College football is on its way back, so we continue with the Today’s U Top 25 preseason rankings. We’re trotting out a new team each day. We started at No. 25 and we’ll build each day until we reach No. 1.
No. 20: USC TROJANS
Last Season: 8-6 (6-3 Pac-12 South, lost 23-21 against Wisconsin in the Holiday Bowl).
Last Five Seasons: 38-27 (four bowl games).
Coach: Clay Helton (second season, 6-4).
Overview: Helton has been humble in his ascension to the USC head-coaching job, accentuating the big opportunity and continually saying he’s a lucky man. Potentially, he might have inherited a gold mine. The Trojans return 10 starters on offense, including nine of their top 10 rushers and their top eight receivers. There’s a lot of good personnel to replace on defense, including six starters from the front seven, but USC has the talent to stand up to a schedule that includes a quartet of opponents mentioned somewhere in many top 10 rankings.
Player To Watch: WR JuJu Smith-Schuster. The latest in a very long line of Trojan receiving greats, Smith-Schuster led the Pac-12 in receiving yards (1,454) last season while averaging 103.9 yards per game and 10 touchdowns, including six 20 yards or greater.
Top Newcomer: WR-CB Jack Jones. He has the makings of an ace two-way player who could also deliver an impact in the return game. Don’t be surprised if he lines up all over the field in his first season.
All-Conference Potential: OL Zach Banner, DB Adoree’ Jackson, LB Cameron Smith, WR JuJu Smith-Schuster, OL Chad Wheeler.
Key Question: Are Helton — and QB Max Browne — the right men for their jobs? Helton has a great pedigree — the son of veteran college and NFL coach Kim Helton — and there’s little doubt he will relieve some of the recent drama brought about by Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian. As for Browne, once the nation’s top prep players, he gets his big shot after attempting just 12 passes last season and serving as understudy to three-year starter Cody Kessler. Unfortunately, that shot begins in the neutral-site opener against Alabama.
Best Unit: Offensive line. The Trojans return all five starters — left tackle Chad Wheeler, left guard Damien Mama, center Toa Lobendahn, right guard Viane Talamaivao and right tackle Zach Banner — an excellent sign for an offensive squad that has plenty of skill-position firepower.
Good Stat: Another sign that the Trojans are returning to a more sound approach. Last season, they were plus-11 in turnover margin, which tied for 11th nationally.
Bad Stat: The Trojans have just one double-digit victory performance in the past four years, an almost unthinkable plummet from the USC teams that once terrorized the college-football landscape.
Big Game: Of course, the opener against Alabama is a big-time opportunity. More realistically, though, the Sept. 17 Pac-12 opener at Stanford looms as a larger barometer.
Isn’t it about time for USC to get back to the business of … being USC? The Trojans might not be serious contenders for the College Football Playoff — yet — but there are signs they’re on the way back to prosperity. USC will feature glamorous playmakers, of course, but Helton wants to add more grit and toughness, the qualities that were far underrated when Pete Carroll’s Trojan dynasty roamed the earth. Look for a big improvement from the Trojans, but a rugged schedule will keep them from a complete return to the elite.
Next: No. 19 Louisville.