Welcome to summer! One of, if not the least exciting times for college sports. For most Trojan fans there is not much to get excited about. The only thing that seems to fill the gap is ruminating on the upcoming football season. Spring football has been over for a short while, and already the experts are proffering their predictions about the fate of the Trojans. Top 5? Top 10? Playoff contender? Total disaster?
One thing is for certain, just about everyone seems to be excited about USC. How excited we should be seems to be a matter of debate. Some think the Trojans can make a serious playoff push, other's think USC will be just a game or two shy of winning the PAC 12 Championship (yet again). This is the unpredictable world of college football though so really the only thing you can be sure of is that no one really knows for sure.
Our friends at Pacific Takes are cautiously optimistic about the Trojans being a top 10 team:
A lot of people are pumping this up as a big year for the Trojans, but I am not entirely sold yet. Sure, having Cody Kessler back as a senior with some really nice pieces like Juju Smith, Max Tuerk and Su'a Cravens also returning, but they have a lot of questions all across their depth chart. However, if they can get some offensive playmakers to emerge around Kessler and Smith, their offensive line matures as they should and their returning defensive players step up and stay healthy, they are probably a Top 5 team."
JuJu Smith should have a great season, but the offense will need other wide receivers and running backs to emerge. Fortunately USC has a couple of easier games to help newer offensive stars some momentum before a tough matchup with Stanford. However, with all due respect to the folks at Pacific Takes, finding new talent every year has historically not been much of a problem for the Trojans.
Mark Schlabach's way too early top 5 focused on the importance of the Trojans staying healthy but he still believes USC to be a top 5 team.
"If the Trojans stay healthy in Year 2 under coach Steve Sarkisian, they might have enough talent to challenge Oregon for a Pac-12 title and a spot in the playoffs. Quarterback Cody Kessler is one of the country's more underrated passers, and JuJu Smith and Adoree' Jackson are emerging playmakers. Safety Su'a Cravens leads a talented USC defense that will have to replace All-American defensive end Leonard Williams."
Lack of depth is not exactly a new concern since the NCAA dropped the hammer on the Trojans. The reduction in scholarships certainly increased the impact of every injury on the roster. It is difficult to play "next man up" when there is no next man. The lack of bodies likely also contributed to the endurance problems and inability to finish games as well. USC really has not had the ability to give players any rest because there were fewer viable backups to swap in for a series or two. Schlabach's concerns are valid, but not exactly new. If the Trojans can find a way to mitigate the depth issues, and have some of the new players step up this is a team that will do some damage.
Gary Paskwietz from wearesc.com focuses on two other major issues standing in between USC and a playoff run. The first is Coach Sark, the second is the brutal schedule, particularly in November.
"There is still a coaching staff that is finding its way in its second year at USC, one that has seen great success on the recruiting trail and is looking to see those efforts pay off on the field. There is also the matter of some other pretty decent teams in the Pac-12 that the Trojans will face along the way. The conference is as strong as ever and it's important to remember that, before USC can even make the playoff, there would have to be a first-ever appearance in the conference title game, and that would only come after road games in Tempe and Eugene, as well as the oh-so-important season finale against the Bruins."
Frankly, Coach Sark, despite his recruiting prowess, has yet to demonstrate that he can turn talent into championships. This is a concern that will not go away on its own. Sark will have to win at least a conference championship before alleviating these concerns.
The schedule certainly will be a challenge, but that is true to some extent for all the teams in the PAC 12. On the road against Notre Dame is always a big deal, but USC will have to turn around and face Utah the following week which is difficult, but manageable.
The Bigger concern however will be the month of November. The Trojans start the month off with the homecoming game against the defending Pac 12 South Champions. Six days after the Arizona contest, the Trojans travel to Colorado to play the Buffalos in a Friday night matchup. Given their next two opponents, the timing, the quality of opponent and playing away from home, this could actually turn out to be a huge trap game for USC similar to the Boston College debacle. If the Trojans can avoid the trap (and they should) then they will be fine.
After a potential "easy" opponent like Colorado, the Trojans must prepare for a brutal two-week grind to finish the regular season. On November 21st the Trojans head to Oregon to play one of the best teams in the nation, on the road, likely in very poor weather conditions. With the limited and speculative information we have right now, it is tough to see USC winning this game but like I said before, the only thing for sure is that nothing is for sure. Finally the Trojans will wrap up the regular season at home against UCLA and you do not need me to explain how that will be a challenging week.
The roster, the coaching, and the schedule are three crucial elements for success to be sure. Yet, the NCAA imposed roster concerns are being alleviated, and the schedule is difficult but manageable. The biggest question is Coach Sark; can he win more than 9 games in a season? An accomplishment he has yet to achieve as a head coach. Sure there are questions, every team has them, but we are USC, it is hard not to be optimistic about the football season. Be sure to share your thoughts in the comments section.