Another season of USC football is still months away, and with that comes anticipation and lofty expectations for a return to college football domination. With the LA Rams back in town to compete with local fandom devotion, Clay Helton and the Trojans will need to work to resurrect the cardinal and gold after trudging through a tumultuous Sark-run era. Because the Trojans are, well, the Trojans anything worse than a 10-win season is pretty much a failure.
What are the biggest obstacles in front of them as they embark on a 2016-17 season full of promise?
Three of USC's opponents are in Phil Steele's projected AP Top 11.
1. Alabama Crimson Tide --
USC opens the season against the defending national champions and Phil's No. 1.
A season opener is spirited and full of promise and whether we like to think of it this way or not, a measuring stick on how the team is "graded" for the rest of the season. It is a morale booster that can help a team build on the year, and it gets fans excited. No team, especially USC, wants to start off with a notch in the loss column.
Unfortunately for the Trojans, there's no easing into the season. And it is not going to be a throwaway game when they face Nick Saban's brutally-pounding defensive line on Sep 3. Any year against the Crimson Tide is going to be a challenge but when the Trojans will start a brand new quarterback taking the offensive reigns for the very first time, it's going to be far cry from a walk in the park in Arlington.
Even with the loss of Jarran Reed and A'Shawn Robinson to the NFL draft, the Tide will have DE Jonathan Allen returning for his senior season. That's the thing about ‘Bama---even when it "loses" players, having the No. 1 recruiting class for four consecutive years makes it easy for them to just lock and reload. Then there's sophomore Daron Payne has shown he is worthy of taking the top spot at nose tackle. His agility and quickness at 6-foot-2 and 319 pounds, (4.93 in the 40-yard dash), is going to be daunting.
We can only hope that USC's veteran O-line, led by senior Zach Banner, will be strong enough to protect the newly-minted QB...whoever it is going to be.
The Trojans do have some worthy weapons of their own. Juju Smith-Schuster and his infamous stiff-arm will challenge sophomore corner Marlon Humphrey, who is coming off a toe injury from the national championship game.
9. Stanford Cardinal --
Then just two games later, USC will have to face the reigning Pac-12 champions to open conference play. Since NCAA sanctions in 2005, USC has lost the last seven of 11 meetings.
Stanford's options in the backfield are intimidating. First, there's RB/WR/KR/PR Christian McCaffrey, who has been every Trojan's nightmares after he rushed for 207 yards, scored and threw a touchdown in the loss for the conference title in 2015. He's also the guy who racked up the most all-purpose yards in a single season. He'll be back with a vengeance, alongside sophomore RB Bryce Love, whose 10.7-second 100-meter dash speed has everyone taking notice.
And, USC is rebuilding its entire defensive line. So, there's that.
On defense, who can ignore the 275-pound Solomon Thomas? As one of the Cardinal's top players with 10.5 tackles for loss in 2015. There's no reason the sophomore won't continue to wreak havoc in 2016.
But if history is ever a telling factor in this "bitter" in-state rivalry, USC can take pride in leading the series 60-31, right?
11. Notre Dame Fighting Irish --
And last but not least on Phil's Top 11 is USC's pesky intersectional rival, another team USC failed to finish off last season.
It was the first game for the Trojans after Sark's firing, and the players had a lot to distract them from football.
With 10 starters returning, including QB duo DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire, Notre Dame's depth chart will be in full onslaught mode.
And who would like to forget C.J. Prosise, the kid who who rushed for 143 yards and 2 touchdowns, and former USC player Amir Carlisle, who blocked a punt for a score in the 41-31 loss?
Luckily for the Trojans, they won't be back this season.
And the final game of the season will be played at the Coliseum. The home team is sure to boast an ever-improving and enigmatic RoJo II, who will wreak havoc with his quick bursts of speed and elusive presence.
USC will handle the Irish, turn The Farm into a battlefield against the Cardinal, but the Crimson Tide?
They're a whole different beast.
Their depth chart is so stacked that USC will need to persevere through the Texas humidity and play a perfect game to overcome the merciless ‘Bama.
But we're still four months away. And in the Trojans' world, no team is too tough to beat. Not even the reigning national champions.