A year ago at this time, I took the lead in saying USC football was overrated, with the expectations of Playoff-or-bust surrounding head coach Clay Helton and sophomore quarterback Sam Darnold. I was proven correct, as the Trojans were manhandled by Notre Dame, and then by Ohio State in the Cotton Bowl. This year, I get to go the other side—the Trojans are being seriously underrated as we approach the opening of the 2018 season. Consider the following betting numbers out of Las Vegas…
*USC’s Over/Under for wins is 8.5, well off the pace being set by Pac-12 frontrunner Washington (10.5) and on a par with Oregon, a program that has done nothing in four years.
*USC’s odds to win the Pac-12 title—something they accomplished in last year’s “disappointment” are 9-2, again well off Washington’s pace.
*USC’s odds to win the national championship are 40-1. This puts them between underachieving programs in Texas and Florida, and behind Notre Dame & LSU.
If you really are the type to put money behind your opinions (and I’m not) the national championship number is irrelevant, because none of the teams mentioned are hoisting a trophy in Santa Clara next January. But if you’re the type that sees betting numbers as an interesting window into how informed opinion evaluates teams (and I am), then this act of disrespect to the Trojans is far more egregious than the Pac-12 odds or the Over/Under on wins. USC has done a heckuva lot more on the field lately than any of the programs they are grouped with.
The media anticipation to last year and this, boil down to Sam Darnold. Last year, he was the hottest thing going in the preseason, coming off a dynamic freshman season where he closed strong and won a dramatic 52-49 Rose Bowl over Penn State. This year, Darnold is in the NFL.
To me though, Sam Darnold was always a college football version of Andrew Luck—yes, he was pretty good, but he wasn’t everything the national hype made him out to be. And, like Luck in the NFL, Darnold was a turnover machine at USC last year.
Consequently, I’m not as concerned about the need to replace him. Particularly when a five-star recruit in J.T. Daniels is waiting, when backup redshirt freshman Jack Sears is another highly touted recruit and when Helton has a background in offense and tutoring quarterbacks. I believe the Trojans are going to be just fine at the quarterback spot.
I also hold what seems to be a novel belief in football these days, and that there are 21 other positions on the field that also matter. USC’s offensive line is going to be significantly better. They had problems in pass protection last year—in fairness to Darnold, that surely caused at least some of the turnover woes. The Trojans bring back veterans up, starting with center Toa Lobendhan and should hit the ground running. Literally—nothing helps break in a new quarterback like a veteran line controlling the ground game.
USC had problems on pass defense last year, ranking 82nd nationally, in spite of a defensive front that did a terrific job generating pressure. The secondary, like the offensive line, is an area where experience can make a big difference though, and the Trojans have a veteran group led by safety Marvin Tell. And that pass rush that was so dominant? A lot of the key pieces are back here as well.
Ultimately, the Trojans have the most valuable commodity in college football—a steady recruiting pipeline. Their recruiting ranks in a neighborhood with Ohio State, Georgia and Alabama. USC is one of the few programs nationally—and the only one in the Pac-12—that can legitimately think about a national championship in the big picture.
A tough schedule—non-conference games against Texas and Notre Dame, plus the usual nine-game slate in the Pac-12, mean breaking in a new quarterback is probably fatal to national title hopes. But to roll through a South Division that’s in transition, get to 9-10 wins and be peaking by the time the Pac-12 Championship Game comes around in December? That’s well within USC’s reach and exactly what I expect them to do.