Phil Steele's annual preseason magazine is out, and he has ranked USC at No. 6. That is too high.
Steele projecting USC as a top-10 team is probably based on talent, schedule and reputation. The talent is there, but the experience in the secondary is not. As far as reputation, has USC done much to solidify it since beating Penn State 38-24 in the 2009 Rose Bowl? The Trojans' schedule does not have Oregon on it, but it does have Oregon State. More on that *gulp* later.
If the Trojans were ranked on their talent alone, then that ranking would be spot on. But a No. 6 ranking points to a one-loss season. At this point of the year, USC looks like a four-loss team.
The offense should be fine once the starting quarterback is named. The Trojans front seven look nasty. The problem is the secondary. It will give up a lot of big plays.
The cornerbacks are very inexperienced. Over a two-year span, Torin Harris started nine games and Anthony Brown started four.
Defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast is working on their technique, and he will be expecting improvement by August. If the corners do not improve, the word will be out to opposing offensive coordinators: Pass against USC.
Last season, the word was out on USC's rush defense. Oregon racked up 426 rushing yards, and Georgia Tech rushed for 294.
This year, the pass defense could be the problem. Steele notes that although "4 of the top 8" defensive backs return, they are "a lot less [experienced]." However, he believes that "with a super [defensive] front 7 and a new DC, it wouldn't surprise me if they moved up in the [power defense rankings]."
Steele is correct in his defensive back assessment, but the front seven did not impact the corner play during spring camp. Kiffin ran a no-tackle spring game because 20 players were out due to injury. It is difficult to analyze the running game when there is no tackling, but it is a lot easier to analyze the passing game under the same circumstances.
The receivers were making easy catches because of the separation they were able to get from the corners.
USC's schedule is another reason why Steele's No. 6 ranking is too high. Back-to-back games against Utah State and Arizona State will not be easy. Both teams have incredible quarterbacks who can run and pass the ball, and the Sun Devils defense may be one of the best in the country.
USC plays Stanford, Notre Dame and UCLA—all three beat the Trojans last year—and at Oregon State on November 1. The Trojans have dropped their last three games in Corvallis, with their last win there in 2004.
Steele's rankings are different than other preseason rankings. Steele's are projections of where he thinks the teams will be ranked at the end of the season. Last year, Steele had Alabama at No. 5 and Notre Dame at No. 21. Of course, Alabama ultimately finished at No. 1 and Notre Dame at No. 2. 2012 was one of the few years Steele was that far off in his rankings.
USC will probably finish 2013 with four losses, which puts them around the No. 20-ish range. If the secondary shows marked improvement and the running game is reestablished, then Steele will have done in excellent job with his projection of USC.
That is a big if right now.