the legs of receivers to generate YAC.

Darnold will undoubtedly be looking to build on his deep game this year. He has the accuracy and the arm strength to do it. If he can get a pocket reliably set for him, he ought to find success. It is not at all inconceivable to think that Darnold could end up leading the league in both completion percentage AND yards / attempt. He has that kind of talent.

NCAA Football: Rose Bowl Game-Penn State vs Southern California Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Beyond Darnold, there is no experience. Redshirt freshman Matt Fink and star recruit Jack Sears are both studs, but have never taken a college snap. USC is riding the Darnold train if it plans on going anywhere.

The receiving corps are an unknown for Darnold and the offense. USC is having to replace its two outside receivers from a year ago in Smith-Schuster and Darreus Rodgers. Back are their two slot guys - Deontay Burnett and Steven Mitchell - both of whom do their damage with short passes and YAC. Outside of the ultra reliable TE Daniel Imartorbhebhe (who I think is the best all around TE in the PAC), there isn’t a stand out big perimeter receiver yet established.

Michael Pittman, Jr. seems like a sure bet to emerge as one of those big men replacements. He’s got ‘star’ written all over him and will have a golden opportunity. I also expect to see other young, highly rated talents like Tyler Vaughns and Josh Imartorbhebhe become major rotational players. For depth, former QB Jalen Greene will also be a factor.

The running back situation is a bit more stable, if not terribly deep. Ronald Jones is the clear starter and, at his best, is among the top rushers in the PAC. He’s a true “full package” kind of guy who can get tough yards, break off home runs and throw an occasional block. The Trojans don’t have Justin Davis to provide depth, so the role of back-up will fall to a combination of the Aca’Cedric Ware - a big play threat - and incoming stud freshman Stephen Carr. Redshirt freshman Vavae Malepeai could also become a factor.

The only area that there is to fret about is a big one - the offensive line. USC has to replace a lot of talent from last year including both starting tackles - LT Zach Banner and RT Chad Wheeler - and star OG Damien Mama. The returnees are solid if not “stars”, though I would definitely classify senior guard Viane Talamaivao as an all-conference candidate. Toa Lobendahn and Nico Falah both have significant experience while juniors Chumo Edoga - a former five-star recruit - and OG Chris Brown need to finally take advantage of the opportunity in front of them. If any of the front line gets injured - which has been a MAJOR issue for USC - or if one of those contenders don’t step forward, depth will become a real challenge for the Trojans. There isn’t enough frontline talent among the veterans to effectively protect the breaking in of younger talents who might lack experience - think about the struggles that UW had breaking in Nick Harris a year ago.

USC’s Defense

USC Defensive Preview

Strengths Weaknesses Key Players Newcomers
Strengths Weaknesses Key Players Newcomers
interior d-line depth big play prevention LB Cameron Smith DL Marlon Tuipulotu (TFr)
LB speed / pass rush turnover creation LB Porter Gustin DL Jay Tufele (TFr)
DB Iman Marshall DB Bubba Bolden (TFr)

2016 was a mixed bag defensively for the Trojans. They were relatively strong at controlling opponents rushing attacks and making the tackles in front of them, but they were not all that good in creating pressure or capping big plays. The net result was a defense that put up average numbers across the board as evidenced by finishing fifth in the conference in both scoring D and overall D (yards per play).

This year could be better or could be worse for USC depending on how some of their younger talent fills in for outgoing stars such as CB/Returner Adoree Jackson, DT Stevie Tu'ikolovatu, and LB Michael Hutchings.

Fortunately, the best situation for USC looks like the defensive line. It is a bit hard to project the line because one would expect more disruption from the players there than what we saw actually delivered by those same players a year ago. Still, it looks good on paper. This is a big and strong complement that is characterized by a plethora of talent among the interior linemen.

NCAA Football: Southern California at Utah Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

USC needs junior end Rasheem Green to finally grow into his potential. He’s a bigger end who did show a knack for disruption a year ago and has the potential to become a particular menace in shutting down opponent running games. He’ll be partnered with senior NT Kenny Bigelow - a high impact player if (and this is a big IF) he is healthy.

The rest of the depth of the d-line is comprised of veterans who have not really achieved their potential (senior DT Josh Fatu and junior DT Malik Dorton) and several young players. I think it is a near certainty that versatile true freshman Marlon Tuipulotu will earn a starting role as a big end or, perhaps, as a healthy replacement at nose for Bigelow at the nose. DT Jay Tufele is another true freshman that I expect will see the field this season. Collectively, this is a big d-line that has some pieces, but may have trouble generating a pass rush.

Fortunately, USC does have some speed at the second level. Specifically, Porter Gustin. The outside backer is a 6’5” 260 lb beast dedicated pass rush specialist who racked up 13.5 TFLs and 6 sacks a year ago. Senior Uchenna Nwosu and sophomore Oluwule Betiku are both effective OLBs who each have a little more versatility than Porter and who both can generate pass rushes in their own right.

