Taking a look at how 2016 might play out

Trojans face a schedule tougher than anyone else in the nation -- and that's just the first four games. And the final four could be just as tough or tougher. This should be interesting.

Now is as good a time as any to take a look at how 2016 just might play out for the USC Trojans.

In fact, it’s the perfect time to do that, actually. We know what we know after spring ball and we know what we don’t know – can’t know really – that won’t play out until the end of the summer.

But if the college football magazines can be putting their profiles together right now, we can too. So here we go.

We’ll start with the one unarguable proposition for 2016: USC plays the toughest schedule in all of college football and it’s not even close – or debatable. Which is ether the really good news for a program that’s in a hurry to get back. Or it’s the reason USC will have to wait until 2017 when things ease up a bit and the Trojans mature just a tad more.

We’re going to choose the first and we’re sticking to it until proven otherwise. This is a great, great opportunity for a Trojans team that’s been too long wandering in the wilderness. It’s a team we’d guesstimate is a touchdown better on each side of the ball at a minimum thanks to improvements in talent, depth, experience and – of course – coaching.

One thing we’d like to dispute, however, is the focus on the first four games and how tough they are. They are, no doubt, with Alabama in Texas, then Utah State at home and back-to-back tough road games at Stanford and then six days later at Utah.

But lost in all this are the final four games that might even be tougher. Oregon at the Coliseum Nov. 5 gets the home stretch going followed by another back-to-back road games at Washington and UCLA followed by the Coliseum finale against Notre Dame.

If we had to isolate one element that will determine how well this team does, it’s how tough it is – mentally and physically.

USC displayed the necessary toughness against Utah and UCLA and maybe two-thirds of the game at Notre Dame. But against Washington, Oregon, Wisconsin and Stanford twice, not much at all. That two of those were the last two games of the season and three of the final four is a legacy Clay Helton has to get behind him.

So here we go. Our look ahead, game by game, week by week, at 2016:

USC vs. ALABAMA at Arlington, Tex. (Sept. 3): Easy call say the oddsmakers who have Bama’s defending champs 10-point favorites despite a new quarterback, no Heisman running back, lots of new linemen on both sides of the ball and a number of missing top defenders for Nick Saban. We like that spot for a Trojans team that has the speed and playmakers, now that the tight ends are in the mix, to cause some issues for a Tide defense that gave up 42 points to Clemson in the championship game. An attacking USC defense will have to give Bama some bad plays to make up for a young, thin, but promising, D-line group that will have to hang in there against a Tide team that will pound it at them. The USC back seven has a chance, if they’re all healthy, to be improved enough to not give up anything easy like last fall. And if USC can run the ball, which they should be able to do even against Bama, this one is close. That’s all you can ask for to start the year.

UTAH STATE at USC (Sept. 10): Not a gimme. These guys can play. Although the Aggies lost a trio of players to the NFL and that has to help USC. Also playing at home for the only time in the first four weeks of the season has to matter for a USC team that has to get back to owning the Coliseum, something that seemed to get lost in the Sarkiffian Era of sanctioned scholarships. Being able to run the ball and attack on defense with USC’s athletes should make this a day for the Trojans.

USC at STANFORD (Sept. 17): As much as USC failed to show up in last year’s two games against the Cardinal, this series hasn’t been that one-sided recently. The Trojans had won the previous two so now all they have to do is figure out how not to allow our Heisman pick, Chris McCaffrey, a five-yard running start every time he handles the ball against USC, which seemed like every other play at least as he gained 461 yards of total offense in the championship game. Cut that down to 261 and the Trojans win in Palo Alto to get the Pac-12 off to a good start. We think they will. They certainly can in a year when USC for the first time in a long time should have the edge across the offensive front against a new-look Stanford defense.

USC at UTAH (Friday, Sept. 23): Just six days to the next game in Salt Lake City on Friday night, a Pac-12 scheduling screwup – that’s the generous interpretation -- that USC should have said no to. But USC didn’t. So now the Trojans have to make it work for them against a revenge-minded Utah team that saw its national hopes ruined at the Coliseum last season. But without their quarterback, running back and three linebackers, the Utes should be at a talent deficit that USC should be able to make work for them in getting off to two road wins to open league play.

