The USC Trojans, shown here walking out onto the field in last year's Stanford game, have some roster issues to figure out. At the top of the list: Who will be the starting quarterback? (Harry How/Getty Images)

Football

Our 10th annual Top 25 countdown: Their big names gone, No. 20 USC is reloading … or is that rebuilding?

That Sept. 15 game in Austin is a big early-season statement game for both teams. How will the new-look Trojans perform on the big stage?

Posted July 9th, 2018

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Sure, it’s July. But it’s never too early to talk college football. Here’s your daily fix — our annual countdown of the preseason Top 25, as selected by the American-Statesman sports staff. Last year’s eventual CFP semifinalists were ranked Nos. 1, 5, 8 and 14 on our 2017 list.

Our Top 25 — so far:

No. 25: Texas is building — but are we there yet, are we there yet?

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No. 24: LSU has a tough schedule, questions at key spots

No. 23: Oregon welcomes a new coach — again and again and again

No. 22: Central Florida is out to go unbeaten (ahem, again)

No. 21: There’s a new coach, offense and direction for Florida State

Today’s team: No. 20 USC

The Trojans’ best-case scenario: Even with questions at quarterback, USC still holds a particular sway over the rest of the Pac-12. A nine- or 10-win season is still there for the taking.

Their worst-case scenario: There are questions at quarterback, so a 6-6 season or 7-5 season could be dead-ahead. Of three potential candidates, two have never taken a collegiate snap.

RELATED COVERAGE: Will JT Daniels be USC’s savior?

RELATED COVERAGE: USC welcomes prized recuit … and his dad, the ‘LaVar Ball of college football’

Inside the Trojans

Coach: Clay Helton (fifth year, 27-10 overall)

2017: 11-3, 8-1 in Pac-12 (lost to Ohio State 24-7 in Cotton Bowl)

Returning starters: 7 offense, 7 defense, 2 specialists

Goodbye: QB Sam Darnold (Jets, 1st round), RB Ronald Jones II (Buccaneers, 2nd round), LB Uchenna Nwosu (Chargers, 2nd round), DE Rasheem Green (Seahawks, 3rd round), WR Deontay Burnett, S Chris Hawkins

Spring cleaning: The Trojans will have a totally new look on offense after losing key starters, most notably Darnold. Sophomore Matt Fink and redshirt freshman Jack Sears both split time at quarterback while Aca’Cedric Ware got the lion’s share of time at running back. The defense is also rebuilding after losing its top sack leader and pass rusher. LB Porter Gustin turned heads this spring with his pass-rushing skills. The secondary will be a strong suit as most of its members return, although USC’s pass defense ranked 82nd nationally last season.

Cameron Smith (35) of the USC Trojans celebrates a 42-24 win over the Utah Utes with fans after his three interception game at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on October 24, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

Returning leaders

PASSING: Matt Fink, 6-9-43-0-0 (2nd)

RUSHING: Stephen Carr, 65-363-3 (2nd), Malepeai Vavae, 49-261-0 (3rd), Aca’Cedric Ware, 49-247-1 (4th)

RECEIVING: Tyler Vaughns, 57-809-5 (2nd), Michael Pittman Jr., 23-404-2 (4th), Tyler Petite, 23-307-3 (5th)

TACKLES: Cameron Smith, 112 (1st), Marvell Tell III, 85 (3rd), John Houston Jr., 84 (4th)

SACKS: Christian Rector, 7.5 (3rd), Porter Gustin, 3 (6th)

INTERCEPTIONS: Jack Jones, 4 (1st), Marvell Tell III, 3 (T-2nd), Ajene Harris, 3 (T-2nd)

Returning All-Pac 12 players (11)

Offense: OL Toa Lobendahn (2nd team); OG Chris Brown (hon. mention); RB Stephen Carr (hon. mention); TE Tyler Petite (hon. mention); WR Tyler Vaughns (hon. mention)

