Now that head coach Clay Helton has announced his starting quarterback, going with the experienced Max Browne, all eyes are on USC’s season opener against defending National Champions Alabama in Jerry’s World. A loss would make Helton the first USC coach since 1960, when the legendary John McKay got off to a rocky start, to lose his first three games as head coach.
Unfortunately for Helton, the schedule doesn’t get any easier. The Trojans will face three teams ranked in the preseason AP Top 15 - Alabama (No. 1), Stanford (No. 8), and Notre Dame (No. 10) - and another three in the Top 25 - Washington (No. 14), UCLA (No. 16), and Oregon (No. 24). Four of those six games will be away from the Coliseum, where the Trojans went 3-4 (including post-season) last year.
Fortunately for the Trojans, they have avoided the national spotlight in the preseason. Heck, even College Game Day chose to go to LSU vs. Wisconsin instead of Bama--USC. The Trojans are an experienced squad, returning 15 starters (nine on offense, six on defense) from last year’s PAC-12 South Championship squad. However, the Trojans have glaring holes on both sides of the ball, most notably the lack of depth along the defensive line.
Despite the rough schedule, Trojan fans will expect Helton to have USC competing for the College Football Playoff. A quick glance at the schedule, and I come out thinking there is no way USC, with a new quarterback and coaching staff, will be in the national conversation. Let’s dive in and take a closer look at the Trojan’s schedule.
Week 1: “Neutral Site” vs. Alabama (Arlington, Texas)
Win Probability: 45%
There’s a reason Alabama is the No. 1 team in the AP’s preseason Top 25. However, the Crimson Tide lost 13 players to the NFL from last season’s National Championship squad, including Heisman winner Derrick Henry. But the recruits never stop coming. Saban will have another No. 1 recruiting class, his fifth top ranked class in the past six years, to fill in the holes.
The Trojans will actually be the more experienced squad going into this matchup. I’d give the Trojans a higher winning percentage if Max Browne wasn’t making his first ever start against a Saban led defense. Not to mention the matchup is basically an Alabama home game. Tuscaloosa is a mere 600 miles from AT&T Stadium, while Los Angeles is 1,442 miles away. USC will compete but Alabama will pull away in the second half, most likely off an untimely turnover.
Final: 31-17 Alabama
Week 2: Home vs. Utah State
Win Probability: 75%
The Trojans have won their last two home openers by a combined 88 points. Don’t expect Utah State to get run over like Fresno St. and Arkansas St. did the past two years. The Aggies have a solid defense that ranked in the top 35 for the past three years. Fortunately for the Trojans, several key players, including all four starting linebackers, graduated last season. Expect Utah State to come out punching, they are one of the few non-Power 5 schools who does not fear a team like USC.
Final: 42-24 USC
Week 3: Away at Stanford
Win Probability: 50%
Disregarding last season’s PAC-12 Championship Game, the past half decade of USC-Stanford match-ups have been as close as possible. Here’s the point differential and winner in every game since 2010: 10 (2015 - Stanford), 3 (2014 - USC), 3 (2013 - USC), 7 (2012 - Stanford), 8 (2011 Triple OT - Stanford), 2 (2010 - Stanford). Last season was the first time a team in this series won by double digits since 2009.
The Trojan’s biggest chance at victory will hinge on whether or not they can contain do-it-all superstar Christian McCaffrey. The 2015 Heisman Finalist torched the Trojans for 432 all-purpose yards (207 rushing, 105 receiving, and 120 returning) in the Conference Championship. The Trojan’s weak defensive line will most likely be their achilles heel in this matchup.
Final: 24-21 Stanford
Week 4: Away at Utah
Win Probability: 60%
Did I mention how tough USC’s schedule is? I did? Okay, just checking. After playing a presumably highly contested game against Stanford, the Trojans will head to Salt Lake City for a short week-Friday night game. That seems...fair?
The Utes are coming off their first 10-win season as a member of the PAC-12 and head coach Kyle Whittingham has put Utah back on the map after falling off after going 13-0 in 2008. Last season the Trojans brought Utah back down to earth, after they started the season 6-0 and were ranked No. 3, with a 42-24 shellacking at the Coliseum
The Utes have a lot of change in their roster this season: a new quarterback, running back, and front seven on defense, but Whittingham does a great job of filling in holes with JUCO and undervalued Utah-grown talent. The Utes have a lot of change to make but I am not ready to write them off. Joe Williams is a solid replacement for the departed Devontae Booker, and an experience offensive line should cause problems for the Trojan defense.
