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College Football Preview 2021: 12. USC Trojans

Kedon Slovis, USC

 12. USC Trojans

They're the most talented team in the division, but will need more consistency from the QB and staff to take the Pac-12

2020 Review
Even by 2020 standards, USC's season was a strange one. They began their schedule in November with a 9 a.m. local time kickoff, coming from behind to beat Arizona State in a thriller. In fact, they were forced to come from behind in multiple games during the shortened campaign, but still earned entry to the Pac-12 Championship Game with a perfect 5-0 record. A loss to Oregon in that game, a team that technically didn't even win its division, showed that the Trojans still have work to do as they prep for 2021. 

2021 Outlook
Offense: Offensive coordinator Graham Harrell has been a tremendous addition to the coaching staff over the last two years, re-energizing an offense that had lagged during a 5-7 2018 season. Despite the fact he received some interest from other schools and even the NFL, he returns to lead what should be his most talented 'SC offense yet.

Quarterback Kedon Slovis came on in 2019 in a huge way, winning Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year after beginning the year as a backup. Even greater things were expected in 2020 and while Slovis had strong numbers, he struggled to maintain consistency. He finished with 1,921 yards, 17 touchdowns, and a 67% completion percentage, but left a little to be desired. Slovis has the natural arm talent and confidence to be a true Heisman-caliber QB, and the hope is that a normal off-season will work wonders for him. He's the unquestioned starter moving forward, but the Trojans did upgrade the quarterback room around him, bringing in highly touted freshmen Miller Moss and Jaxson Dart.

The Trojan ground game has lagged behind what it could be over the last several years, but the staff is hoping that changes in 2021. Former five-star prospect Stephen Carr might have transferred, but steady veteran Vavae Malepeai returns, and former Texas transfer Keontay Ingram arrives. Ingram was forced out of Austin due to the talent of youngster Bijan Robinson, but he's still an awfully talented tailback. He notched over 1,500 yards in his first two seasons with Texas, but wasn't healthy last fall.

Even though Amon-Ra St. Brown and Tyler Vaughns move on from this receiver group, it still has the chance to be one of the country's best. There's plenty of talent and depth, with a clear headliner in sophomore Drake London. London is built more like a tight end than traditional wide out, but still has the burst in the open field to be a difference-maker. He finished with 502 yards in just six games last season, but even greater things should be in store now that St. Brown and Vaughns are gone.

Joining London are an abundance of intriguing options. Freshman Gary Bryant didn't see the field a ton in his first year on campus, but is a big-name recruit who has the versatility to do damage in a variety of ways. Colorado transfer K.D. Nixon doesn't have the ceiling of others in the receiver room, but he was productive while in Boulder, with 23 starters under his belt over his four years there. Then there's redshirt freshman Bru McCoy, who became somewhat of a household name for his wild recruitment back prior to 2019. He missed all of 2019 with a mysterious illness but returned for 2020 and finished fourth on the team in receptions and yardage. McCoy has superstar potential, even if his recruitment process probably earned him some detractors.

The USC offensive line remains mostly intact, although the lone loss is a big one. Tackle Alijah Vera-Tucker was an All-Pac-12 performer and went in the first round to the New York Jets. His departure leaves the Trojans very thin at left tackle. The rest of the unit returns with a healthy amount of experience, namely guard Andrew Vorhees. He's made 25 starts throughout his 'SC career, including five last fall after missing most of 2019.

This has potential to be one of the best offenses USC has had in awhile, even though there are several notable losses. Slovis is more talented than the edition we saw last fall, and the other skill positions should be strong. Expect this to be a fun and potentially explosive bunch, but cutting down on turnovers will be key.

Defense: Much like he did with his offense following the disappointing 2018, head coach Clay Helton shuffled the defensive coaching staff following 2019. The result was a new coordinator in former Texas DC Todd Orlando, as well as several new assistants. Although it's difficult to take too much away from 2020, it appears as though the move has paid off, as the Trojan defense improved statistically and also seemed to play with more edge.

The defensive line may be the most interesting position group on the roster. There's plenty of experience returning, but it's the newcomers that are sure to catch eyes. Alabama transfer Ishmael Sopher was, unsurprisingly, a high-profile recruit who found himself pushed out of the DT spot in Tuscaloosca. He's talented enough to come in and start right away, likely to pair next to Tuli Tuipulotu in the middle. Off the edge, there's freshman Korey Foreman, the top player in the 2021 Class. Although he will need time to acclimate to Power Five football, it's going to be difficult to keep Foreman off the field. He might have a chance to leapfrog former JUCO transfer Nick Figueroa, who had seven tackles for loss in his first season with the Trojans.

