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Our 13th annual preseason Top 25: No. 12 USC looks like it's heading in right direction

USC quarterback Kedon Slovis is entering his third year as the Trojans' starter. He was last year's first-team all-conference quarterback in the Pac-12 after completing 70% of his passes.

For the last 12 years, the American-Statesman's sports staff has spent July breaking down our own preseason Top 25 rankings. Last year's eventual College Football Playoff semifinalists ranked first, second, third and ninth in our 2020 poll.

No. 12 USC

Optimism in Southern California is trending up after an 8-5 season in 2019 and then 5-1 in 2020. The Trojans ended last season in December with a 31-24 loss to Oregon in the Pac-12 championship game; they elected not to play in a bowl game, citing COVID-19 concerns. With 16 returning starters, including two-year starting quarterback Kedon Slovis, it would be no surprise if the Trojans won the conference. Completing 70% of his throws, Slovis led the country in completions.

USC was ranked 15th in our preseason poll last year. The Trojans finished 17th in the final CFP rankings and 21st in the AP and coaches polls.

About the Trojans

2020: 5-1, 5-0 in the Pac-12 — first place in the South Division. They lost the Pac-12 championship game to Oregon and chose not play in a bowl game.

Coach: Clay Helton, 45-23 overall, all in six seasons at USC

Returning starters: 16 (8 offense, 8 defense)

Shoes to fill: Five Trojans went in the NFL draft — OL Alijah Vera-Tucker (Jets, 14th overall); WR Amon-Ra St. Brown (Lions, 4th round); DT Jay Tufele (Jaguars, 4th); DB Talanoa Hufanga (49ers, 5th) and DT Marlon Tuipulotu (Eagles, 6th) — and two more, WR Tyler Vaughns (Colts) and DB Olaijah Griffin (Bills) signed free agent contracts. RB Stephen Carr transferred to Indiana.

Catching up

The Heisman campaign for Slovis has already started — and for good reason. The third-year starter has passed for nearly 5,500 yards and 50 touchdowns and was a first-team all-conference selection last year. ... His primary target will be WR Drake London. ... Former Texas State offensive line coach Clay McGuire was hired to coach USC's line, replacing Tim Drevno, who is now an offensive analyst with UCLA. McGuire had been at Texas State for two years. Previously, he spent a year at Texas Tech as co-offensive coordinator and running backs coach. ... Luckily for McGuire, four of five of USC's starting linemen from 2020 are back. ... Among the freshmen who might make an immediate impact is Lake Travis TE Lake McRee, who enrolled in the spring, and pass-rushing defensive end Korey Foreman, the No. 1 overall recruit in the nation.

Returning leaders

Passing: Kedon Slovis 177-264-1,921, 17/7 (led team)

Rushing: Vavae Malepeai 54-238-3 (led team)

Receiving: Drake London 33-502-3 (led team), Bru McCoy 21-236-2 (5th)

Tackles: ILB Kana'i Mauga 41 (2nd)

Sacks: DL Zach VanValkenburg 3.5 (3rd), S Isaiah Pola-Mao 40 (3rd)

Interceptions: ILB Kana'i Mauga, S Isaiah Pola-Mao, CB Chris Steele and OLB Drake Jackson 1 (T-2nd)

Returning all-conference

Offense: QB Kedon Slovis (1st team), OL Jalen McKenzie (hon. mention), OL Brett Neilon (hon. mention)

Defense: DL Drake Jackson (2nd), DB Chris Steele (2nd), DL Nick Figueroa (hon. mention), S Isaiah Pola-Mao (hon. mention)

Special teams: P Ben Griffiths (hon. mention), K Parker Lewis (hon. mention)

USC cornerback Chris Steele intercepts a pass intended for wide receiver Bru McCoy during the Trojans' spring game in April at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

FYI

How the pandemic impacted USC: Citing COVID-19 concerns last season, the Pac-12 banned its schools from playing non-conference games. The Trojans didn't open their season until Nov. 7. And the Trojans decided not to play a bowl game. School officials have announced that games can be filled to 100% capacity this season at the Coliseum. And after a one-year hiatus, the USC-Notre Dame rivalry will resume Oct. 23 in South Bend.

Getting defensive: Defense might be the team's chief strength. The Trojans return 18 of their top 21 tacklers from last year, led by OLB Drake Johnson, who has 17 career tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks. And Foreman, the California defensive end who was the No. 1 high school recruit in the country, had originally committed to Clemson.

Ingram lands with Trojans: One of the team's top newcomers is former Texas running back Keaontay Ingram, who rushed for 1,811 career yards and 11 touchdowns in three seasons as a Longhorn. He transferred in January and made a big impact in the Trojans' spring game. He should be a top challenger to start when the season begins. He won't be a stranger on the roster, either. There are five other former players or coaches that used to be at Texas — wide receiver Bru McCoy, safety Xavion Alford, defensive coordinator Todd Orlando, safeties coach Craig Naivar and former UT recruiting coordinator Bryan Carrington.

2020 national stat rankings

Where USC ranked nationally in various statistical categories last season — and how the Trojans ranked in 2019.

Scoring: 31st (2019 — T-35th, +4 spots)

Scoring defense: 46th (78th, +32)

Total offense: 46th (20th, -26)

Total defense: 40th (78th, +38)

Passing: 11th (6th, -5)

Pass defense: 43rd (96th, +53)

Rushing: 120th (118th, -2)

Rush defense: 49th (72nd, +23)

Sacks: 45th (28th, -17)

Interceptions: 35th (76th, +41)

Red zone offense: T-85th (66th, -19)

Red zone defense: 119th (T-90th, -29)

Turnover margin: 17th (119th, +102)

Time of possession: 62nd (93rd, +31)

Our Top 25 — so far

No. 25 Ole Miss: Rebels have plenty of firepower to work with

No. 24 Washington: Huskies back for more after 3-2 season

No. 23 Louisiana: Ragin' Cajuns out to prove that they belong

No. 22 Penn State: Nittany Lions want to keep the momentum going

No. 21 Oklahoma State: Cowboys have offensive questions, for a change

No. 20 Iowa: Hawkeyes hope this is the year to bump the Buckeyes

No. 19 Coastal Carolina: Upstart Chanticleers look here to stay, ready or not

No. 18 Texas: Longhorns are starting over at coach, quarterback, offense, defense

No. 17 Wisconsin: Badgers eager for a bounce-back season in Big Ten

No. 16 Miami: Hurricanes banking on D'Eric King's return from injury

No. 15 Oregon: Ducks out to make it three straight Pac-12 title game wins

No. 14 LSU: Last year's hard knocks may pay off for this year's Tigers

No. 13 Indiana: Hoosiers have restocked their shelves with transfer talent

No. 12 USC

Coming tomorrow

Our No. 11 team. Want a hint?

This team played in the Cotton Bowl last season.