They say, we say, about 2015

Here's ESPN's take on 2015 with USC No. 4 . . . Is it 'way too early'? Here's our take, too.

So our guy Phil Steele is tweeting that he's more than halfway through writing the 125 plus college football team profiles for 2015 so this makes us seem like pikers here but here we go.

Why not at least do a "Way Too Early USC" team breakdown in the fashion of ESPN's "Way Too Early Top 25" that has the Trojans an impressive No. 4 nationally behind only TCU, Ohio State and Baylor. And as many here will agree, it's never "Way Too Early" for football. After all, it is 2015, right?

So in the fashion of Mark Schlabach's ESPN rankings, here we go with our comments about ESPN's comments in italics.

4. USC Trojans

*** 2014 RECORD: 9-4, 6-3 PAC-12:

OUR TAKE: Could have been 11-2 easy, OK, not so easy. But could have been if USC played all 60 minutes against ASU and Utah. Could even have been 12-1 (12-2 if you factor in a Pac-12 title game loss to Oregon) if USC wins the South and had the Trojans prepared for BC or at least not gotten flummoxed after building a 17-6 lead. Also could have been a Lane Kiffin-esque 7-6 if Stanford had a Red Zone offense or the Arizona field goal kicker kicked it straight. So records are just numbers here. The two league losses at the end are worrisome. And then there's the failure to perform for the third straight year against UCLA. Even more worrisome.


OUR TAKE: We'd make it nine returning starters on offense with the Bryce Dixon/Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick duo now back at tight end. And if you want to quibble and USC gets lucky in his rehab with Lamar Dawson, you could add another starter on defense as well. Lamar does have three starting seasons behind him. And you could make that two more if you consider John Plattenburg having moved in at safety as well. And with kickoff man Alex Wood returning, if he can hold off blueshirt Matt Boermeester, that's 1.5 special teams guys. So for the sake of argument, make it 17.5 starters back.

Why is that important? Because it puts USC in the ballpark with the 18 returning starters for No. 1 TCU and No. 3 Baylor and above No. 2 Ohio State's 16. Seventh-ranked UCLA will have the most of the ranked teams, returning 20 starters but no Brett Hundley or Eric Kendricks. Fifth-ranked Oregon and 13th-ranked Arizona return 15 each, No. 15 Arizona State has 18 back, No. 22 Utah has 17 and Notre Dame, ranked 12th, has 19.

*** KEY PERSONNEL LOSSES: RB Javorius "Buck" Allen, WR Nelson Agholor, DE Leonard Williams, DE J.R. Tavai, LB Hayes Pullard, FS Gerald Bowman.

OUR TAKE: To that number, you can now add George Farmer, although probably more a personnel loss, not a "key" one considering his history. And as much as Boermeester shows promise, you have to list Andre Heidari here, for his personality and presence the last four years not to mention those Stanford kicks. And it's easy to forget Andre goes out with the Pac-12 record for points after with 181 and three of the nine longest field goals in USC history. There's also Randall Telfer, the big brother on this roster. His presence will be very much missed.

*** WHY THEY MIGHT FINISH HIGHER: You would think the Trojans could play better in coach Steve Sarkisian's second season, after struggling to finish games this season (three of their four losses were by six points or fewer). Junior quarterback Cody Kessler flourished under Sarkisian and completed 69.7 percent of his passes for 3,826 yards with 39 touchdowns and five interceptions. He'll miss junior wideout Agholor, who is turning pro, but almost everybody else is expected back on offense. USC started three freshmen and a sophomore on the offensive line by season's end.

OUR TAKE: That ESPN even admits that a USC team picked to start at No. 4 "might finish higher" seems a stretch but the Trojans will take it. The longshot team that started as fourth-best in the playoffs this year didn't turn out too bad so that's not a terrible place to start. But there's no question, the upward mobility of this USC team would seem to be attached to an offense that has to find itself for all four quarters, has to finish strong and not -- in our Peristyle posters' favorite word -- keep "turtling" as it almost did at the Holiday Bowl. We say it would "seem" to be on the offense here to get USC higher, especially if it can run the ball whenever it wants to. But our take is that it's mostly going to be on the defense -- the scheming, the coaching, the freeing up players to make plays, the growing up, the finding guys to step up, the secondary, the linebackers, the defensive front, all of them. If the defense figures some of that out, maybe they could finish higher. But that's, as they say, a mighty big "if."

*** WHY THEY MIGHT FINISH LOWER: The Trojans are losing a boatload of talent on defense, including three of their top four tacklers and top two pass-rushers. Junior end Williams, who had 80 tackles and seven sacks, is turning pro, and Tavai (seven sacks) is also departing. Three injured players who missed the season with injuries -- defensive lineman Kenny Bigelow and linebackers Jabari Ruffin and Lamar Dawson -- should be back and might be able to help. USC's schedule isn't a cakewalk, with road games at Arizona State (Sept. 26), Notre Dame (Oct. 17) and Oregon (Nov. 21).

OUR TAKE: As we said, this one is going to be on the defense. It has to get better. And as good as those numbers above were for Leonard and JR, if you look at the defensive production including that of No. 2 all-time career tackler Pullard and it just wasn't there across the board. Numbers were down all around. This didn't look much like the no. 13 defense in the nation back from 2013. Players just didn't seem to be put in position to make plays, especially on those losses at the buzzer. So the concept will be less big-name (OK, Su'a Cravens and Adoree Jackson both have a shot at an All-American slot) but this is going to have to be about a coherent, team-oriented, aggressive defense that can play the ball, tackle in open space and get to the quarterback more consistently and without the stars of last fall's team.

As for the "schedule isn't a cakewalk" comment, we think the tough road trip trio of games are nicely spaced out in September, October and November and if we had to guess, the toughest two games might both be in the Coliseum against a veteran Stanford team that will return almost as many in the early going as UCLA will at the end of the season. Which is why we don't want to back away from the no. 4 preseason pick and projected football playoff spot. No looking past anyone when you're ranked up there. No excuses. No waiting to get up to speed. No playing less than 60 minutes a game.

Note we didn't say anything about incoming freshmen here. Nor does ESPN. Our take is that if you're looking for reasons for inclusion among the top programs in the nation, and you have to mention those young guys not here yet, you shouldn't be among the top teams. If any of them come around, and for USC a number did last fall, all the much better. But wait until their second year to start counting on them.

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