MLB Cameron Smith rounds out the linebacking corps. He is a tackling machine and one of the best inside guys in the conference. Sophomore John Huston, Jr is a smaller, speedier ILB who will spend 2017 prepping to become Smith’s replacement. Beyond those two, there is a lot of young talent on its way. There are at least three true freshmen who would play on just about any other PAC 12 team who each will likely redshirt this year.

The secondary is a curious situation. Just like every other level, there is a ton of talent, even adjusting for the loss of Jackson. Still, this is one of the poorer performing units across the team. Junior Iman Marshall is a legit star - he racked up 3 INTs and 8 PBUs a year ago. The other experienced returnees - DB Jonathon Lockett, S Chris Hawkins, S Marvell Tell and CB Ajene Harris are all ok pieces, but guys who can all get broken down by better players across the conference. As such, young players are going to get shots in the USC secondary this season. I expect sophomore Jack Jones to beat out junior Isaiah Langley (and Lockett) for the other outside corner position while redshirt freshman Jamel Cook and true freshman safety Bubba Bolden compete for reps. I’m particularly optimistic about Bolden - he looks like a “real deal” impact player.

One thing that I ought to point out is that there is no clear replacement yet for Jackson in the return game. Keeping in mind how dynamic Adoree was over the past two years, this could be a major factor in both point production and field position for USC.

One Breakout Player

WR Michael Pittman, Jr.

I have to be honest, I think the real answer to the question of the top USC breakout player is true freshman DT Marlon Tuipolutu. The former Husky commit - the only true example of a recruiting “failure” since coach Petersen came to town - is going to get a great opportunity to make an impact in an area of need for the Trojans this year. But to belabor this point might be a little too painful for UW fans at this time.

Thus, we turn our attention to Pittman. I think the sophomore receiver has a chance to really dominate this season for USC.

The first thing you notice with Pittman is his physical skills. At an ultra-athletic 6’4” and 210, Pittman provides Darnold with a huge target to find in the open field and as a deep threat. I wasn’t surprised to see that Pittman led USC WRs in yards per attempt last year, despite only converting eight catches on the year.

He complements his size with a huge catch radius. In fact, Pittman probably has the surest hands on the team outside of TE Daniel Imatorbhebhe. Add in the fact that USC is overhauling its WR position following the transitions away from JuJu Smith-Schuster and Darreus Rodgers and you can see why I’m optimistic.

In fact, I think Pittman is a dark horse PAC 12 Offensive Player of the Year contender. At a minimum, I’m looking for a 60 catch and 850 yard kind of season with between 8 and 10 TDs. If he pulls that off, we’ll end the season talking about him in the same breath as N’Keal Harry as the top receiver in the PAC.

Projecting USC

It’s hard to avoid projecting USC as the South champion and a legitimate threat to win the PAC. They effectively made their case a year ago after inserting Sam Darnold into the lineup and tearing through nine straight wins, a Rose Bowl victory and a final ranking of #3 in the polls. From that team, they return a ton of talent on both sides of the ball reinforced by an excellent class of incoming recruits and redshirt freshmen.

But USC fans might want to slow their roll just a little bit. The Trojans are not quite yet a finished product.

The questions that exist around USC are fewer than those around some of their southern rivals, but no less significant. We still don’t know what kind of coach Clay Helton really is, especially now that he carries the weight of expectations - the kind of which broke his predecessor - on his shoulders. The offensive line is a huge question mark and, at its best, probably is no better than third best in their own division. We still don’t know where the big plays are going to come from on offense while we are certain that they’ll give up their fair share on defense.

I see USC, all things netted out, as just as likely (or unlikely) to win the South as UCLA or Colorado when measured on a “pluses” and “minuses” basis. They begin to separate, however, on two dimensions. The first, we’ve already discussed: the upside that comes with the growth of their QB. The second is a decidedly friendlier schedule.

The first big thing you notice with USC is who they miss in the regular season. Both Oregon and Washington are missed which ensures that the Trojans won’t have to play against the consensus favorite of the North or take a trip to one of the most hostile venues in the nation (let’s at least give the Ducks that consideration). While they do have to play on the road in-conference five times, the spacing of their top conference challenges is ideal. They open their conference play with Stanford at home (admittedly, week 2 is not ideal) and then don’t really get taxed heavily again until the final two weeks when they finish at Colorado and vs UCLA - a two game stretch that most certainly will determine the PAC 12 South.

There are two real challenges with the USC schedule. The first is the out of conference where they play Western Michigan, Texas (after their Stanford showdown) and at Notre Dame. The other is that they don’t have a real BYE week during the season (if they win the South, they will get an extra week before the PAC 12 championship). While these issues could easily be the make-or-break difference when it comes to the college football playoffs, they don’t appear to be a huge factor when it comes to the PAC 12 race.

For that reason, I do see USC winning the South in what ought to be a pretty tight divisional race. I do expect that it will go down to their rivalry game against UCLA. But they ought to be able to win that one which should leave them with at least the seven conference wins that I think will be required to win the South outright. If they do end up facing UW in the PAC 12 championship, you’d have to expect that the matchup would be a straight toss-up affair with the winner in a great position to move on to the playoffs.

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