Before Pete Carroll arrived, USC went more than a decade without a top-10 finish through the 1990s, a mediocre downturn that can help put recent events in proper perspective. It wasn’t all that long ago, and yet the success that the Trojans achieved in the 2000s — seven straight AP top-four rankings — combined with a seemingly endless parade of drama made the subsequent downfall feel like it lasted forever.
In reality, it was merely a brief lull, an NCAA sanctions-influenced 52-27 record from 2010-15 that featured three top-20 teams and two botched coaching hires. Compared to its own past and high-profile programs like Nebraska (no conference titles since 1999), Tennessee (no top-10 finishes since 2001) and Miami (no ACC title game appearances), USC’s collapse ran its course in the blink of an eye. No matter how much drama there was, it all could have been worse.
Already, the not-actually-too-long nightmare appears to be over after a post-September breakthrough capped by a Rose Bowl victory in 2016. Yes, it’s easy to wonder if USC is truly back on stable ground — it has turned preseason top-10 rankings into unranked season two of the past five years — but skepticism about whether USC has returned to national prominence has mostly been erased.
It’s happened in large part because USC found a College Football Playoff-ready quarterback in Sam Darnold. Still only a redshirt sophomore, Darnold has been the subject of an offseason of praise, as he’s built up into the next great NFL prospect. Darnold will enter the 2017 season as the Heisman Trophy favorite in betting circles, and he is head-and-shoulders above any other reason that USC is viewed again as a legitimate national championship threat.
Of course, before Darnold makes his NFL decision, there’s a crucial question that can get lost in the celebration of the Trojans’ prized young QB: Does USC have a playoff-ready roster around Darnold?
The Trojans bring back 11 other starters from the team that won nine straight games to finish the season, including a 26-13 win over Pac-12 champion Washington, a 21-17 win over Pac-12 South champion Colorado and a 52-49 Rose Bowl win over Big Ten champion Penn State. USC beat up on teams like Oregon, UCLA and Notre Dame in down seasons for all three, but by the end of the year, there was little doubt that it was playing like one of the best teams in the country. Darnold looked like a potential No. 1 pick, the offensive line played at a high level and the defense was in the top third of the Pac-12.
The post-Carroll era has conditioned us to be prepared for USC disappointment, but the national title hype isn’t merely fueled by the presence of the next-big-thing QB. In fact, there are ample reasons to be excited about what the Trojans can do in 2017. It’s far more than Darnold that should have the rest of college football worried.
Ronald Jones II. Tailback U has its next star. The 6-foot, 220-pound junior was one of the top running back recruits in the class of 2015, and through two years of sharing carries with Justin Davis, he has rushed 330 times for 2,069 yards and 20 TDs. His production has been underwhelming at times — particularly early last season — but he has averaged 6.3 yards per carry in his USC career, showing off explosiveness and elusiveness. If he begins making a bigger impact as a receiver, as well, an All-America season is possible. This being USC, there will be competition for touches, especially with five-star recruit Stephen Carr joining the fray. With so much attention on Darnold, don’t forget that Jones is poised to make a leap from exciting young playmaker to seasoned star.
A core of impact defenders supported by high-upside young players. It’s easy to get hung up on the loss of Adoree’ Jackson, the All-America cornerback who also acted as a fantastic punt and kick returner and even made some plays on offense when called upon. There’s no doubt his loss will be felt, especially given his impact in every phase of the game. The Trojans also lose three other starters defensively, and this comes after giving up 7.5 yards per play and 49 points to Penn State. But Penn State did that to a lot of teams in the second of last season, and USC should be confident in what it has defensively with a crop of rising stars who were still underclassmen last year.
A new top cornerback is ready in junior Iman Marshall, a five-star recruit who has started 25 games in two seasons and had three interceptions and eight pass breakups last year. (Jack Jones, a five-star recruit last year, is poised for a breakout, too, in an expanded role.) Junior middle linebacker Cameron Smith has already established himself as an All-Pac-12 player, and junior Porter Gustin is emerging as one of the nation’s most disruptive edge rushers after recording seven tackles for loss in the last five games of 2016. Throw in the growth of DT Rasheem Green and a roster restocked with talented recruits, and this could turn into the best defense in the Pac-12.
Post-sanctions stability. This is the most important yet often overlooked reason for USC’s high expectations in 2017, something that transcends the presence of Darnold as a reason for why USC can win a title. NCAA sanctions are always met with instant panic, but as the actual punishment announcements recede into the past, the multi-year impact is sometimes forgotten and dismissed as an excuse. The same thing happened at Penn State in the first couple of years under James Franklin, when sanctions had been rolled back but the impact on the roster was still massive.
The Trojans lost 30 scholarships over three years, and when you combine that with subsequent departures, negativity and uncertainty, the impact was sizable. USC could still recruit at a high level, but it could not recruit depth at a high level, creating volatility and a smaller margin for error than a team loaded with blue-chip talent is accustomed to. The recruiting class of 2012 featured 17 players. The 2013 class had 12. Add the drama of the botched coaching hires of Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian, and it’s not surprising that the Trojans would struggle to achieve consistently impressive results.
Coach Clay Helton — elevated from offensive coordinator to replace Sarkisian — still has a lot to prove, but after recovering from the panic-inducing 1-3 start last September, he has thus far reduced the drama attached to the program and established the potential for stability. Only now has USC returned to a full cycle of full-strength recruiting classes; the past four have featured at least 21 players each and have all been ranked in the top 10 in the 247Sports composite rankings. In other words, USC is recruiting like a national championship contender again, both in terms of talent and depth, giving it legitimate roster competition and options that will make reloading much easier than it was under Kiffin and Sarkisian.
The bolstered depth makes it easier to be confident that Jones won’t be alone as an impact player at running back, and it makes it easier to be confident that the Trojans can survive the losses of JuJu Smith-Schuster and Darreus Rogers in the receiving corps. They have Rose Bowl star Deontay Burnett back at receiver, along with Steven Mitchell and tight end Daniel Imatorbhebhe, and they’re joined by three top-10 wideout recruits in the past two classes. The biggest concern on the roster is the offensive line, a sanctions-era problem area that became a strength last year but now loses three starters. Still, the Trojans return a fair amount of experience and get tackle Toa Lobendahn back from an injury. Like the other question marks, it’s a bit easier to be confident in the Trojans avoiding a significant drop-off now, versus a few years ago, and it helps to have a quarterback who handles pressure well.
Ever since the middle of the 2009 season — when Oregon crushed USC, resulting in a conference changing of the guard — and Carroll’s subsequent departure, we’ve been waiting for shades of the 2000s Trojans dynasty to return. A 10-2 campaign in 2011 proved to be a false start, as the team that started No. 1 in the preseason 2012 AP poll ended up going 7-6. With those sanctions providing a significant hurdle, neither the Kiffin nor Sarkisian era worked out, and there was plenty of warranted skepticism when Helton was promoted.
That prolonged period of championship contending under Carroll is, of course, an unreasonable standard of success that will be difficult to ever duplicate. Still, USC has many advantages over most other college football programs, and it is starting to utilize them again to make it a realistic contender capable of restoring its national power status.
The star quarterback understandably gets all the attention after fueling USC’s surprising turnaround last fall, but it doesn’t take much investigating to feel confident in the foundation that’s being built around him. Darnold gives USC championship potential, and the growing supporting cast around him gives the Trojans a chance to actually reach it.