PASADENA, CA - JANUARY 02: The USC Trojans mascot performs on the field prior to the 2017 Rose Bowl Game presented by Northwestern Mutual between the USC Trojans and the Penn State Nittany Lions at the Rose Bowl on January 2, 2017 in Pasadena, California. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

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The American-Statesman’s Top 25 countdown: No. 3 USC

Is this 2005 all over again? USC has a Heisman favorite at quarterback and the Texas Longhorns on the schedule.

Posted July 27th, 2017

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Sure, it’s July. But it’s never too early to talk college football. Here’s your daily fix — our countdown of the preseason Top 25, as selected by the American-Statesman sports staff. Last year’s CFP semifinalists were ranked Nos. 1, 2, 7 and 17 on our 2016 list.

Today’s team: No. 3 USC (Related coverage: Can USC raise the South to the top of the Pac-12?)

Best-case scenario: It’s hard to see how head coach Clay Helton can screw this up. Quarterback Sam Darnold was a freshman All-American and 13 starters return from a Rose Bowl championship team. And that was after the Trojans started 1-3 last season. Darnold, running back Ronald Jones II and wide receiver Dontay Burnett make up the core of a unit that averaged 34.4 points a game.

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Worst-case scenario: There are some defensive holes. Adoree Jackson, last year’s Thorpe Award winner, is one of several key starters that are gone. Granted, USC returns its two two tacklers in Clancy Pendergast’s multiple system. Still, teams may try to establish the run early. Can defensive tackle Rasheem Green plug up the middle the way Stevie Tu’ikolovatu did?

The key game: Sept. 16, Texas. How could it be anything other than the rematch of the 2005 national championship game? It’s already being hyped on USC’s own website (“The Coliseum will be shaking on September 16”). The Texas game is sandwiched between Pac-12 dates with Stanford and Cal.

INSIDE THE TROJANS

Coach: Clay Helton (third year, 16-7)

2016: 10-3, 7-2 in the Pac-12 (beat Penn State 52-49 in the Rose Bowl)

Returning starters: 6 offense, 7 defense

Goodbye: WR JuJu Smith-Schuster (Steelers, 2nd round), CB/WR Adoree Jackson (Titans, 1st), WR Darreus Rogers (Seahawks, undrafted free agent), T Zach Banner (Colts, 4th), OT Chad Wheeler (Giants, UFA), DT Stevie Tu’ikolovatu (Buccaneers, 7th), LB Michael Hutchings

Spring cleaning: Lost in the hubbub over Darnold is the fact that USC lost both starting tackles in Banner and Wheeler, and LG Damien Mama — a two-year starter — also is gone. That’s three important cogs in the machine. RG Viane Talamaivao and C Nico Falah are back, and Toa Lobendahn is USC’s do-it-all lineman with 21 career starts at four different spots. This unit will be one to watch throughout August. … USC’s 2017 signing class ranked fourth in the country and included two five-star prospects in California QB Jack Sears and Oregon DT Marlon Tuipulotu.

 

RETURNING LEADERS

Passing: Sam Darnold, 246-366-3,086, 31/9

Rushing: Ronald Jones II, 177-1,082-12

Receiving: Deontay Burnett, 56-622-7 (3rd)

Tackles: LB Cameron Smith, 83 (1st); DL Porter Gustin, 68 (2nd); DL Rasheem Green, 55 (5th)

Sacks: DL Rasheem Green, 6 (1st); DL Porter Gustin, 5.5 (2nd)

Running back Ronald Jones II #4 of the USC Trojans celebrates with teammates after scoring a touchdown in the fourth quarter against the Penn State Nittany Lions during the 2017 Rose Bowl Game presented by Northwestern Mutual at the Rose Bowl on January 2, 2017 in Pasadena, California. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

RETURNING ALL-CONFERENCE PLAYERS (9)

Offense: RB Ronald Jones II (second team), OL Damien Mama (second team), QB Sam Darnold (hon. mention), TE Daniel Imatorbhebhe (hon. mention),

Defense: LB Cameron Smith (second team), DL Rasheem Green (hon. mention), DL Porter Gustin (hon. mention), DB Chris Hawkins (hon. mention), DB Iman Marshall (hon. mention)

LOS ANGELES, CA – NOVEMBER 26: Sam Darnold #14 of the USC Trojans looks to pass the ball in the first quarter against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on November 26, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images)

USC: FYI

Mr. Heisman?: College football can turn anyone into a star. This time last year, Darnold was an untested backup. Now, he’s the odds-on favorite to win the Heisman Trophy, according to Las Vegas. Bovada moved Darnold just ahead of Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield to win the award. Such is life after leading the Trojans to nine straight wins after a 1-3 start.

