Norm Chow is now the Warriors' head coach and boy does he know USC well. Chow will want to make a statement against the program he was once a part of, as would any first-year head coach in their first game. Thus, this test could be much more challenging than Trojan fans believe. But I expect Kiffin to take it seriously. That 19-17 season opening score versus Minnesota was a little too close for his liking. But the Trojans are, after all, chasing that national championship, so I see it ending USC's way, especially at home. Still, look for Chow to have a few tricks up his sleeve like he has done in the past against USC, at both UCLA and Utah.
Game Two/First Road Trip: Sept. 8 at Syracuse
A different locale than the home of Syracuse in northern New York, the Trojans could have the chance to meet up with Mark Sanchez and Joe McKnight as they face the Orangemen at the stadium of the New York Jets, in East Rutherford, New Jersey. This should be a doable contest for USC, although Syracuse doesn't lose very many players. However, head coach Doug Marrone will need to find replacements for receiver Dorian Graham and defensive end Chandler Jones, both who are leaving for the NFL. And while we all remember Syracuse quarterback Ryan Nassib's 11 straight completions against USC in 2011, I expect their quarterbacking to be more competitive next season, as younger players will try to come in and make an impact at the position. Despite many returning players, I expect this Big East/ACC/conference-confused foe to be the Trojans' first statement game of the season.
Game Three: Sept. 15 at Stanford
The weekender comes a month early for Trojan fans, as USC heads up to the bay in its third game of the season. While Stanford is coming off two great seasons, the Cardinal lose superstar quarterback Andrew Luck and two important offensive linemen in David DeCastro and Jonathan Martin to the NFL. It will be head coach David Shaw's second year at the program's helm, and so little will linger from Jim Harbaugh's time in terms of recruiting and personnel. I'd expect Stanford to slip a bit next season, with the USC contest the first (they open with two easy non-conference opponents) of four potential losses (at Washington, at Notre Dame, at Oregon).
Game Four: Sept. 22 versus California
Cal could surprise quite a few people in the Pac-12 conference next season, especially with a few of the highly-recruited freshmen entering the 2012 class, but I don't think it will surprise USC. The Bears' quarterback situation needs much improvement and incoming freshman and Elite 11 signalcaller Zach Kline is not expected to be ready for the prime time just yet. USC cornerback Nickell Robey will need a solid opposite (hopefully in 2011 midyear starter Isiah Wiley) to lockdown both junior receiver Keenan Allen and incoming freshman Bryce Treggs, one of the top recruits on the West Coast. Still, I'd expect Tedford & Co. to be at their peak a year later, in 2013 or even 2014.
Bye Week: Sept. 29
The week off is coming at a great time for USC, as they head to Utah for a Thursday game. WIth at least a day of travel, they would have ordinarily only had two practices for such a contest. Now, they will have the regular three or four.
Game Five: Oct. 4 at Utah
Falling on a Thursday, this is the Trojans' only weekday game, at the Utes' place. Obviously if USC was to make the Pac-12 championship game, played on a Friday, that would be their second. But before chickens hatch, USC looks at this matchup against Utah favorably. Sure the Utes had an impressive 30-27 overtime win over Georgia Tech in the Sun Bowl, but that may only give them early momentum for next season. Utah always breeds solid lineman but midway through the Trojans' season, this matchup shouldn't make the Trojans struggle as much as it did in the beginning of 2011 when USC was still trying to put main pieces together. One player who could be interesting to watch next season is Kelvin York, a running back and junior college transfer who recently decommited from USC and committed to Utah. He will be an early enrollee but will not likely play for a while after undergoing recent knee surgery.
Game Six: Oct. 13 at Washington
The first back-to-back road test for the Trojans in 2012, Kiffin versus Sarkisian is always a fun battle. Heading to the rainy city, this has the potential to be one of the Trojans' tougher contests. I'd put it on par with going to Arizona. Fortunately for USC, the Huskies have a great deal to work out defensively, after its poor bowl loss to Baylor and the firing of defensive coordinator Nick Holt. Tennessee assistant Justin Wilcox will replace Holt while Peter Sirmon, also from the Volunteers, will become UW's new linebackers coach. Because of the impermanence there, a dominating performance by Kiffin and his staff in 2011, I think USC has the advantage, despite the cold.
Game Seven: Oct. 20 versus Colorado
Colorado will be much improved with a year under head coach Jon Embree's belt. But it won't improve enough to get an upset win in the Coliseum. I expect Colorado's 3-8 record last year to be better, especially with a more favorable schedule (first four contests: Colorado State, Sacramento State, Fresno State and Washington State compared to at Hawaii, versus Cal and at Ohio State in 2011). So late in the season, however, I think the Buffaloes are no match for the Trojans who have a championship on their minds.