ARIZONA STATE at USC (Oct. 1): Back home at last for a Pac-12 game, the Trojans face another South Division rival looking for revenge. And as much as the Sun Devils say they’ve figured out what went wrong in 2015, ASU has already won its Hail Mary game in LA this decade. Not going to happen this year. USC should be able to run the ball in games like this to control the outcome from the get-go against another opponent with a new quarterback.

COLORADO AT USC (Oct. 8): Two weeks in a row at home in an October with three of USC’s four games at the Coliseum should give the Trojans a chance to get charged up for the finish. Colorado is better. Just not better enough to get to USC in a game that matters at the Coliseum. Again, the ability to exert their will on the ground while denying it to an opponent will allow USC to throw it when the Trojans want and turn teams like the Buffs one-dimensional on offense.

USC at ARIZONA (Oct. 15): Always exciting when USC heads to the desert. RichRod’s revamped Wildcats probably aren’t going to be all that stout on defense, especially against the run. Which should play into what USC should be doing every game – controlling things with its offensive line. It’s the unequalizer if you can do that. All the spread and hurryup offense in the world won’t do you any good if your offense can’t get on the field. Trojans should be good to go here.

CAL at USC (Thursday, Oct. 27): After a bye Saturday, USC comes home for a Thursday night game against Cal so start early, Trojan fans. Look for the model that USC will use against pass-happy, wide-open Pac-12 teams like Cal, even with a new quarterback now that No. 1 pick Jared Goff is gone. Run the ball, determine the game is played the way you want it and throw it when you choose to and let your defense give the Bears enough bad plays to slow down their offense. That should get it done for a USC team with more talent than Cal has to keep the 12-game win streak going.

OREGON AT USC (Nov. 5): A November to remember starts – and ends – in the Coliseum beginning with a revenge game against an Oregon team that embarrassed a confused USC defense in Eugene a year ago. Not sure if Oregon will be able to replace QB Vernon Adams or defend well enough to, again, stop a USC ground attack that should be able to control the way this game is played and force the Ducks to take some chances. Get after the Oregon ground game, give them enough bad plays to force them to throw it. Sounds familiar? It should. It will be the USC formula in 10 of 12 games on the schedule.

USC at WASHINGTON (Nov. 12): Another revenge game for an upset loss that sent Steve Sarkisian packing last fall when he failed to show up sober for the next practice. This one won’t be easy in Seattle but no way USC can be as unprepared as the Trojans were last fall. No change in the formula even if UW is more sound and less wide-open than some of the other Pac-12 people the Trojans play. This one won’t be easy even if USC has more talent. It had more talent a year ago and a lot of good that did.

USC AT UCLA (Nov. 19): Revenge games everywhere. UCLA won’t be as good, it would appear, but much will depend on how the season is going for the Bruins and QB Josh Rosen. If they’re in the hunt, and their fans are filling the Rose Bowl, this will not be easy. If things have gone south for Jim Mora & Co., and USC fans occupy half the Rose Bowl, this becomes a different game. Although maybe the same game as a year ago when a more physical USC team managed to run the ball right at the Bruins, hit them on special teams and scored on a turnover and punt return while hassling Rosen with the pass rush and man coverage. Sounds like a winner.

NOTRE DAME AT USC (Nov. 26): And now for one final regular season shot at righting a loss from last fall that didn’t have to end up that way, not if USC had more time to prepare after the dismissal of Sark the Monday before the game in South Bend. But the Trojans didn’t have that time. This year they will. And they should be able to finish the final quarter. And they did make it interesting against a Notre Dame team that was more talented than this one appears to be. We think USC will do better this time around.

So there you have it. Vegas has USC’s over-under wins at just under nine. We think, with the right breaks and good health, this USC team could do a bit better than that -- despite the schedule.

Or maybe because of it -- if USC gets off to a fast-enough start, then the longer the season goes on, that tough beginning could help them carry on through to the end. If . . .

You can follow me on Twitter at @dweber3440 or email me at weber@uscfootball.com.

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