There’s a catch: The one big question facing Darnold and the offensive staff may be at receiver. Burnett certainly had a strong season, but he wasn’t the dynamic playmaker that Smith-Schuster was. There’s a bevy of options, but it’s unclear who will become the go-to target in crunch time. Could that become five-star recruit Joseph Lewis?

Swann’s song: USC athletic director Lynn Swann is learning what former Texas AD Steve Patterson once faced. People hate change. USC will start a major renovation project inside the Coliseum in 2019, something that will reduce stadium capacity by about 16,000 seats. Higher donations will be required, too. In a message to fans, Swann wrote, “Change is inevitable in any renovation and necessary in our situation.”

USC's schedule

DATEOPPONENTLAST YR'S RESULT (IF PLAYED)
Sept. 2Western Michigan
Sept. 9Stanford*L, 27-10
Sept. 16Texas
Sept. 23at Cal*W, 45-24
Sept. 29at Washington State*
Oct. 7Oregon State*
Oct. 14Utah*L, 31-27
Oct. 21at Notre DameW, 45-27
Oct. 28at Arizona State*W, 41-20
Nov. 4Arizona*W, 48-14
Nov. 11at Colorado*W, 21-17
Nov. 18UCLA*W, 36-14
* Pac-12 game

The last 5 years

YEARW-L (CONF.)RANKINGBOWL GAME
TOTAL44-23 (30-15)3-2 in bowls
20127-6 (5-4)NR/NRL Sun
201310-4 (6-3)24th/19thW Las Vegas
20149-4 (6-3)15th/24thW Holiday
20158-6 (6-3)8th/NRL Holiday
201610-3 (7-2)20th/3rdW Rose

Note: Ranks are that year’s preseason/final ranking

 

2016 NATIONAL STAT RANKS

Scoring: 36th (34.4 ppg)

Points allowed: 38th (24.2 ppg)

Passing: 25th (276.4 ypg)

Rushing: 42nd (200.7 ypg)

Total off.: 20th (477.1 ypg)

Total def.: 36th (367.2 ypg)

 

OUR TOP 25 SO FAR

No. 25: Boise State

No. 24: Oregon

No. 23: Tennessee

No. 22: Texas

No. 21: Kansas State

No. 20: Miami

No. 19: West Virginia

No. 18: South Florida

No. 17: Florida

No. 16: Stanford

No. 15: Louisville

No. 14: Georgia

No. 13: Wisconsin

No. 12: LSU

No. 11: Auburn

No. 10: Michigan

No. 9: Oklahoma State

No. 8: Washington

No. 7: Oklahoma

No. 6: Penn State

No. 5: Clemson

 

No. 4: Florida State

No. 3: USC

No. 2: Coming Friday. Want a hint? Jack Nicklaus attended this school, when he twice won the U.S. Amateur in 1959 and 1961.

 

BY CONFERENCE

5 schools:

Big 12 (No. 7 Oklahoma, No. 9 Oklahoma State, No. 19 West Virginia, No. 21 Kansas State, No. 22 Texas)

SEC (No. 11 Auburn, No. 12 LSU, No. 14 Georgia, No. 17 Florida, No. 23 Tennessee)

4 schools

ACC (No. 4 Florida State, No. 5 Clemson, No. 15 Louisville, No. 20 Miami)

Pac-12 (No. 3 USC, No. 8 Washington, No. 16 Stanford, No. 24 Oregon)

3 schools:

Big Ten (No. 6 Penn State, No. 10 Michigan, No. 13 Wisconsin)

1 school:

AAC (No. 18 South Florida)

Mountain West (No. 25 Boise State)

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