So where does this USC team stand going into the first fall practice Thursday? What do we know? What can't we know? And where does that leave us?

It was the unanswerable question at last week's Trojan Football Fanatics get-together down in Vista. And right to the point.

"How many games is this team going to win?" the Trojan fan wanted to know. Simple, straightforward, no-nonsense.

How many, indeed?

As someone who will answer anything and everything asked about USC football and as fast as they can get the questions teed up, I passed. I don't know for certain what the ceiling is for this USC team although we do have some memories in recent seasons about exactly where the bottom is.

Sure, we know how much better programs like Alabama's and Stanford's have been than USC's in recent years. And we know a decently smart, thoughtful guy like Fox Sports' Stewart Mandel can find room for five Pac-12 teams in his Top 25 this week, all from 11 to 17, and not a spot for USC.

So what does that say other than Stewart was occupado elsewhere during Pac-12 Media Days? But then who wasn't?

Sure, he's thinking that Clay Helton, after what happened to USC in three of last year's final four games with him in charge -- against Oregon, Stanford and Wisconsin -- is hardly going to be ready for Alabama and another Christian McCaffrey-led Stanford team that did whatever it wanted to USC in December.

To be honest, Stewart clearly thinks an unranked USC isn't ready for UCLA and Utah, his 14th and 17th teams, despite USC thrashing both of them under Helton with that leftover, mismatched Steve Sarkisian staff. So no way the Trojans survive his No. 1 Tide pick Sept. 3. Or his No. 11 Stanford pick Sept. 17.

No ratings for you, USC, Stewart says. But is he right? Probably not.

But he's not alone. ESPN's College GameDay passed on the season-opening matchup of two of the top five programs in college football history, just validated this week by the last 80 years of Associated Press polling and with one of the two the defending national champions. Not too long ago they'd have sold their souls for that game to start the season. Instead, they're hiking up to Green Bay's Lambeau Field for LSU and Wisconsin.

The message? If USC wants to be on College GameDay, they're going to have to earn it. Here's an easy proposition. Beat Alabama and is there even the slightest doubt USC-Stanford will be on GameDay two weeks later?

But that's one of those "we'll believe it when we see it," for many in the national media, who will get their chance to see it if USC actually does it. Beat Alabama, or play the Tide tough, or beat Stanford, and you make them say something different is going on here from the last four or five years. And as much as we resisted the moniker, that "Clown College" thrown USC's way wasn't all that far off the mark at times.

An 8-6 season ending with a thud and a coaching search that didn't leave Heritage Hall has the USC program where it is right now, not taken all that seriously by the Bama folks. Check out any of the Tide fan sites. UCLA's boards right now have 10 times the number of USC posts than the Bama boards do. Bama is used to out-of-conference mismatches. Ho hum, just another one apparently.

No need to disabuse them of that. Just let it play out. Stanford too. And Utah and UCLA and Washington (Stewart's No. 13 team) and his No. 16 Washington State (guess USC could play the Cougs in the championship game). So does all of this make sense?

Of course not. But it's college football. It's not supposed to make sense.

But here's what makes sense to us. This isn't the USC team that finished the year. We interviewed Zach Banner after that last game, a Zach Banner north of 380 pounds who didn't find it all that easy to get up off the bench in front of his locker. He's 345 today -- and doing chin-ups. We couldn't talk to Chad Wheeler that day, he was unavailable with off-the-field issues -- and just 290. He's 317 today.

That's an Alabama-like -- or more -- senior starting tackle combo averaging 6-feet-8 and 326 pounds. Is that enough? Guess we're going to find out. But it's a legitimate question to ask now. It would not have been last December should a matchup with the No. 1 Tide have happened.

That some folks are still looking at last December's USC team shoudn't bother anyone. What else can they do? People here don't know what to think. No quarterback named, no chance. But Bama doesn't have one either and the four guys coming off spring look way behind USC's Max Browne and Sam Darnold, right? Doesn't matter.

History counts. Didn't a sanctions-limited USC, off a Lane Kiffin-led 10-2 strong-finishing 2011, find itself No. 1 going into that first-to-worst year ending in the Sun Bowl debacle go South basically thanks to history? It did. No way they should have been No. 1. And then the Trojans got punched in the mouth.

How will this team handle that punch? How will this staff? Is it fair to make comparisons to the competitive environment of the early Pete Carroll turnaround years? Or the talent?

What happened this spring and summer says it is fair to at least think those thoughts. This is not the Clay Helton crew -- coaches and/or players -- of the Holiday Bowl holiday from football and physicality. Clay has learned his lesson. Rookie mistake in his second bowl practice.

This is a team that works five days a week, not four as in the past, and maybe does twice as much running for the skill guys in the player-run practices that we've seen -- and for the linemen, an unquantifiable amount more.

They're probably not going to get out-run. And after watching last year's UCLA game on Pac-12 replay the other night, it was shocking how out of shape -- relatively -- that slow-moving Trojan team looked. And how uncertain even in a game that got pretty one-sided against a Bruins team Mandel thinks so highly of. That team is not this team.

So should the Trojans be underdogs to six opponents in Mandel's Top 25, a prediction that if true would have them barely bowl-eligible?

We think not.

But what we say here matters not a whit. What they do here, and have done since January, does.

Clay started it with the double hit from Western Kentucky -- O-line coach Neil Callaway and younger brother Tyson, bringing all the smart -- and tough, physical and innovative stuff WKU did -- with them. Tommie Robinson would have walked back from Texas to return to coaching USC's backs. Those who know him would have walked to Austin to get him back. And John Baxter back from Michigan sent the message that USC teams have too many athletes to be so so-so on special teams.

The return of Clancy Pendergast said that no Trojan team will stand around on defense any more. This is not a game to play afraid or without the aggressiveness that 2003 USC team went after Auburn in shutting the Tigers out down Alabama way. Letting Clancy hire his pick in the secondary, Ronnie Bradford, said we want these coaches to be on the same page on defense again. It works better that way. Having Johnny Nansen move over to outside linebacker next to Clancy, who will handle the inside guys, seems about right. Giving a Trojan great like Kenechi Udeze a chance to break into coaching on the D-line and brig back some of that PC-magic, well, it might be a bit of a reach but BKU is a tough, no-nonsense guy with a great story.

This is your team, Clay told these guys. How good do you want to be? It's up to you. From what we can see, it looks like they're practicing what Clay has been preaching. There's a lot of coaching going on in the PRPs. And with no coaches anywhere in sight -- or even in town.

But it's not all the players. Clay has decided that no more will they be living in the Radisson with maid service. They've checked into Fluor Tower and will police their own living quarters, where they'll be grouped by position to keep the football talk going at night.

And with the clearing of Cameron Smith for all team activities, the whole gang is here. OK, except for Isaiah Langley for Game 1, but that's another message sent that this team is in a different place.

And yet when push comes to shove, does USC have the physical force, especially on the recently shored-up defensive front, to push back as hard as it must? No way to know that. And on offense -- same question. We'll see.

And can Clay & Co., with a first-time offensive coordinator in Tee Martin, handle the pressure of the prime-time spotlight and get the ball to the Trojans' explosive athletes in space the way they could not against Stanford and Wisconsin?

Nothing we say here today will impact that. What this Trojan team does the next 32 days will. They've done as much as they could since staggering to the finish line last fall already. But that was then.

It's August now. And Alabama is a month away. And some will say, USC has no chance.

What say you, Trojans? 

Fourth and final in a series of USC 2016 team previews.

You can follow me on Twitter at @dweber3440 or email me at

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