Defense: LB Cameron Smith (1st), S Marvell Tell III (1st); DL Christian Rector (2nd); CB Iman Marshall (hon. mention); DL Brandon Pili (hon. mention)

Special teams: Michael Pittman Jr. (AP/ST, 1st)

FYI

Filling Sam Darnold’s large shoes: Fink is the only viable quarterback option who has game experience. And it isn’t much. He played in mop-up duty against Oregon State and Notre Dame last season. Sears sat back and redshirted. JT Daniels, a highly-touted recruit, did not enroll until June, which probably pushes back his readiness to mid-season. The Trojans could struggle initially on offense.

Can the Trojans run?: Texas fans will be relieved to see that Jones is gone, too. His 56-yard scramble-and-score just before halftime last season left tongues wagging. So what to make of USC’s running game this season? Ware has three 100-yard rushing games on his résumé. It helps that four offensive line starters return, though the unit needs more depth.

Shot in the arm for the secondary: Out in the wild, wild Pac-12, defensive backs are at a premium. USC struggled with pass defense last season. Fortunately, most of the secondary returns, and USC got a talent infusion. The locals were impressed by early enrollee Talanoa Hufanga, who made several practice interceptions. It’s normal to see six defensive backs on the field, so pass coverage is critical.

2017 national rankings

Scoring: 35th (32.6 ppg) — right above No. 36 Boise State, right behind No. 34 Texas A&M

Points allowed: 60th (26.1 ppg) — right above No. 61 Toledo, right behind No. 58 Temple and Washington State

Passing: 16th (299.0 ypg) — right above No. 17 UMass, right behind No. 15 Louisville

Rushing: 39th (185.1 ypg) — right above No. 40 UTSA, right behind No. 38 Rice

Total off.: 13th (484.1 ypg) — right above No. 14 Toledo, right behind No. 12 Arizona

Total def.: 68th (395.6 ypg) — right above No. 69 Pittsburgh, right behind No. 67 Oklahoma

Sam Darnold #14 of the USC Trojans passes over Poona Ford #95 of the Texas Longhorns during the second quarter at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on September 16, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

The schedule

DATEOPPONENTLAST YR'S RESULT (IF PLAYED)
Sept. 1UNLV
Sept. 8at Stanford*W, 42-24
Sept. 15at TexasW, 27-24 (OT)
Sept. 21Washington State*L, 30-27
Sept. 29at Arizona*W, 49-35
Oct. 13Colorado*W, 38-24
Oct. 20at Utah*W, 28-27
Oct. 27Arizona State*W, 48-17
Nov. 3at Oregon State*W, 38-10
Nov. 10Cal*W, 30-20
Nov. 17at UCLA*W, 28-23
Nov. 24Notre DameL, 49-14
* Pac-12 game

Note: USC beat Stanford twice, including 31-28 in the Pac-12 championship game

The key game: Sept. 15, at Texas. The Texas rematch will be a major game for both sides. The Trojans and Longhorns are both retooling their offenses, but this time USC is coming to Royal-Memorial Stadium to face 100,000-plus UT fans.

The last 5 years

YEARW-L (CONF.)RANKINGSBOWL, RESULT
201310-4 (6-3)24th / 19thLas Vegas, W
20149-4 (6-3)15th / 24thHoliday, W
20158-6 (6-3)8th / —Holiday, L
201610-3 (7-2)20th / 3rdRose, W
201711-3 (8-1)4th / 12thCotton, L
Total48-20 (33-12 Pac-12)3-2 in bowls

Note: Ranks are that year’s preseason/final rankings.

Our Top 25, by conferences

2 schools:

Pac-12 — No. 20 USC, No. 23 Oregon

1 school:

ACC — No. 21 Florida State

AAC — No. 22 Central Florida

SEC — No. 24 LSU

Big 12 — No. 25 Texas

Coming tomorrow: Our No. 19 team

Want a hint?

It’s our second Big 12 team of the poll.

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