Our ranking: No. 10 USC
Coach: Clay Helton (16-7, entering third season; 16-7 overall)
2016 record: 10-3, 7-2 in Pac-12, second in South Division
Look back: Clay Helton’s first full season at USC didn’t start off well, with the Trojans dropping three of their first four games to ranked opponents. But surprisingly the team started to gel under freshman QB Sam Darnold and USC rattled off nine consecutive wins — the program’s longest win streak since 2009. The surge included victories over eventual Pac-12 division winners Colorado and Washington. A come-from-behind victory over Penn State in the Rose Bowl capped an improbable 10-win season for USC, it’s best season since 2011.
Offensive starters returning: 5
Offensive starters lost: 6
Defensive starters returning: 7
Key losses: WR JuJu Smith-Schuster, WR Darreus Rogers, TE Taylor McNamara, DT Stevie Tu’ikolovatu, LB Michael Hutchings, S Leon McQuay, CB Adoree Jackson
Top returnees: QB Sam Darnold, RB Ronald Jones, WR Deontay Burnett, OL Nico Falah, LB Uchenna Nwosu, DE Rasheem Green, LB Porter Gustin, LB Cameron Smith, CB Iman Marshall
Strengths: After a dismal performance against Alabama in the season opener (194 total yards), USC’s offense seemed to take off after Sam Darnold earned the starting job. The freshman quarterback displayed a skillset similar to some of his elite USC predecessors, using a strong arm and clear vision to help lead the offense’s surge. His performance, including the poise he showed while rallying to beat Penn State in the Rose Bowl, propelled make him a strong preseason Heisman Trophy candidate and a projected first-round NFL draft pick.
USC put together one of its best seasons on the ground (201 yards per game) thanks to a unit that was one of the deepest in the Pac-12. Ronald Jones is one of just two tailbacks to return after rushing for 1,000 yards last season in the Pac-12. His 6.3 yards per carry career average is third-best among top 20 all-time USC rushers.
Junior Deontay Burnett is the team’s top returning receiver after finishing third on the team with 622 yards and seven touchdowns. He’ll step into a much larger role with the departures of JuJu Smith-Schuster and Darreus Rogers. Burnett showed flashes of his potential, including a season-high 13 catches for 164 yards and three touchdowns during the Rose Bowl win.
Weaknesses: The defensive front seven will need to be retooled after the departures of NT Stevie Tu’ikolovatu (53 tackles) and LB Michael Hutchings (66 tackles, 5 tackles for loss). The team finished with just 26 sacks last season.
The Trojans were one of the best teams in the country last season in protecting the quarterback, allowing just 12 sacks — its best single-season total since 2011. The offensive line, however, will go through some changes with just three returning starters.
Outlook: Expectations are sky-high for USC entering this season, but Trojans fans have to be cautiously optimistic. Darnold has the potential to surpass his strong freshman season, but he can’t do it alone. Helton and his staff need to figure out ways to involve more playmakers if USC expects to contend for its first Pac-12 title since Pete Carroll’s tenure.