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TODAY at No. 17: SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA Coach: Steve Sarkisian (9-4, entering second season, 43-33 overall record) 2014 record: 9-4, 6-3 in the Pac-12; tied...

vrs125an (1)125XBANNER#1TODAY at No. 17: SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA

Coach: Steve Sarkisian (9-4, entering second season, 43-33 overall record)

2014 record: 9-4, 6-3 in the Pac-12; tied for second in South Division

Look back: There was a lot of buzz surrounding Steve Sarkisian’s first season at USC. The Trojans opened with back-to-back wins, including a three-point victory over Stanford that propelled the team into the top 10. But a week later, USC inexplicably gave up 452 yards on the ground to an average Boston College team in a 37-31 loss. Two more losses against Arizona State and Utah were by a combined seven points. An 18-point loss to rival UCLA was the team’s fourth and final defeat of the season. It was the Trojans’ third straight loss to the Bruins.

Offensive starters returning: 8

Offensive starters lost: 3

Defensive starters returning: 7

Defensive starters lost: 4

Key losses: RB Javorius Allen, WR Nelson Agholor, TE Randall Telfer, DL Leonard Williams, J.R. Tavai, LB Hayes Pullard, Gerald Bowman, PK Andre Heidari

Top returnees: QB Cody Kessler, WR JuJu Smith, OL Chad Wheeler, OL Toa Lobendahn, OL Max Tuerk, OL Viane Talamaivao, OL Zach Banner, DL Delvon Simmons, DL Antwaun Woods, LB Anthony Sarao, SS Leon McQuay , CB Kevon Seymour

Strengths: Cody Kessler would most likely had been a first-round NFL Draft pick in the NFL Draft, but his decision to stay at USC gives the Trojans a huge boost. The senior quarterback set single-season school records after completing close to 70 percent of his passes for 3,826 yards, 39 touchdowns and just five interceptions. His 167.1 passing rating was tied for third-best in the country last season.

USC returns all of its starting offensive linemen from last season. Senior center Max Tuerk, who was named an All-Pac-12 performer, anchors a unit that allowed just 32 sacks last season.

Cornerback Adoree’ Jackson (49 tackles) was the Pac-12’s freshman defensive player of the year last season and he’ll lead a secondary that should be the team’s strength on the defensive side of the ball. He’ll be joined by senior Kevon Seymour (49 tackles) and junior corner Leon McQuay III.

Weaknesses: USC’s defense had two players drafted in April’s NFL Draft, including two-time All-American Leonard Williams and seventh-round pick Hayes Pullard. They finished first and second in tackles on the team, with Williams leading the team in sacks (7). Despite the departures, getting to the quarterback will crucial for the Trojans, who had just 33 sacks last season – the school’s lowest total since 2011.

Kessler’s primary receiver – Nelson Agholor (104 receptions/1,313 yards/12 TDs) – left for the NFL, putting more the pressure on sophomore JuJu Smith (54 receptions/724 yards/5 TDs) to lead the receiving unit. He’ll be joined by junior Darreus Rogers (21 receptions/245 yards/4 TDs) and sophomore Steven Mitchell.

Outlook: Expectations are high for USC. The Trojans haven’t won a conference championship since 2008 and Pac-12 foes UCLA, Arizona and Arizona State are making huge strides in the South Division. Three of last season’s four losses were by a combined 13 points, so finding a way to turn those close contests into will be critical this season.

2015 SCHEDULE

Sept. 5 Arkansas State

Sept. 12 Idaho

Sept. 19 Stanford

Sept. 26 at Arizona State

Oct. 8 Washington

Oct. 17 at Notre Dame

Oct. 24 Utah

Oct. 31 at California

Nov. 7 Arizona

Nov. 13 at Colorado

Nov. 21 at Oregon

Nov. 28 UCLA

Vincent Rizzo

College Football / College Basketball Handicapper. 2011 won 74%, 2012 won 72% 2015 SPECIAL. CALL, 877.WIN.ATS9 EMAIL,V@VincentRizzoSports.com

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