SQ College Football Top-25 Preview: #9 USC
The college football staff at SQ have put together a ranking of the top-25 teams heading into 2015. To get our readers prepared for the upcoming season, the staff has created a preview for each one of these teams. Today’s focus is on #9 USC.
Team: USC Trojans
Location: Los Angeles, Calif.
SQ Ranking: 9th
2014 Record: 9-4
Finish in AP Poll: 20th
Head Coach: Steve Sarkisian (2nd Year)
Previewing the Trojan Offense: While starting quarterback Cody Kessler returns to lead the Trojans, he won't have his top rusher and receiver in the huddle.
Javorius Allen entered into the NFL and went to the Baltimore Ravens and Agholor did the same– landing with the Philadelphia Eagles.
Have no fear, though, the Trojans are still a strong offensive unit. Seven members of last year's offense return this year, including the No.2 rusher Justin Davis, and No.2 receiver JuJu Smith.
With a more experienced Kessler, look for him to find Smith in the open field. In his junior year, Kessler put up the typical numbers you see from a USC QB: 3,826 yards, 39 TDs, 5 INTs. However, the Trojans lost four regular season games – including three on the road.
Cody Kessler’s 53.5 comp pct on passes of 15+ yards last season was 3rd-highest among Power 5 QBs (min. 50 passes). pic.twitter.com/pfARdAkbmB— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) August 18, 2015
Kessler racked up the yards, while still being accurate on the deeper passes.
From a rushing standpoint, the loss of Allen hurts. Especially the 1,534 yards he picked up on the ground. Davis will have to fill the shoes with help from the No.2 rusher on the depth chart James Toland. Combined, last year's rushing numbers for Davis and Toland don't even come close to Allen's. Pressure will be on them, but it helps to have a potential Heisman hopeful in Kessler calling the shots.
Passing is in slightly better shape than the rushing game. Smith will be the leader of the receiving core, and will try to become another 1,000 yard single-season receiver in Southern California. Fellow receiver Darreus Rogers will have a bigger role on offense, as he and Smith are the top two receivers returning from last year. Between the pick up of De'Quan Hampton and Isaac Whitney, someone will need to help out Smith. If Kessler only has one target to choose from, then expect the Trojans to be stifled in primetime games, and struggle early to establish a passing game.
Hampton could become an offensive weapon this year.
However, I think that is unlikely to happen. Kessler is a capable passer, and over the course of the season, the receiving game will improve marginally every week.
Previewing the Trojan Defense: As the motto goes, defense wins championships. This couldn't be any truer than with USC this season. With a crowded (and wide open) PAC-12, it is anybody's game.
Like the offense, the Trojans' defense brings back seven starters from last season. The issue is that they lose their top two tacklers, Hayes Pullard and Leonard Williams.
Last season, the defense gave up 500+ yards in two of the losses (Boston College and Arizona State) while surrendering 461 yards to archrival UCLA. On the bright side, the Trojans only gave up 349 yards to Notre Dame en route to a 49-14 shellacking of the Fighting Irish.
The bright spot on this defense is in the secondary. Between junior safety Leon McQuay and senior cornerback Kevon Seymour, the experience and leadership is there. Now, all they have to do is shutdown opposing passing attacks. These are tall orders, especially with the Trojans traveling to Notre Dame and Oregon this year.
On the line of scrimmage, they have more experience. Seniors Claude Pelon, Delvon Simmons, and Antwaun Woods will be in the trenches. Fortunately, USC has the seniors in the right places (secondary and at the line). If both can play lights-outs, then opposing offensive coordinators will be having nightmares.
Will this defense be reminiscent of a Pete Carroll defense? Probably not. Will it be sufficient and get USC far? You bet. The defense will be the perfect accompaniment to the offense, and that should keep the Trojans in the PAC-12 (and CFP) hunt into November.
Three Key Games
1. USC at Arizona State (Sept. 26) - Surprise! I made a non-USC rival the No.1 key game of the year. There is logic, though. Both USC and Arizona State are on the same side of the PAC-12 (South), and this game would put either in the hole early. Especially with this game being Tempe, AZ., the Trojans should be on high alert. Remember, last year saw USC lose two games on the road while giving up big numbers to the opposing offense. If the Trojans survive this game, they get a bye-week before facing Washington and shouldn't have an overly stressful schedule until November.
2. USC at Oregon (Nov. 21) - These storied programs are on different sides of the PAC-12 divisions, so this game could be a preview of what the PAC-12 Championship will look like. That can be good or bad. If USC pulls off the win, and has to face Oregon again, the Ducks will know what the Trojans have done well and can knock them off the top of the mountain when it matters most. With the CFP committee evaluating teams at this point in the season, this game will have New Year Six implications - especially if they roll in with highly impressive records.
3. USC vs. UCLA (Nov. 28) - Here's the rival game that matters to the Trojans. Sorry, Notre Dame. USC wants redemption from last year's defeat, and there's no better way than to beat your crosstown rival while securing the division crown within the PAC-12. UCLA is the biggest threat to the Trojans' hopes of playing for the conference title, so this game is incredibly important. The Bruins don't play Oregon (but get Stanford), and will be at Utah before they play at USC. If UCLA has momentum, the showdown for the Victory Bell could easily have postseason implications.
USC wants to avenge the loss to the Bruins. With a talented (and more experienced) Kessler, this may be the year.
Final Analysis - The PAC-12 South is open to anybody who wants it. However, USC will be the team most likely to answer the challenge. Oregon and its Autzen Zoo might be the toughes
t game on the schedule for the Trojans, but it is possible to walk out of there with a win.
USC has the unfortunate task of taking on both Stanford and Oregon, and if they win the division, they will also have the task of playing a grudge match for all the PAC-12 marbles. If this was last year's USC team, I would say an 8-4 season would be nice ending to a rough schedule.
This year's team packs a punch with an improving Kessler and has the ability to win the big games at home and on the road. With that being said, I have USC taking the division while going at least 10-2. The question is this: will they win the PAC-12 and make the playoffs? I think they have a legitimate shot at winning the conference and therefore have a legitimate chance at making the playoffs. Worst case scenario is that the Trojans will be heading to a New Year's Six Bowl Game.