Why USC Should Be Early Favorite to Win 2017-18 National Championship

Barrett SalleeSEC Football Lead WriterJanuary 11, 2017

PASADENA, CA - JANUARY 02:  Quarterback Sam Darnold #14 of the USC Trojans celebrates after defeating the Penn State Nittany Lions 52-49 to win the 2017 Rose Bowl Game presented by Northwestern Mutual at the Rose Bowl on January 2, 2017 in Pasadena, California.  (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

The confetti has just been vacuumed up from the floor of Raymond James Stadium, space is being cleared at Clemson for the College Football Playoff National Championship trophy and the doldrums of the offseason are staring all of us squarely in the face.

So let's talk about 2017, shall we?

It's never too early to start looking ahead, and the team we all should be talking about is USC, and how the Trojans—who finished third in the final Associated Press Top 25—are on the doorstep of rekindling their glory days.

They finished the season on a nine-game winning streak and have a Heisman Trophy contender at quarterback in rising redshirt sophomore Sam Darnold, and head coach Clay Helton capped his first full season at the helm with a 52-49 win over Penn State in a Rose Bowl for the ages.

"By far the most fun I've ever had in a game in 20 years of college football coaching," Helton told me on College Sports Nation earlier this month. "Such a unique atmosphere being there in the Rose Bowl—two class-act programs and two heavyweight contenders."

PASADENA, CA - JANUARY 02:  USC Trojans head coach Clay Helton (C) reacts with his son Turner (L) and quarterback Sam Darnold #14 (R) after defeating the Penn State Nittany Lions 52-49 to win the 2017 Rose Bowl Game presented by Northwestern Mutual at the
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Darnold's emergence as a superstar is the primary reason the Trojans should be considered the most dangerous team in the sport.

In place of ineffective starter Max Browne, Darnold threw for 3,086 yards and 31 touchdowns with nine interceptions and rushed for 250 yards and two touchdowns. His first start came on the road against Utah in Week 4, and he threw for 253 yards.

"I think the maturity of his game is exemplary at this stage of his career," Helton said prior to the Rose Bowl. "You think about a kid who was thrown into a 1-2 season, asked to go to Utah and perform, and he did. We just lose the game with 16 seconds left on the clock. Then he comes back, and he's able to run off eight straight, really protecting the football."

He hit Deontay Burnett with a brilliant throw over tight coverage for a 27-yard touchdown to help tie Penn State with 1:20 left and kick off his 2017 Heisman campaign (see video above).

Darnold's grasp of the offense, ability to make smart decisions and willingness to get better won Helton over.

"I felt he was getting better and maturing with each game. His humbleness and humility is very, very rare," he said. "I'll never forget him going out and throwing five touchdown passes in a game, and I pulled him out of the game late, and he comes over to me and says, 'Sorry, Coach. I promise I can do better next time.'"

If he was this good in a pinch, imagine what he will look like with the same dedication to improvement and a full offseason as the unquestioned starting quarterback.

Plus, he has weapons all over the place.

Ronald Jones II rushed for 1,082 yards and 12 touchdowns as a sophomore in 2016.
Ronald Jones II rushed for 1,082 yards and 12 touchdowns as a sophomore in 2016.Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Running back Ronald Jones II has rushed for 2,069 yards and 20 touchdowns in two seasons with the program, Burnett had a stellar 164-yard, three-touchdown performance in Pasadena, Darnold developed a connection with Daniel Imatorbhebhe (17 catches, 250 yards, four touchdowns), and Imatorbhebhe's brother Josh could be one of several young receivers to take on more responsibility next season.

Yes, the offensive line is going to look a tad different after three players move on. But everything else is set for the Trojans offense to be a force again in 2017.

Defensively, there's plenty to be excited about as well—even if star cornerback Adoree' Jackson heads to the NFL a year early.

Cameron Smith was a monster at linebacker with 83 tackles this year, Porter Gustin is incredibly versatile and can work with his hand in the dirt or standing up, Rasheem Green (6'5", 280 lbs) is a massive defensive lineman who came on strong with 55 tackles and six sacks, and the back end of the defense still has stars, including Iman "Biggie" Marshall.

Iman Marshall breaks up a pass against UCLA in November.
Iman Marshall breaks up a pass against UCLA in November.Harry How/Getty Images

What's more, it's not like the Trojans play in a tough neighborhood.

UCLA head coach Jim Mora is 25-20 in conference play in his five seasons in Westwood, the Arizona schools are routinely average and Utah and Colorado are both going to suffer significant personnel losses this offseason.

Managing newfound expectations will be Helton's biggest challenge, but he's comfortable with the mindset of the key contributors within the program.

"The good thing about being at USC is that the expectations are always high here," he told me. "If you don't like the expectations about winning championships every single year and that being your goal, then don't take the job. That's what USC is about. It's a tradition of excellence and a tradition of winning championships."

Missing out on the College Football Playoff despite being one of the hottest teams in the country was a result of a 1-3 start, which Helton hopes can be used as a teaching tool in the future.

"One of the things that I hope we learned and I know we learned this year is that each game is like a playoff game and each game is like a championship game," he said. "If you truly want to be a part of that playoff picture, your early season is just as valuable as your finish. Every game counts. That's one of the things that our team learned this year."

The Trojans chimed in at No. 2 in Bleacher Report's way-too-early 2017 Top 25.

They'll end the season one spot higher and should be the favorite to win the national title.

              

Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Statistics courtesy of CFBStats and recruiting information courtesy of Scout unless otherwise noted.

Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer and national college football video analyst for Bleacher Report, as well as a host on SiriusXM Radio. Follow Barrett on Twitter and Facebook.