Nov. 19, The Rose Bowl
2015 Record: (8-6, 6-3)
2015 Recap: This was a legitimately bonkers season for USC, as has been the case for pretty much every year of the post-Carroll era. The Trojans started the year with Steve Sarkisian as the head coach, but after multiple incidents where he was publicly intoxicated, USC fired him. Sarkisian then sued USC later in the year. In the mean time, Clay Helton was elevated to interim head coach. Somewhere in all that, USC also played several football games that somehow resulted in the Trojans winning the Pac-12 South and earning the right to get absolutely mollywhopped by Stanford in the Pac-12 Championship Game. Helton went 5-2 through the end of the regular season, which apparently gave the USC administration enough reason to remove his interim tag, and then he followed that up by losing to Stanford, and then Wisconsin in the Holiday Bowl. The Trojans ended up winning just one game against a team that finished the year ranked.
Returning Starters: 15 (9 on offense, 6 on defense)
2016 Projection: As always, the USC hype machine is revving up this offseason, though perhaps not quite as heavily as in years past, given the disappointment of last year. The Trojans return basically everyone on offense besides Cody Kessler and Max Tuerk, and, really, despite the Cleveland Browns having some weird fetish for weak-armed signal callers, he's pretty replaceable at quarterback. Max Browne and Sam Darnold competed for the job this spring, and whoever the starter is should be sorted out by the time fall camp comes around. Prior to spring ball, it was more or less assumed that it was Browne's job to lose.
So, the Trojans have to figure out the quarterback situation, but the rest of the offense is a known quantity, and a very good known quantity. The offensive line, even with the loss of Tuerk, is set to gel into a pretty dominant unit in year three of Viane Talamaivao, Damien Mama, and To a Lobendahn, especially now that USC jettisoned the one and only Bob Connelly. The running back group is among the most talented in the Pac-12, and the receivers are potentially deep and talented, with Juju Smith-Schuster being the obvious headliner (and arguably the best receiver in the Pac-12). If Browne or Darnold can be relatively competent, the offense should be very good.
The defense has more question marks. Effectively, the entire defensive line is changing over from last year, with the departures of Greg Townsend, Delvon Simmons, Scott Felix, and Antwaun Woods. The linebacker corps is also changing quite a bit, with Cameron Smith, who started as a true freshman last year, being the lone returning starter. The front seven has some obviously talented pieces who could step up and turn this into a surprisingly good unit, but it's safe to say the entire group is an unknown at this point.
That said, USC is going to contend for having the best secondary in the Pac-12, with Iman Marshall and Adoree Jackson forming one of the best corner tandems in the league. Whether a good secondary can be enough to solidify a defense that has questions up front remains to be seen, but the Trojans certainly have talent in the back four.
So, the Trojans should be the most talented team in the Pac-12 this year, albeit with some question marks in the front seven on defense. That said, there's more than enough talent there to expect USC to be a major contender in the Pac-12 this season. The big limiting factor, though, is coaching. We still don't know what to expect from Helton. He went 5-4 as a head coach last season, and while you might pin some of those losses on him feeling out the new role, the question remains whether he is ready to lead USC to national prominence.
And he won't have an easy time of it in 2016. USC starts the season with its young front seven and new coaching staff going up against the defending champion Alabama Crimson Tide. After a home game against Utah State, the Trojans then have to go on back-to-back road trips to Stanford and Utah. As talented as USC is, 2-2 over that stretch seems likely.
After that, the schedule lightens up a bit, but in a flip from UCLA's schedule, the Trojans get Oregon instead of Oregon State and go on the road against Washington instead of Washington State. That's the difficult side of the Pac-12 North slate this year, and getting Washington on the road in November, in a year where the Huskies will likely be a trendy pick to win the North, is not ideal.
The Trojans have the talent to go 10-2 -- there's no denying it. But given the unknown quality of the coaching staff, the question marks in the front seven, and the very tough schedule, this could be another year where the Trojans end up being fairly underwhelming.
Outlook for UCLA: A year after finally losing to USC for the first time, it's a fair bet that Jim Mora will desperately want to get back on the right side of the rivalry in 2016. Historically, getting this game at the Rose Bowl rather than at the Coliseum gives UCLA an advantage, and Josh Rosen being a year older should help him heading into the craziness of rivalry week.
UCLA has a little more speed at receiver in 2016 than the Bruins did in 2015, which should also help. Last year, USC matched the physicality of UCLA's receivers really well and then the Bruins weren't able to beat them deep. UCLA's receivers might not be as physical this year without Jordan Payton, but the Bruins should be faster, which could make this a tougher matchup for a guy like Marshall, who shined last year.
The big unknown is how UCLA's offensive line will look against USC's defensive line. By this point in the year, both units could have gelled, or both units could be major weaknesses. UCLA's offensive line is thin already, but USC's defensive line is very inexperienced. However the season goes for either unit could tell the tale for this game.
Defensively, UCLA will have its hands full against USC's offense. The Bruins have a better pass rush than a year ago, and the run defense should be better, so we could see UCLA causing problems for USC's running game, but the passing game could be a major advantage for USC, depending on how Browne/Darnold look this year.
Looking at all of the different teams in the Pac-12 South, it's easy to see this game being the ultimate decider for the division, though UCLA will have one more conference game after it.
Next up: California...null