You don’t have to second-guess what many USC fans were thinking following the Pac-12 media’s preseason poll. “How dare they place USC third in the South Division! We have some of the best talent in the conference, nay, the nation!”
SC has great talent. Is that enough to clinch this division? Nope.
As hard as it is to hear, Los Angeles, USC might not even win nine games.
Now before the Trojan faithful begin pegging the comments section with the less eloquent parts of the English language, let me make it clear that none of this is set in stone. If Coach Lane Kiffin calls plays like it’s 2011 and the defense adjusts to new defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast, this team might have everything clicking to justify football pundit Phil Steele’s preseason ranking of sixth in the nation.
But if the Trojans do falter (and you’d be lying if you said it would never happen), here are the reasons why.
Red Zone and Third Down
USC finished last year ranked 40th and 41st in points and yardage. Most teams chalk that up as win, but considering SC’s firepower and expectations, it's almost mediocre.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t even begin to tell the whole story.
The team really struggled in perhaps the two most important offensive situations a team can face—the red zone and third down. The Trojans' 75 percent red-zone completion rate ranked 103rd out of 120 teams. Converting 34.2 percent of their third downs places them at 102nd. Ouch.
What do the big points and yardage mean with these stats? The Trojans couldn’t consistently sustain drives, often needing big-yardage plays to score. There’s nothing wrong with throwing a bomb to Marqise Lee or opening the perfect hole for Silas Redd to take it 25 yards. But relying on that won’t win the division. It’s a low-percentage play, and even if it works, it means less rest time for the defense and more time of possession for the opponent’s offense (which, in the Pac-12, is not good).
You also have to consider the fact that SC was the 11th-most penalized team in the country. With many of these calls coming from false starts and holds, the lack of discipline only adds to the problem.
Lastly, and I hate beating a dead horse, but Matt Barkley, Robert Woods and Khaled Holmes are all gone. So there's that.
Blame it on the players, the play-calling, whatever you’d like. Whatever the reason, it's an issue.
Yes, the Trojans O-line returns four starters, and they absolutely finished 17th in the country in sacks allowed last year. On paper, it’s there.
There are two red flags. First, the one lineman who doesn’t return was the most important. Khaled Holmes’ impact on the team as a player and leader has been chronicled to the point that ESPN could probably make a 30-for-30 documentary on it. Equally as concerning is figuring out whom to replace him with. Last year, Cyrus Hobbi was tossed around like tuna salad by opposing linemen, so much so that Kiffin has taken offensive guard Marcus Martin out of position in the 2013 spring depth chart.
Second, this has just as much to do with good competition as it does with question marks. The Trojans face some nasty defensive lines. Do you know which teams USC faces this year that were in the top 10 nationally in sacks?
Stanford (first), Arizona State (second), UCLA (fourth) and Utah State (seventh). Four teams. Guess which teams USC will play that ranked in the top 10 nationally in tackles for loss?
That’d be Arizona State (first), Stanford (second) and Washington State (seventh). The Trojans ranked 51st in tackles for loss allowed, and while that isn’t bad, it isn’t South Division champion status either.
With four returning starters, USC’s offensive line can improve, but you have to figure the defensive lines the Trojans face will get better, too. ASU still has a mammoth in lineman Will Sutton and returns six of its front seven. Stanford and UCLA return five. It adds up.
Don’t try and be optimistic. This unit is not good. If you aren’t convinced, look at Daily News' Scott Wolf's report on the spring game.
Gone are T.J. McDonald and Nickell Robey. What’s left is (deep breath) a group of inexperienced corners and inconsistent safeties who gave up over 450 passing yards between a kid who turned 18 in February and two seniors who haven’t started three games between them (exhale).
They played against Marqise Lee and Nelson Agholor. Fine, those guys are great. But that excuse can’t and doesn’t cover up everything. Opponents fared much better against the two plus Robert Woods and Matt Barkley. Only three teams the Trojans played last year gave up more than 303 passing yards: Hawaii, Arizona and Oregon.
Hawaii will be Hawaii. But USC only had those spring game passing numbers last season twice. Worse, they still lost both of them. Because? Ironically, their secondary got beat.
Part of it is due to the lack of talent and experience. The other is the offenses they play. The Pac-12 is a scorer’s conference, with many teams hoping to break the scoreboard by halftime. It comes with the territory and the passing defense has to step up to the challenge. Right now, it looks like they can’t.
So how could this all equate to an empty trophy case? Here’s the short answer, in chronological order—Arizona State, Stanford and UCLA.
ASU (at ASU, I might add) would win with its defensive front seven, harassing the quarterback before his receivers get open. Actually, the Sun Devils would win with their defensive front 11; this is one of the top five defenses in the country.
Stanford and UCLA are building off successful years, and each comes back a stronger team. Per a report from CBS Sports’s Bruce Feldman, UCLA also learned yesterday that elite recruit Eddie Vanderdoes is eligible to play this season, another significant addition to its defense.
The Trojans lost to both last year. If they didn’t improve more than those teams did (they haven’t), it’s tough to see them win (they won't).
If SC loses these three, it's over. ASU can go 8-1 or 7-2 with its weak conference schedule, and if the team doesn't, UCLA can win seven of its own.
This doesn't even include a dangerous trip to Oregon State. If you haven’t been following SC for more than three years, games at OSU are the bane of Trojan football seasons. The team has lost three straight in Corvallis, no matter how many NFL prospects it had or how highly ranked the group was. Trap game would be an understatement.
As a passionate USC fan, nothing would please me more than to be wrong about all of this. But in looking at what’s in front of them, don’t be surprised if SC finds success, or lack of it, similar to what they had last season. We'll just have to see.