Why USC is actually an underrated team ready to contend for the Pac-12 title in 2020


In a sports world often built around hyperbole and “takes,” it’s easy for something to become so overrated that it’s actually underrated. There’s so much talk about a team failing to live up to expectations that, at some point, the world takes it for granted that the team will do it again.

When the world reaches that point, it finds itself assuming failure or disappointment for a program and stops looking closely, and that could be where we are with USC.

With the 2020 season (hopefully) looming a few months from now, nobody is taking USC very seriously as either a contender in the Pac-12 or for a possible College Football Playoff berth. But maybe they should be because as you look closer at the situation with the Trojans, you find things aren’t as bad as the world has led you to believe.

To see it, all we have to do is take a closer look at the 2019 season.

1. Last year wasn’t as bad as you think. The Trojans entered the 2019 season coming off a 5-7 campaign, missing out on a bowl game for non-NCAA punishment-related reasons for the first time since 2000. That also happened to be the last year for coach Paul Hackett, who was replaced in 2001 by Pete Carroll, and we all remember how that went.

Not surprisingly, plenty of USC fans wanted current coach Clay Helton fired after 2018 even though he’d gone 21-6 the previous two seasons. It didn’t happen, and Helton entered the 2019 season on the hot seat, but also brought in Graham Harrell to change the team’s offensive philosophy.

Then, in the first game of the season, quarterback J.T. Daniels tore his ACL and missed the rest of the season. Daniels’ injury came with a silver lining, however, as it opened the door for Kedon Slovis, who went on to have an excellent freshman season, finishing with 3,502 passing yards, 30 touchdowns and nine interceptions. Of course, Slovis dealt with injuries of his own, getting knocked out of USC’s 30-23 win over Utah after having thrown only two passes. He’d miss the entirety of the team’s 28-14 loss at Washington the following week.

In Slovis’ return, the Trojans would lose 30-27 on the road to a Notre Dame team that finished 11-2 despite Slovis playing well. The loss left the Trojans at 3-3, but they won five of their final seven games with the lone losses coming against a 12-2 Oregon team and a 10-3 Iowa team in the Holiday Bowl.

The injuries to Daniels and Slovis weren’t the only injuries the Trojans had to deal with, either. At one point, USC saw three of its running backs go down with injuries in a week. When USC finished off its 41-14 win over Arizona to improve to 4-3, it found itself missing six starters on its defense. Yet that win was still the start of a strong stretch run.

All of which led to USC finishing 8-5, which will never be good enough, but it was somewhat misleading. After all, even at 8-5, the Trojans still finished at No. 22 in the final SP+ rankings of 2019 as well as the top 25 of most Vegas power polls.

2. The offense will remain a strength. While he hasn’t been named the starter, it’s hard to imagine Slovis will relinquish the duties back to Daniels. With the lack of spring practice, and possibly a shortened camp in the fall, Daniels won’t have much of a chance to win the job back. Besides, Slovis played so well that it probably shouldn’t matter anyway.

Slovis will be surrounded by a lot of returning talent as well. While he won’t have Michael Pittman to throw to anymore, it should come as no surprise that the Trojans have other talented receivers. Amon-Ra St. Brown caught 77 passes for 1,042 yards and six touchdowns last season. Tyler Vaughns caught 74 passes for 912 yards and six touchdowns of his own. Then there’s Drake London, who came on strong late in his freshman season, catching 36 passes for 505 yards and five touchdowns in the final seven games.

Oh, and there’s Bru McCoy, a five-star recruit in the 2019 class that missed all of last year. Should he get on the field in 2020, we might find out why USC and Texas fought so hard for his commitment out of high school. Also, while USC’s 2020 recruiting class was considered a massive disappointment overall when compared to its usual classes, it does include Gary Bryant Jr. The four-star receiver was the No. 45 overall player in the 2020 class and could make his way into the rotation at some point as well.

The Trojans also have four running backs who could receive carries in 2020. Vavae Malepeai, Stephen Carr, Markese Stepp and Kenan Christon all finished with at least 300 yards rushing last year while splitting the load. Ideally, you’d hope one of them emerges to become “The Guy”, but having depth at running back is never a problem.

3. Changes on defense. Of course, it doesn’t matter how well the offense performs if the defense doesn’t improve. USC scored 32.5 points per game last season, but it still lost five games thanks to a defense that allowed 29.4 points per game. It was the first time the USC defense had allowed at least 28 points per game since the 2000 team that went 5-7.

As you’d expect when something like that happens, Helton decided to overhaul his defensive staff. Clay Pendergast is gone, and Todd Orlando replaces him. Orlando himself was let go by Texas following a 2019 season that was similar to the one USC had on defense. Orlando’s Texas defense was beset by many injuries as well, and it showed in the team’s performance. Unlike Pendergast, however, Orlando’s defenses have been successful in recent seasons. They were terrific at both Utah State and Houston before he left for Texas with Tom Herman. Things were strong at the start of his tenure in Austin before the wheels fell off last season, and I think his firing was more to serve Texas fans a head on a platter following a disappointing season than it was one of necessity.

Now Orlando is taking over a USC defense loaded with talent. The Trojans lose only two defensive starters from the 2019 team, so it’s not out of line to expect a significant step forward for this unit with some fresh eyes and ideas. And better health, too.

4. The Pac-12 South poses few threats. Entering 2020, Oregon is seen as the clear-cut favorite in the Pac-12, even though it has question marks of its own (it is replacing a four-year starter at QB, after all). Life in the South is a lot more wide open.

It’s important to remember that, even though USC finished the season 8-5 overall, it still went 7-2 in conference play last season and both of those losses came to Oregon and Washington — two North teams. The Trojans went undefeated against their division rivals, including a win over Utah with their third-string quarterback playing the majority of the game.

While Utah went on to win the division, the Utes must replace nearly their entire team in 2020, and Utah isn’t a program known for reloading quickly. It’s only logical to expect at least a small step backward.

Elsewhere, Arizona has gone 9-15 the last two years, and Kevin Sumlin enters the season on the hot seat. Chip Kelly hasn’t done any better at UCLA, going 7-17 in his first two seasons. Then there’s Colorado, who lost its coach to Michigan State in mid-February and replaced him with Karl Dorrell, who hasn’t been a head coach anywhere since being let go by UCLA following five mostly ordinary seasons in 2007. As if having to hire a new coach in February wasn’t tricky enough, the shutdown of collegiate athletics due to the coronavirus only further complicates matters for a new coach trying to learn about his new team.

Arizona State can be seen as a team on the rise thanks to a budding star in quarterback Jayden Daniels, but it has a lot to replace on offense itself.

So if USC could manage to go 5-0 against Pac-12 South foes last year while dealing with so many injuries and a porous defense, what might it do against them this season?

Now, when we look at USC’s schedule as a whole, it’s hard to imagine this is a team that should even fantasize about a possible College Football Playoff berth. It opens the season with Alabama at AT&T Stadium and finishes the year with Notre Dame at home. Those are two difficult nonconference games. The Trojans also draw Oregon, Stanford and Washington from the North again this season. Even in a best-case scenario, it’s hard to imagine the Trojans without at least two losses.

Still, it’s not crazy to think this team could find itself playing for a Pac-12 title come December. At least, it’s not as crazy as you might think given the narrative surrounding the program this offseason.

It’s a program that’s so overrated it’s become underrated heading into 2020.





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