USC Football: Power Ranking Trojans' 2014 Schedule from Easiest to Toughest
USC's 2014 schedule and first campaign under new head coach Steve Sarkisian is an interesting mix of challenging—with nine teams that played in bowl games last season—but also manageable.
The Trojans miss Oregon and Washington out of the Pac-12 North, the division's second- and third-place teams in 2013, instead drawing fifth- and sixth-place finishers Washington State and Cal.
In the nonconference, USC faces its customary demanding slate with the annual Notre Dame tilt, a road trip to Boston College and a return engagement of last December's Las Vegas Bowl with Fresno State visiting the Coliseum.
12. Nov. 13 vs. Cal
Javorius Allen went—pardon the pun—"Buck" wild in the Trojans' 62-28 blowout of Cal last November. He rushed for 135 yards on all of six carries for two touchdowns and went 57 yards on a scoring reception.
Topping that production is a tall order for Allen individually, but the Trojans look to be about as much of a mismatch for the Golden Bears as two conference teams can be five months out from playing.
Since their unforgettable encounters in 2003 and 2004, competitive games between Cal and USC have been few and far between. The Trojans' average margin of victory since 2008 is 24.7 points per game.
With second-year Golden Bears head coach Sonny Dykes still facing a monumental rebuilding project, don't expect the 2014 installment to reverse the trend.
11. Oct. 18 vs. Colorado
Since Colorado joined the Pac-12 in 2011, USC has beaten the Buffaloes by scores of 42-17 in 2011, 50-6 in 2012 and 47-29 last November.
Their 2013 meeting in Boulder, Colorado, was more lopsided than the final score might indicate. USC built a 37-7 lead through three quarters, but the Buffs cut the deficit to 11 points when interim head coach Ed Orgeron played the few reserves he had on his roster.
Nevertheless, Colorado's fight in that fourth quarter was indicative of the program's philosophical shift under head coach Mike MacIntyre. The Buffaloes remained committed until the final whistle but simply lacked the ability to go toe-to-toe with the Trojans for all 60 minutes.
MacIntyre's reconstruction is still in its early phases, so Colorado may be another few years away from realistically challenging USC—especially in the Coliseum.
10. Sept. 13 at Boston College
USC pounded Boston College in last year's meeting at the Coliseum, 35-7. Heisman Trophy finalist running back Andre Williams was stifled, finishing with 38 yards on 17 carries—his lowest output in a game wherein he played all four quarters.
The Eagles regroup without Williams or four-year starting quarterback Chase Rettig. Second-year head coach Steve Addazio will undoubtedly still be making major tweaks this early in the season as Boston College transitions to more of a spread offense.
A cross-country trek is never easy. Still, USC matches up with Boston College favorably. This should be the most mismatched of the Trojans' three nonconference games.
9. Aug. 30 vs. Fresno State
USC may have never played more inspired football in 2013 than in the Las Vegas Bowl matchup with Fresno State. The Trojans defense routinely swarmed Bulldogs quarterback Derek Carr, who has since departed for the NFL.
Cody Kessler stole the show with 345 yards and four touchdowns, his best individual output of the season. He hooked up with Nelson Agholor five times, including twice for touchdowns, perhaps laying the foundation for a big 2014 between the two.
In this Week 1 affair, both teams will have some feeling-out to do on the offensive end. This will be the Trojans' first foray into the no-huddle, hurry-up offense while Fresno State restructures its offense to fit dual-threat transfer quarterback Brandon Connette.
That could translate into a low-scoring affair decided by the defensive playmakers.
Preseason All-American safety Derron Smith is a threat in the secondary, as Kessler learned on a pick-six in the Las Vegas Bowl. Linebacker Ejiro Ederaine was among the nation's leaders in sacks last season with 10.
8. Nov. 1 at Washington State
USC has not lost on the Palouse since 2002, which, prior to last season's 10-7 debacle in the Coliseum, was the last time the Cougars beat the Trojans at all.
Of course, the 2013 campaign marked the end of a few dubious streaks for Washington State. In addition to scoring their first win over USC in more than a decade, the Cougars also reached a bowl game for the first time since 2003.
Interestingly, Washington State's three best performances were arguably all on the road: conference wins at USC and Arizona, as well as a near-miss against BCS runner-up Auburn. Home-field advantage may not be such a huge boon for the Cougars despite the difficulty simply getting to Pullman, Washington.
While the significance of playing in Martin Stadium is debatable, Cougars quarterback Connor Halliday's passing is a certainty. His 714 attempts were far and away the most in the Football Bowl Subdivision last season.
7. Sept. 27 vs. Oregon State
USC's visit to Oregon State in 2013 marked running back Allen's coming-out party and also snapped a three-game Trojans losing streak in Reser Stadium.
This year, the Beavers visit Los Angeles trying to snap their own road losing streak in the series—though theirs dates back just a little bit further. Oregon State's last win in the Coliseum? Sept. 16, 1960.
