2015 Opponent Primer: USC

Jul. 22 -- UCLA plays USC in the final game of the year, and it should be a significant matchup...

It's the offseason right now, so we thought we'd put together some advance primers on the 2015 opponents on UCLA's schedule. We've already previewed Virginia, UNLV, BYU, Arizona, Arizona State, Stanford, California, Colorado, Oregon State, Washington State, and Utah. Next up: our final installment in the series, USC.

USC
Nov. 28, The Coliseum

2014 Record: 9-4 (6-3)

2014 Recap: From the summer before the start of the 2014 season through December, it was a bizarre year for the Trojans. First, the Josh Shaw incident was the talk of the offseason, and then the season that followed was marked by strange game after strange game. Against Stanford in the second game of the year, the Trojans were out gained by the Cardinal 413 to 291, and were basically dominated between the 20s, but thanks to some strange redzone play-calling by David Shaw, USC eked out a 13-10 win. The following week, USC lost to a mediocre Boston College team on the road, giving up an astounding 452 yards rushing. Then, in back-to-back games against Arizona State and Arizona, USC lost on a Hail Mary and then won on a missed last second field goal. At times, USC looked like a potential juggernaut, with an up-tempo offense and plenty of defensive talent. At other times, the Trojans looked rudderless, with youth in key spots and a lack of a consistent offensive ethos. USC finished the year 9-4, which for most first-year coaches would be a good result, but USC is a different story, and Steve Sarkisian has some questions to answer in year two.

Returning Starters: 14 (7 defense, 7 offense)

Notable Recruits: CB Iman Marshall , OLB Osa Masina ,
DE Rasheem Green , OT Chuma Edoga

2015 Projection: USC is earning a great deal of national attention heading into the 2015 season, with many pundits predicting the Trojans will win the Pac-12 and compete for a playoff berth. With a senior quarterback in Cody Kessler (who put up great numbers last year), the No. 1 recruiting class in the country coming in, and plenty of top-end talent at many positions, it's certainly understandable why the Trojans are drawing so much early attention.

USC returns all five starters on the offensive line, which includes the true freshmen who started last year in Damien Mama, Toa Lobendahn, and Viane Talamaivao. They should be a bit more seasoned this year, and after a year in a college strength and conditioning program, more able to handle whatever scheme USC wants to use, whether it's up-tempo or otherwise. Mama, in particular, has lost a considerable amount of weight since his high school days and looked to be in pretty good shape when we saw him earlier this spring. Losing Buck Allen and Nelson Agholor is a blow, but Juju Smith looks like he'll be the next No. 1 receiving target for the Trojans. The running back situation is a bit more unsettled, but the increased experience on the offensive line should help offset any issues in the backfield.

Kessler is earning a great deal of Heisman hype heading into the year, and his numbers certainly appear to warrant some hype. He made pretty good decisions throughout last year, but if there was one knock on him, it was that he was sometimes too willing to check down. Regardless, he's pretty clearly a top three quarterback in the league heading into next year.

On the defensive side of the ball, there are a few more questions. The defensive line for the Trojans doesn't project to be particularly formidable, and the linebackers lose Hayes Pullard, who's been a mainstay there for seemingly seven or eight years. Super-stud freshman Osa Masina could certainly play early in the front seven. The cornerback position projects to be a major strength for USC, with Adoree Jackson arguably already the top cornerback in the league, and a true freshman in Iman Marshall coming in who should challenge Kevon Seymour for a starting job at some point during the year.

The big questions for USC from our perspective have more to do with the coaching than the talent. USC really didn't settle on an offensive identity, and defensively, the Trojans were probably far too passive throughout the year, rarely pressuring with more than four. USC is talented, of course, but the Trojans are not so much more talented than the rest of the league that they can simply expect to play their base defense and win. This is going to be a big year for Justin Wilcox at defensive coordinator and, by extension, a big year for Steve Sarkisian, who really needs to have USC in serious contention for the conference title at the end of the year to avoid being on the hot seat going into next season.

We don't buy the Trojans as a serious playoff contender because of the question marks from a coaching perspective, but there's no question that USC is one of the most talented teams in the league and that this should be one of the toughest games on UCLA's schedule next year.

Outlook for UCLA: UCLA has beaten USC three straight years, but this game will probably be the most challenging of the four rivalry games of the Mora era. Rather than Brett Hundley at the helm, the Bruins will almost certainly have a true freshman in Josh Rosen, who will be playing in his first rivalry game at the Coliseum. The Trojans will also probably be a little bit better than last year, with more experience on the offensive line and, likely, a more consistent offensive ethos.

UCLA, though, has made a habit of not just beating USC over the last three years, but putting together fairly comfortable wins, and that doesn't just go away overnight. The Bruins return 18 starters from last year, so despite Hundley leaving, that still leaves many players who are very familiar with USC and have the experience of beating the Trojans at both the Rose Bowl and the Coliseum in a pretty substantial fashion.

It's hard to project how meaningful a game will be four months in advance, but both teams, barring some major setbacks, should be in contention in the Pac-12 South, and there's a real chance that this matchup could decide the Pac-12 South's representative in the conference title game. These are the two most talented teams in the division, and it stands to reason that they should be playing for the division title on November 28th.

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