Shotgun Spratling | USCfootball.com

Taking it 12 games, maybe more, at a time

It's never too early, apparently, to look ahead at what awaits USC next fall. And while we're at it, why not go all the way and take it 12 games, maybe more, in one fell swoop here.

Now that everybody and their brother -- sister, too -- has put out a "way too early" Top 25 lists for next fall as soon as this season was over, we'll join the fun here by looking at what awaits a USC team that has earned -- if that's the word for it -- projections anywhere from No. 1 to No. 5 on these lists.

The consensus is somewhere between second and third, behind Alabama and in the mix with Florida State, Ohio State and Oklahoma and just ahead of Penn State and Washington.

Seems about right. With an emphasis on the "seems" and "about" because at this point, when we still don't know the complete list of who's going and staying, who'll be completely ready and rehabbed, who steps up and who doesn't, or what happens at 12 other programs for starters, we're necessarily painting with broad strokes here.

No scouting report this. But with the freedom of not having to limit ourselves to just one of these at a time, as the axiom goes, once a week, it can be fun and instructive to look ahead 12 games -- and maybe more -- at a time before you do have to pretty much limit yourselves to doing it once a week. Which will come soon enough.

But not to put a fine point on this, we don't even know when the USC spring game will occur. So clearly we're dealing with unknowns to a great extent.

What we do know is that USC will open against Western Michigan Sept. 2 at the Coliseum. That's a Western Michigan team that under its departed hot young coach P.J. Fleck, now at Minnesota, where six of WMU's top recruits followed him, also on their way to Minnesota and without the quarterback-wide receiver tandem of Zach Terrell and All-American Corey Davis who could play anywhere for anybody, what the Broncos will bring to this game after losing to Wisconsin in the Cotton Bowl is a program that's won 13 of its last 14 games. But one that is nowhere near the team that did that. But a good place for USC to start.

What we don't know for absolute certain but looks like it has to be is that once again, USC and Stanford will open the Pac-12 Conference schedule in what always could be a preview of the conference championship game at season's end. Crazy, huh? No other conference does that, taking a certain whack at one of its nationally competitive, year-in, year-out programs right away.

But the Pac-12 says it's the only way it can accommodate both teams' alternating mid-season and end-of-season games against Notre Dame. So it looks like Sept. 9 it is for Stanford, also at the Coliseum. Looking at the full Pac-12 scheduling possibilities, it doesn't look like there's anywhere else to go with this game this season.

Not that that's necessarily a bad thing for USC. Stanford will have moved on from the Chris McCaffrey Era and if its Sun Bowl win over North Carolina is any indication, moved on decently. But with doubts as to injured quarterback Keller Chryst's status after ACL surgery, and the memory of USC's failure to fire in Palo Alto last season, this should be an entirely different matchup. Sam Darnold, who barely played in that 27-10 embarrassment, assures that.

To our way of thinking, this will be the biggest game in USC's season. How long has it been since USC came out firing and looking like it knew who it was and what it was all about against the Cardinal? That can no longer be the standard. For this USC team to be what it -- and USC fans -- expect it to be, it must come out the way Alabama did in its opener against USC last September.

That's how you do it when you're in the national spotlight and USC is in the national spotlight. No way to avoid it. No way to tiptoe into the 2017 season. No way to put on the brakes, as some are calling for, on next season. It's too late for that.

The Stanford game, where USC's passing game and a second year of Clancy Pendergast's defense should match up well, will tell us where this team is.

But the next week, Sept. 16 -- also at the Coliseum for a third straight weekend -- is already being cited in some of those "way too early" stories for a number of reasons. It's the Texas-USC rematch of that 2006 game that we've heard about as the greatest game in college football history the last 10 days after USC's historic 52-49 Rose Bowl win over Penn State and Clemson's stirring win over Alabama in the national title game.

It's new coach Tom Herman's first big game heading a clearly talented Texas team with its own Heisman-candidate quarterback in Shane Buechele that should be the national game of the day that everyone hopes it will be at a time when we're now seeing more of these kinds of top intersectional tests.

Again, advantage USC, it would seem. Especially at home. But only if they show up ready to perform the way the Trojans did in the fourth quarter in last week's Rose Bowl. For a second week in a row. And in front of Trojan fans for a third straight week.

Not a bad way to start. If USC is ready to start with an offense that we expect to be able to block the run game better than it did this season with a slimmed-down, more athletic, more versatile, although less-experienced, offensive line. That will be the challenge.

But not the only one. USC must shore up its defensive front seven with a replacement -- by a group effort clearly -- for Stevie Tu'ikolovatu at nose and a fully-healed Cameron Smith at inside linebacker supported by a number of young athletic guys stepping in for the leadership of graduates Michael Hutchings and Quinton Powell.

The only other game with a set date is the every-other-year trek to South Bend Oct. 21 for Notre Dame. Which if you'll note is about as late as that game is ever played. And not to play weather man here, but USC had better be ready to slug it out -- maybe slog it out is more like it -- against a wounded Fighting Irish program that would not seem to have the manpower to pull this off.

But the Irish will have the kind of desperate motivation and what seems to be a mostly new coaching staff for Brian Kelly whose tenure is about as secure as Clay Helton's was at the end of September.

Again, just the way USC had to be in its one-and-out run to a nine-game win streak that's second in the nation to Oklahoma's 10, this will be another of those games USC had better be ready to fight its way through. As if that wasn't ever the case in South Bend. That's what great teams do.

Now for the rest of the schedule -- the eight Pac-12 games that need to find a place. For starters, this is the year USC gets five conference games at home with just four on the road. In addition to Stanford, Arizona, UCLA, Utah and newcomer Oregon State will come to the Coliseum.

USC will travel to Arizona State, Cal, Colorado and Washington State. The only certainties there are that Tempe will be early so that it's mid-90s or higher, Colorado will be a Friday night game late with temps in the 20's, Washington State will be on a rainy weekend in the Palouse, or maybe a really hot day or a cold and freezing night. Hey,it's the Palouse. Who the heck knows. And Cal? Cal will be a weekend game -- unless it's not. Again, who knows?

Having Utah at home is always better than playing the Utes in Salt Lake City. Rebuilding Arizona and Oregon State, also at home, should be manageable.

There's no trip to Washington on the schedule. Or Oregon. That's something of a break although the Seattle trip made this USC team last season. USC will have to substitute the South Bend trip for that challenge.

And with Washington State, you just never know how that will go -- although a high-powered USC offense should be sufficient on trips there as well as to Tempe, Boulder and Berkeley.

But as we said at the end of September, it's one-and-out from here. At least USC must think like that and approach it that way as much as this past season disproved that. After all, USC is the first team in AP Poll history, the organization tells us, to finish at No. 3 in the poll with three losses. Probably not going to see that again.

The bad thing with this schedule is there's no Washington at the end of it where USC made up so much ground last fall. So no stumbles in the early going.

But there is this. There is a 10th game. On Dec. 2 at Levi's Stadium. Where maybe the Washington shot comes. Which is how USC has to hope this plays out.

Although that's not the end of it. If USC makes it to the College Football Playoffs, the path runs through the Rose Bowl New Year's Day in the first round, something that makes the traditional goal for the Trojans program the way to go here. Get to Pasadena again.

That's the way to the championship game at the brand new $1.5 billion Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta Jan. 8. Which is where, when you look at this schedule, USC has to be figuring would be a pretty good place to finish up.

But it's a long, long way to Atlanta from here. The good news is USC has 12 months to get there.

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

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