Now, Oregon State quarterback Sean Mannion has demonstrated a knack for making history. His 4,662 passing yards in 2013 are the most in one season by any quarterback in any incarnation of the Pac-12. But last season against USC, the Beavers' reliance on the pass proved detrimental.
Mannion was picked off three times while Oregon State ball-carriers were held to 92 combined yards.
6. Oct. 25 at Utah
Rice-Eccles Stadium offers a tremendous home-field advantage. Utah is a much different team at home playing before the raucous MUSS—Mighty Utah Student Section—and taking full advantage of Salt Lake City's 4,226 feet of elevation.
Stanford fell victim to Utah in Rice-Eccles last season, and the Utes were a possession away from upending South division champion Arizona State there as well.
There's no taking Utah lightly in its house, and a team cannot underestimate the Utes defense, either. Utah boasted the nation's No. 20 run-stopping unit a season ago despite finishing the year 5-7. Overcoming both a stifling defense and stifling conditions for visitors is the challenge for USC when it visits in late October.
5. Oct. 11 at Arizona
Offensive fireworks have erupted in each of the first two USC-Arizona meetings since Wildcats head coach Rich Rodriguez arrived in 2012.
The first was a back-and-forth affair wherein wide receiver Marqise Lee set a Pac-12 record with 345 receiving yards. But it was wide receiver Austin Hill—who caught for an impressive 259 yards—and Arizona getting the last laugh, 39-36.
In last year's 38-31 Trojans win, USC played with a free-wheeling style lacking in the 3-2 start that preceded it. Kessler looked the most comfortable behind center he had all year up to that point, and Allen showed the first glimpses of becoming a breakout star.
Another tightly contested tilt should be in store this time around. Rodriguez and Sarkisian are 1-1 against each other, with the home-standing coach taking each decision.
Oct. 4 vs. Arizona State
Arizona State carved its place in the annals of USC history, albeit dubiously from the Trojans' perspective. The 62 points the Sun Devils hung on the Trojans in last year's contest matched the most given up by any USC team ever and was the proverbial last straw for Lane Kiffin.
The former head coach was shown the door just hours after the loss, and the Trojans went on to win seven of their next nine.
Defending divisional champion Arizona State is almost completely rebuilding its defense, losing eight full-time starters and as many as 10 primary contributors. However, the explosive offense that vexed USC last season retains quarterback Taylor Kelly.
D.J. Foster, who torched the Trojans for 80 yards on just three receptions, is a breakout star in waiting as he replaces Marion Grice at featured running back.
3. Nov. 29 vs. Notre Dame
After thoroughly dominating the annual nonconference rivalry with Notre Dame, the series turned in favor of the Fighting Irish during the Lane Kiffin era.
"Whether it's [at home] or on the road, it's important to beat your rival," Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said after last year's 14-10 Irish victory, per UND.com. "This is our rival, USC, and now we've beaten them three out of the last four years."
Notre Dame's modest, recent success against USC includes two straight wins in the Coliseum.
As has been customary when these two meet, an old-school defensive slugfest could be in the works. The Trojans front seven features All-American defensive lineman Leonard Williams while Notre Dame boasts its own preseason All-American in linebacker Jaylon Smith.
2. Nov. 22 at UCLA
USC had not lost two straight to crosstown rival UCLA since 1997 and 1998 prior to last season's 35-14 Bruins romp. The 1997 and 1998 UCLA wins were the tail end of a decade of Bruins dominance, which is precisely what the Trojans are trying to prevent in this year's meeting.
UCLA looks to be an almost universal, early favorite in the Pac-12 South. The Bruins return more starters than any team in the conference, solidified areas of concern such as the offensive line in the offseason and ended a 10-win 2013 with two of their best performances all year—one of which was the blowout of USC.
The UCLA game is the last on USC's conference slate, per tradition. So much more than city bragging rights could be at stake with this falling at the end of the season.
A Pac-12 South divisional crown and berth in the conference championship game may also be on the line, making this one of—if not the—most important date on the Trojans' calendar.
1. Sept. 6 at Stanford
The wounds from USC's 20-17 upset of Stanford last November will still be fresh when the Trojans visit the Farm in Week 2.
After winning five of six games in the series from 2007 through 2012, including four straight, last year's loss in the Coliseum effectively ended Stanford's bid for the BCS championship. For USC, that night marked the pinnacle of Ed Orgeron's tenure as interim head coach, and never was the groundswell to retain him stronger than in the following week.
As it stands, Sarkisian is head coach and is introducing a new offensive philosophy that will undoubtedly have kinks to work out this early into the season. Lance Anderson takes over at defensive coordinator for Stanford, replacing Derek Mason.
Mason crafted a strategy specifically tailored to slowing hurry-up offenses—though Sarkisian's Washington team had success against the Cardinal in 2013.
That's not the only history with Stanford Sarkisian brings from his time at Washington. The first-year Trojans head coach had a public spat with Cardinal head coach David Shaw following Stanford's 31-28 win.
This game is critical for the Trojans' 2014 prospects because, win or lose, a competitive effort sets a positive tone for the entire campaign—if not the entire Sarkisian era.
Statistics compiled via CFBStats.com.