USC has always been a school that produces elite linebackers and next in line is sophomore Drake Jackson. Jackson makes the move to outside linebacker from defensive end, freeing him up to do even more for this Trojan defense. He had six tackles for loss in 2019 as a true freshman and would've built on that last season if not for the shortened schedule. Jackson was an All-League performer in 2020 and is the star of the defense, at least for now. However, the Trojans do still have several other linebackers with experience, even if they may not be recognizable stars. Sophomore Ralen Goforth notched 38 tackles last season, while junior outside 'backer Kana'i Mauga is the top returning tackler. There's also Hunter Echols, who provides valuable depth to the unit.

The Trojan secondary suffered through an injury-plagued 2019 season but displayed solid progress in the shortened 2020 season. They did suffer a big loss over the off-season when Talanoa Hufanga, the reigning Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, moved on. His absence will put more pressure on the returnees, namely corner Chris Steele and safety Isaiah Pola-Mao. Steele began his career at Florida before traveling west, and he's developed into a quality cover corner. He was an All-League performer a year ago and has the talent to be even better. Sophomore Isaac Taylor-Stuart is the favorite to start alongside him, mainly because there aren't many proven options beyond him. Fellow sophomore Jayden Williams played some a season ago and has a chance to push for more snaps, but will have to battle of numerous freshmen. Don't be surprised if Ceyair Wright seriously pushes for the starting job in 2021.

Pola-Mao finished third on the team in tackles last fall and his limitless range at free safety will be critical for this defense. Depth at the safety spots will be aided by the addition of two big-name transfers, Chris Thompson and Xavion Alford. Thompson played in six games as a true frosh at Auburn, but it's Alford that has earned significant attention. He arrived at Texas with plenty of fanfare and while he didn't see the field much his first year on campus, he was in for the spring and flashed serious upside.

Orlando seemed to be a great fit with the USC defense during a pandemic year, which bodes well as things shift back to normal. There are pieces that will need to be replaced, but the Trojans added several transfers and freshmen who should immediately make an impact. They're still probably not going to be one of the Pac-12's elite defenses, but should be good enough to keep this team as a conference title contender.

Special Teams: Kicker Parker Lewis had a decent first season with the Trojans in 2020, but they're hoping for even more after he went 9-13 on field goals. He has massive range, but will have to develop consistency in 2021. Punter Ben Griffiths could be one of the best in the league, giving new special teams coordinator Sean Snyder a weapon to work with.

Bottom Line: USC remains perpetually on the quest back to national prominence and while they've flashed potential under Clay Helton, the perennial hot-seat head man is still waiting to get them over the top. The 2021 team has the potential to do so, with a talented quarterback leading a fun offense, and an improved defense likely to play better in a more-normal season. It also helps that this team has a generally favorable schedule, and the Pac-12 South as a whole is full of mystery. Their biggest threat is Arizona State, whose future is completely uncertain due to an ongoing NCAA investigation. Beyond that, Utah, Colorado, and UCLA could all be dangerous, but all are still unproven commodities right now. With that in mind, the Trojans are not just a division favorite, but should seriously challenge for a Pac-12 crown. The ultimate question remains: can USC finally live up to their vast potential? They haven't in recent years, but the blueprint is in place.

Further Breakdown
Team Projections
Projected Record: 10-3 (7-3 Pac-12, Lose Pac-12 Championship Game)
Offensive MVP: QB Kedon Slovis
Defensive MVP: LB Drake Jackson
Breakout Player of the Year: WR Gary Bryant
Impact Freshman: DE Korey Foreman

Recruiting Breakdown
After a down year on the recruiting trail in 2020, this staff responded in a big way when loading up for the 2021 Class. They finished seventh in the country and came just behind Oregon inside the conference. The obvious headliner is defensive end Korey Foreman, the nation's No. 1 recruit, who was once committed to Clemson. He has the chance to be the best pass rusher USC has had in years and years. Behind him, the staff also hauled in two highly-touted QB recruits in Jaxson Dart and Miller Moss. Moss hails from inside the state, but Dart is slightly higher rated, and the Trojans took him away from the state of Utah. Other names to watch include linebacker Raesjon Davis and tight end Michael Trigg. Davis is a former LSU commit who can be used in a wide variety of ways, while Trigg was a nice get from the Southeast. The tight end position has been down for 'SC in recent years, but Trigg may be able to change that. 

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