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Arizona football opponent preview: USC

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Can the Trojans repeat as Pac-12 champs?

Texas v USC Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

The Arizona Wildcats will host the USC Trojans in a critical Week 5 matchup. Before that time comes, let’s take a glimpse at what USC looks like this season.

Introduction

The Trojans enter the 2018 season as the reigning Pac-12 champions and the first team from the South to ever earn that title. It’s difficult to criticize an 11-win team that accomplished as much as they did in 2017. But it does feel like the team underachieved given the overall talent on their roster.

USC is one of the few FBS programs in the country that adopts the “Championship or bust” mentality. Now that they are multiple recruiting cycles removed from their scholarship reductions, they enter every season with the expectation to win it all.

Their offensive backfield will look different with the key departures of players like Sam Darnold, Ronald Jones II and Deontay Burnett to the NFL. However, they have many key returning pieces in skill positions and on the defensive side which immediately puts them in the National Champion contender conversation.

The Rundown

  • Returning Starters: 7 on offense, 6 on defense
  • 2017 Record: 11-3, Pac-12 Champions
  • Head Coach: Clay Helton (21-6, third season)

The Stats

The following metrics are courtesy of Bill Connelly of SB Nation and Football Outsiders. You can read more about the rankings and theory behind them here.

  • 2017 S&P+ Overall: 26th
  • 2017 S&P+ Offense: 16th
  • 2017 S&P+ Defense: 55th
  • 2018 S&P+ Projection: 15th
  • 2018 Projected Record: 8-4

2017 Recap

Sam Darnold, Ronald Jones II and Deontay Burnett made life easy for the Trojans. Darnold threw for 4,143 yards and 26 touchdowns while completing 63% of his passes. He also rushed for five touchdowns. Jones rushed for 1,550 yards and Burnett recorded 1,114 receiving yards which were both team highs.

The offensive line struggled to find cohesion early in the season. There were a lot of minor injuries which created shuffling along the line. An example of this was the ankle injury to starting right tackle Chuma Edoga against Washington State. Had Edoga not sustained that injury, USC may have escaped with a win that kept them in the national title hunt.

The defense, in spite of all their talent, struggled fairly consistently throughout the season. They were quite solid within their pass defense where they ranked 14th in Passing S&P+ but they were much closer to average within their rush defense, ranking 41st in Rushing S&P+.

USC allowed 30 or more points four times last season. On average, opponents scored nearly a field goal more per game than they did in 2016.

Offensive Outlook

The departure of Darnold, Jones and Burnett leaves a production void that will need to be filled if the Trojans want to make a run at the National Championship. From a skill position perspective, they are extremely talented and have the ability to replicate the offensive efficiencies from last year. Stephen Carr and Aca’Cedric Ware will likely be the beneficiaries of Jones’ 261 rushes.

Receivers Tyler Vaughns and Michael Pittman Jr and tight end Tyler Petite are the top returning receivers. They accounted for 33% and 36% of the team’s total receptions and receiving yards, respectively, in 2017.

The big question is who will quarterback the offense? Right now it seems to be a three-man race between Matt Fink, Jack Sears and five-star true freshman JT Daniels. Realistically speaking, it’ll likely come down to Fink or Sears as they have spent time in the Tee Martin offense. JT Daniels’ time is coming and it may even happen this year if Fink and Sears can’t properly utilize the surrounding talent. Helton has shown he has no problem going with the younger guy.

Whoever ends up winning the quarterback race will play behind a very talented and experienced line. The versatile redshirt senior Toa Lobendahn is coming off an All Pac-12 Second-Team season. Guard Chris Brown is the only other returning offensive linemen who received All Pac-12 honors in 2017 as he received honorable mention.

Other returning starters are senior tackle Chuma Edoga and sophomore guard Andrew Vorhees who started in 12 and nine games, respectively. Tackle Clayton Bradley and guard Jordan Austin are two returning noteworthy and experienced players who saw action in all 14 games last season. They both enter the season with the expectations to crack the starting lineup.

Defensive Outlook

The strength of the defense lies within the front seven, specifically at linebacker. Linebackers Porter Gustin, Cameron Smith, John Houston Jr and Jordan Iosefa are all NFL caliber players and should see a lot of action together on the field. Levi Jones and Oluwole Betiku Jr are two other names you should see in the rotation.

On the line, Christian Rector and Brandon Pili return after receiving all conference honors. Redshirt senior Malik Dorton played in 25 games over the last two seasons at defensive tackle. He has only started in four games but has played significant minutes. Connor Murphy, younger brother of former Stanford standout and current Buffalo Bill Trent Murphy, enters his junior season with breakout potential after moving from linebacker.

The secondary could be considered a weak spot given the talent and experience that the group has seen over the past couple seasons. There were high hopes for Jack Jones to take over the unequivocal number one corner role, however, he ran into academic issues and will not play for USC in 2018.

Safety Marvell Tell III and Iman Marshall, both seniors, are the most recognizable names in the secondary. Senior cornerback Isaiah Langley will likely see a lot of time due to the Jones departure. There is a group of underclassmen, headlined by Greg Johnson and Bubba Bolden, who will likely see a fair share of action as well.

3 Players to Watch

Stephen Carr, RB

The true sophomore is expected to be the starting running back. However, he must prove he’s capable of carrying the load after missing spring practice due to back surgery. Carr played in 10 of the Trojans 14 games last season but still received All Pac-12 Honorable mention. He rushed for 363 yards and three touchdowns on 5.6 yards per carry.

Porter Gustin, LB

Injuries have been a common theme for the potential All-American. Gustin appeared in only four games last season and sustained a torn meniscus in fall camp. However, he is expected to fully recover while only missing week one. As a sophomore in 2016, he started all 13 games and led the team with 13 tackles for loss.

Cameron Smith, LB

The senior captain is coming off a season where he raked in a number of post season honors such as All Pac-12 First Team and USC’s Defensive Perimeter Player of the Year. Smith has started in 35 games for Trojans, logging 273 total tackles through his first three seasons.