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Five bold predictions for the 2018 season

USC has a lot of questions but it also has plenty of positives going into the year.

NCAA Football: Cotton Bowl-Ohio State vs Southern California Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Although USC is replacing two key positions on offense at quarterback and running back, the expectation for success is always high for the Trojan faithful.

Coach Clay Helton has officially announced Sunday that true freshman JT Daniels will start Week 1 behind center against UNLV. Of course, the concern is that starting for a renown program like USC may be too much for Daniels’ plate. Fortunately for the Mater Dei product, he’ll have a competitive supporting cast around him, including four returning starters on the offensive line and a collection of weapons on the outside, including his teammate at Mater Dei freshman receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown, who’s also impressed USC’s coaching staff.

For those on the outside looking in, 2018 for the Trojans may feel like a rebuilding year. But anyone who knows anything about the history of USC football knows that is never quite the case for a school that has won 11 national championships.

With that said, here are five bold predictions for USC football for the 2018 season.

1.) JT Daniels will be the PAC-12 Offensive Freshman of the Year

High School: Gatorade Athlete of the Year Awards Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Even though it was only two years ago, the last quarterback to win the PAC-12 offensive freshman of the year award was none other than...Sam Darnold.

Darnold undoubtedly put together an impressive run for the Trojans once he took over the job, leading USC to a Rose Bowl victory. It’s far fetched to think that Daniels will emulate the production that Darnold contributed his first year but the 18-year-old has made headlines at USC camp.

The 6-foot-3 gunslinger clearly doesn’t lack confidence. He opted to forgo his final year of eligibility at Mater Dei to enroll early at USC. Confidence is what coaches want to see in their quarterback and it doesn’t appear that Daniels lacks of any of it.

Those were some of the traits Darnold had in his first season behind center and look how that ended for the Trojans.

2.) Amon-Ra St. Brown will record 1,000 receiving yards in his freshman season

NCAA Football: Arizona at Southern California Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Since we’re already on a freshman note, let’s talk about another first year player expected to make some noise this season. That player would be five-star recruit St. Brown, who is the younger brother of Stanford sophomore wideout Osiris St. Brown.

At 6-foot-1 and 187 pounds, the younger St. Brown sibling was one of the most sought after recruits at his position for the 2018 class. He came into Fall Camp already having the advantage of having playing experience with Daniels.

However, Amon-Ra waisted no time exhibiting his versatile utility to the Trojan coaching staff. Helton has already implied that he intends on utilizing the freshman at the slot and wideout receiver role, similar to what he did with Robert Woods, Nelson Agholor and Juju Smith-Schuster during their rookie years.

“If you remember what we did with JuJu, Nelson and Woody, we never tagged them as outside receiver or inside receiver because we never wanted anybody to find our best guys,” Helton said, per Reign Of Troy’s Alicia de Artola.

Assuming that Helton does use Amon-Ra like he indicated, St. Brown will be in position to put together big receiving yards for the Trojans season like the way Woods, Agholor and Smith-Schuster did during their freshman campaigns.

Assuming Amon-Ra is the capable playmaker he’s been made out to be, he’ll have solid shot of reaching the 1,000 receiving yards plateau, like former USC standout Marqise Lee did in his freshman year.

Considering that USC doesn’t have a go-to No. 1 wideout going into this year like it did a season ago with Deontay Burnett and Smith Schuster the year before that, St. Brown’s chances of raking in more than 1,000 yards goes even higher.

3.) Clay Helton has third consecutive double-digit win season

NCAA Football: Pac-12 Championship-Southern California vs Stanford Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

In order for this to happen, Helton is going to need a strong September. Four of his eight career defeats as the Trojans coach has come in September.

Winning in that month doesn’t get any easier this time around as the Trojans will have back-to-back true road games against Stanford and Texas, respectively.

Both are sure to be extremely tough games to win, especially against Texas, who took USC to overtime last season at the Coliseum. While this will probably be his last season in Palo Alto, Stanford is another tough out as long as Heisman hopeful running back Bryce Love stays healthy.

After that, the remaining games are winnable for the Trojans. The game that ultimately might determine the winner of the PAC-12 South division will come on Oct. 20, when USC travels to Salt Lake City to face Utah. The Trojans are 0-2 against the Utes when playing there, but it is late in the season which should make it competitive.

However, if Helton doesn’t guide the Trojans to at least one victory in those two road games in September, chances of USC winning at least 10 games probably goes out the window. Then fans are going to start calling it Red September.

4.) USC will go undefeated on the road against PAC-12 foes

NCAA Football: Pac-12 Championship-Southern California vs Stanford John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

There’s no question that the games against Stanford and Utah will be tough to pull off, but aside from those road tests, the rest of the way is winnable for the Trojans.

The Trojans games’ at Arizona, Oregon State and UCLA (which is realistically a home contest) are all winnable. The Wildcats do have dual-threat quarterback Khalil Tate, who can create major problems for the Trojans’ defense.

But Arizona doesn’t have a ton of depth and USC will ultimately have the upper hand in the trenches. Even though the Trojans have struggled this millennium with games in Corvallis, Oregon, the Beavers aren’t a team that will make Helton lose sleep.

As for the crosstown rivals, the Chip Kelly experiment is entering its first season and will likely take some time before the Bruins are contending for the PAC-12 South again. While UCLA will improve off of last season, the Bruins rush defense is a still a big question mark and we still don’t know who will be their signal caller. Mark that down as a victory for the Trojans, again.

5.) USC’s defense finishes inside the Top-20 in total defense

NCAA Football: Southern California at Washington Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

It feels like forever since the last time USC’s defense was one of the upper-echelon’s of college football. But to finish last season as No. 68 in total defense is eyebrow raising.

Sure, the Trojans’ defense hasn’t necessarily been considered elite since the Pete Carroll era. But for the University of Texas El Paso, San Diego State and Southern Miss to crack the Top-20 in total defense and USC not even be inside the Top-50, is remarkably alarming.

While those trio of teams don’t face the level of competition that the Trojans face weekly, those teams don’t land the four and five-star recruits that every year come to USC.

However, 2018 might be the year that the Trojans defense, which has produced Pro Football Hall of Famers like Ronnie Lott, Junior Seau and eventually Troy Polumalu, reclaims its title as one of the most respected and feared defenses in the nation.

USC defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast will have the luxury of several key starters returning, including middle linebacker Cameron Smith, defensive back Iman Marshall and linebacker Porter Gustin. Of course, the key will be whether or not those guys can stay healthy.

Nevertheless, compared to previous USC defenses, this one brings in a lot of experience into the season, which should bode well for Pendergast’s group.

Predicting that USC will finish inside the Top-20 in total defense is a stretch but then again, these are all bold predictions.