Whittingham always has his players prepared and they will be out for revenge after last season’s humiliating loss.
Final: 24-20 USC
Week 5: Home vs. Arizona State
Win Probability: 85%
The schedule finally lightens up for the Trojans as four of their next five games are at home. The Sun Devils are in the midst of a big rebuild after a disappointing 2015 season that saw them go 6-7. ASU will have to replace departing quarterback Mike Bercovici and their top two-wide-receivers from last season, DJ Foster and Devin Lucien.
However, nothing is easy in the PAC-12. The Sun Devils will challenge the Trojans, but USC’s vast athletic superiority should ensure a victory.
Final: 42-24 USC
Week 6: Home vs. Colorado
Win Probability: 99%
USC has never lost to Colorado, going 10-0 all time. Don’t expect that to change this year. The Buffs have made strides in past seasons but still lack way behind the Trojans in terms of talent. A loss to Colorado should put Helton immediately on the hot seat.
Final: 49-21 USC
Week 7: Away at Arizona
Win Probability: 65%
There are a lot of questions surrounding the Wildcats as they enter the 2016 season. The departure of linebacker Scooby Wright hurts and the Wildcats have a strangely close battle for quarterback between returner Anu Solomon and sophomore Brandon Dawkins.
Arizona has an inexperienced defense that the likes of JuJu Smith-Schuster and Ronald Jones should expose. However, last season was the first time since 2010 that USC beat both Arizona and ASU in the same season. The Arizona schools play tough against USC. Expect USC to have to scrap out a hard fought win in Tucson.
Final: 31-27 USC
Week 9: Home vs. Cal (Thursday Night)
Win Probability: 70%
USC finally gets a week off after facing the hardest seven weeks in college football. Unfortunately for them, whoever made the schedules doesn’t believe in fairness. The Trojans get a week off only to have to play their following game on a short week.
The Trojans haven’t lost to CAL since the 2003 season. Don’t expect that to change. CAL lost their best player, Jared Goff, to the NFL and were not even that competitive with him last season.
Final: 35-13 USC
Week 10: Home vs. Oregon
Win Probability: 50%
The nice thing about that Thursday night game against CAL is the fact that USC gets an extra two days to prepare for Oregon. This isn’t the Oregon of the past, but the Ducks still boast plenty of speed and athleticism on their roster.
Graduate transfer Dakota Prukop was brought in to take over the reigns for the departed Vernon Adams. Junior Bryce Freeman is one of the best running backs in the PAC-12, rushing for over 100 yards in nine straight games last season.
After having one of the worst defenses in the PAC-12 last season, the Ducks brought in former Michigan coach Brady Hoke. The Ducks have a loads of returners on defense and will need those veterans to play up to their experience level.
USC has the experience and skill to beat the Ducks, but history isn’t on their side. The Trojans haven’t beaten the Ducks at home since 2008.
Final: 48-47 Oregon
Week 11: Away at Washington
Win Probability: 45%
The Huskies are everyone’s favorite “underdog” story entering the season. Chris Peterson seems to have Washington on the National spotlight after seeing improvements each of the past season.
The Huskies return all five starters on the offensive line and the true freshman duo of quarterback Jake Browning and running back Myles Gaskin showed flashes last season. On the defensive side of the ball, the Huskies return seven starters from last season including safety Buddy Baker.
The Trojans are going to have a hard time airing the ball out against a strong Husky secondary. With a presumably rainy November game on hand, the Trojans are going to have to lean on the duo of Justin Davis and Ronald Jones to get the offense rolling.
Final: 17-14 USC
Week 12: Away at UCLA
Win Probability: 75%
Josh Rosen is too cocky for winning 8 games last season. USC rides the momentum from a big win in Seattle and beats their crosstown rivals for the second consecutive season.
Final: 50-0 USC (okay maybe not)
Week 13: Home vs. Notre Dame
Win Probability: 50%
Notre Dame gets their star backfield back after both Malik Zaire and Tarean Folston went down with season ending injuries last season. However, the loss of stud wide receiver Will Fuller hurts the offense. The Fighting Irish return three big starters on the line and will look to run the ball heavily.
The Irish have one glaring hole in their team: run defense. The Irish gave up over 200 or more yards 200 times last season. The loss of Jaylon Smith doesn’t help a rush defense that gave up 175 yards per game last season.
Expect a slugfest when these two teams face off in the last week of the season. The winner might come down to who has the ball last.
Final: 31-28 Notre Dame
Final Season Prediction: 8-4, PAC-12 South Champions