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USC Football 2016: Can the Trojans return to the Pac-12 Championship game?

The USC Trojans have plenty of new faces, but can they return to the Pac-12 Championship Game?

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Last season was a step in the right direction for USC going 8-6 overall and 6-3 in the conference before losing to an explosive Stanford team 41-22 in the Pac-12 Championship Game.

However, now the layout is a bit different as a new coach, new offensive coordinator, and new starting quarterback will be leading the charge in the 2016 campaign. Certainly the Trojans still have plenty of talent on both sides of the ball as explosive 1,000-yard receiver Juju Smith-Schuster, and crafty back Ronald Jones II are just some of the catalysts returning for the program.

However, the new core on offense combined with the new overall philosophy will prevent them from returning to the conference's pinnacle game. The Trojans certainly have the pieces to be competitive. However, how will they all fit together?

As it stands right now, redshirt junior Max Browne and freshman Sam Darnold are expected to compete for the position and how they respond to the duties of starting quarterback will determine the fate of the 2016 season.

Browne was able to see game action on three separate occasions in the 2015 season, with his best game coming against Arkansas State in the season opener. He went 3-of-5 passing, throwing for 66 yards including a 35-yard toss that was his longest of the day. His 170.9 quarterback rating contributed to a 55-6 win.

He saw the field again the next week as he went 4-6 for 43 yards, as he was called upon again during a 59-9 rout of Idaho. Two weeks later, he completed a pass for four yards as the Trojans defeated Arizona 42-14.

During USC Spring Game, he looked like a seasoned veteran going 7-of-11 passing, amassing 114 yards and three touchdowns.

Certainly, Browne's in-game sample size is small. However, it is certainly very encouraging. Efficiency is the main thing I see looking at the numbers. He is similar to Cody Kessler in that way. Kessler never had a completion percentage below 65 percent with his percentage reaching a career-high 69.7 percent in 2014. Much like Browne, Kessler received little action in his freshman year of 2012, completing two passes for nine yards.

A four-star recruit out of San Clemente High School, Sam Darnold is a dual-threat quarterback who has the potential to bring versatility to the offense. He has impressed enough to create a quarterback battle, one that will continue into fall camp and has had a tremendous spring of his own.

He too shined in the Spring Game going 6-for-7 passing for 63 yards and two touchdowns.

Although both have impressed during the spring, putting their talents on display during the regular season will be a bit more challenging once the pads are put on and things begin to move at game speed. Coach Clay Helton said recently that the starting quarterback will be decided after fall camp, and right now who will be under center for the September 3 opener against Alabama is anyone's guess.

However, whether it be Browne or Darnold, there is no denying that they will be thrown into the fire and tested from the get-go. It is for that reason that the youth movement at the quarterback position will be what stands in the way of a return trip to the Pac-12 Championship Game for the Trojans. They will get there, just probably not this season.