Game Eight: Oct. 27 at Arizona
Under new head coach Rich Rodriguez, I think Arizona will fare well, even in its first year. A solid schedule helps, with the exception of two road tests in Eugene and Palo Alto. The Trojans head to the Wildcats' place, but Arizona is without quarterback Nick Foles and they will also have to fill a big void left by receiver Juron Criner. I think it's a solid rebuilding year for RichRod and expect them to be bowl eligible. But a win over USC? I know Arizona can work out quite a few kinks by that point of the season, I just don't see UA winning here.
Game Nine: Nov. 3 versus Oregon
ESPN Gameday is in a bit of a predicament, presumably unsure of whether they want to hold the show at the Coliseum or at Tiger Stadium on Nov. 3, for Alabama versus LSU takes place on the same day as USC versus Oregon. It's already being hyped as the Gameday of the Century. Why? The winner of each could potentially play in the national championship. Oregon versus USC will be an incredibly exciting matchup, as it was in Eugene in 2011 where the Trojans' upset the Ducks 38-35 at Autzen Stadium with LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and other NBA players watching. Nine months out, Lane Kiffin and Chip Kelly are probably cognizant of this date already. It will likely be the deciding game for both of these two programs' 2012 seasons. While LaMichael James has not announced whether he will return for his senior season, USC has to prepare for the lightning quick receiver/running back (a former Trojan commit) DeAnthony Thomas, who looked like he was running in fast-forward in the Ducks' recent Rose Bowl win. Darron Thomas' future is also uncertain, but with Matt Barkley, Robert Woods, Marqise Lee and T.J. McDonald all playing their best football, I'd expect USC to be the slight favorite in this matchup, especially with the Trojans' home advantage.
Game Ten: Nov. 10 versus Arizona State
The one Sun Devil USC had to lookout for in 2011 will be gone in 2012. ASU linebacker Vontaze Burfict, who had his way with Barkley in the latter half of the Trojans' visit to Tempe, will declare for the NFL. Also, Sun Devils' quarterback Brock Osweiler's future is uncertain, as transfer rumors increase. With Todd Graham replacing Dennis Erickson as head coach, it seems the future of this entire program is uncertain, especially in 2012. Couple the ambiguity with the presence of the Coliseum and USC's talent, and I'd say it's a very uneven matchup.
Game Eleven: Nov. 17 at UCLA
One of four coaching changes in the Pac-12 conference, the Trojans face new head coach Jim Mora in the annual crosstown showdown which is also USC's final conference game of the season. We don't really know what Mora can bring to the table yet. We've only seen his Bruins lose to Illinois in the "Interim Bowl" and that wasn't a valuable forecast of what he can do for the program in 2012. We've already heard him make waves in the recruiting world, which will be good for the Bruins' longterm but there's not enough solid evidence to show he can rebuild this program beginning with the 2012 season. I guess we will wait and see but I believe USC will get the win here, because of four reasons. 1) Trojans have more impressive personnel, 2) Kiffin's approach to rivalry games, 3) there isn't really a home field advantage for either team, 4) UCLA needs to improve in a lot of areas.
Season Finale: Nov. 24 versus Notre Dame
With Dayne Crist's transfer to Kansas, Tommy Rees will again be the expected starter at the quarterback position. While the Fighting Irish lose running back Jonas Gray, two seniors in Cierre Wood and Theo Riddick will be expected to share the ball. On defense, they switch their front from a base 3-4 to a 4-3 throughout a game, which has caused problems before with opposing teams. But with linebacker Manti Te'o returning for his senior season -- who has given the Trojans a tough time in the past )and was a one time Trojan recruit) -- expect this defense to be much improved, even though its front line is still very young. However, this is the Trojans' final game of the season and against one of its biggest rivals, with much on the line (Heisman campaign, overall record, etc.). In the Coliseum, it's a matchup set up for a USC win.
Biggest takeaways from the Trojans' 2012 schedule:
First, the Trojans stay in Los Angeles for the entire month of November, with its contests at UCLA and versus Oregon, ASU and Notre Dame at home. This is huge for USC in terms of confidence, especially as it prepares for the postseason. The Trojans dropped just one game (the instant classic triple-overtime loss to Stanford) in the Coliseum last year.
Lane Kiffin has probably already marked Nov. 3rd with a fat red pen, where USC will face the Ducks at home. Also likely noted is Fri., Nov. 30, the date of the Pac-12 championship game, to be hosted at the school site with the best conference record. Expect those two contests--potentially both USC versus Oregon--to be the Trojans' toughest tests of the season.