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The Daily Trojan, or "DT," is the student newspaper of the University of Southern California. The newspaper is a forum for student expression and is written, edited, and managed by university students. The paper is intended to inform USC students, faculty, and staff on the latest news and provide opinion and entertainment. Student writers, editors, photographers and artists can develop their talents and air their opinions while providing a service to the campus community through the Daily Trojan. Readers can interact with the Daily Trojan by commenting on articles online or writing a letter to the editor.
If the past year has taught us anything about USC football’s reputation, it’s that it doesn’t take much to get the hype train rolling.
For a program with a historic legacy, proud alumni and perennially high expectations, last season marked a return to glory for the Trojans that not even their most ardent supporters could’ve expected after a 1-3 start: an eight-game winning streak to end the regular season, capped off with a thrilling Rose Bowl victory for the ages. And in the process, USC discovered that Sam Darnold, the quiet redshirt sophomore who started as the backup quarterback last year, may end up as this year’s Heisman Trophy winner and one of the greatest players to ever don the Cardinal and Gold.
Just like that, USC — a program three years removed from crippling sanctions and two years removed from firing a head coach over a drinking problem — is suddenly back, and the nation agrees. In the preseason Coaches Poll released at the beginning of August, the Trojans came in fourth, expected to compete for a national title at the end of the season against the likes of Alabama, Ohio State and Florida State.
To be clear, this is all good. Every national championship-contending team wants — no, needs — to be hyped up. And the Trojans deserve it. They were the best team in college football during the final eight weeks, and had Darnold started from week one, USC could have played for a title.
Instead, they had to settle for a Rose Bowl win. Yes, it was cool and all — USC regaining its rightful place as the victor in The Granddaddy of Them All. But it was just a bowl win. In a season that restored the Trojans to national prominence, they didn’t even win the Pac-12 South, let alone a Pac-12 or national championship.
So they’ll have to prove they’re worth the hype this season, and there will be some hurdles. Darnold will have to deal with the attention that comes with being the Heisman favorite and try to fend off any type of “sophomore slump.” Meanwhile, teams have had a full offseason to gameplan for him. Head coach Clay Helton, who was on the hot seat after a turbulent 1-3 start last season, needs at least a Pac-12 Championship to solidify his position.
They won’t have the help of arguably their two most explosive contributors from last season in leading wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and Adoree’ Jackson, the Draymond Green of football. Both declared for the NFL Draft a year early, leaving USC with uncertainty over who will step up as the top receiver and how the gaping hole left by Jackson’s presence in all three facets of the game will be filled. And the offensive line, tasked with protecting Darnold, was riddled with injuries in spring camp and is still very much in flux.
But for all the potential issues that might flare up, USC is uniquely equipped to handle them because of who it has under center. A good quarterback can mask a lot of things. It’s no coincidence that when Darnold took over the job last season, the problems the team had with Max Browne as quarterback disappeared. Helton’s in-game decisions were no longer questioned. Smith-Schuster, who struggled early on, became himself again when he started working with a new quarterback. The offensive line, which was awful in the opener against Alabama, was largely spared because Darnold is basically impossible to sack. Even the tight ends, who historically have not played a key role in USC’s offensive scheme, started thriving with redshirt sophomore Daniel Imatorbhebhe, junior Tyler Petite and Taylor McNamara recording more receptions.
This is not an attempt to disparage Browne, who was put in a tough situation and a rough early schedule. It’s not even an effort to portray Darnold as some kind of wonder healer who can patch up every bump and bruise, because there will eventually come a point this season where he will face adversity.
And when that time comes, he’ll learn that winning a Heisman is as much a team effort as it is an individual accomplishment, like how the Trojans wouldn’t have won the Rose Bowl without unsung heroes like defensive back Leon McQuay. So they can’t answer every question that comes up this season with, “We have Sam Darnold.”
They’ll need junior wide receiver Deontay Burnett to build off his Rose Bowl hat trick and become their go-to man, and for unproven receivers like sophomore Michael Pittman Jr. and quarterback-turned-wideout redshirt junior Jalen Greene to slide into reliable roles. They’ll need junior cornerback Iman Marshall to take over Jackson’s spot on defense and sophomore cornerback Jack Jones to try to beat Darnold for the Heisman, as he said he would. And they’ll need Michael Brown to be a trustworthy placekicker as a redshirt freshman, since Matt Boermeester, last year’s Rose Bowl hero, is off the roster. Sam Darnold can throw a football very well, but he can’t throw and catch the ball at the same time, play on defense or make field goals.
We could go up and down the depth chart and look at what each player needs to do, but the point is that this will be a two-way street: For Darnold to win the Heisman, USC needs to be a championship contender; and for USC to be a championship contender, Darnold needs to play at a Heisman level.
And the thing is, like the Lakers or the Yankees in their respective sports, USC might be seen as an evil empire by fans, but the Trojans doing well is a good thing for college football — good for debate, good for attention, good for ratings. So, you can expect the playoff committee to give the Trojans every benefit of the doubt when it comes to the final rankings.
Now, can we expect the Trojans to avoid another 2012-like debacle and meet their lofty expectations? That remains to be seen, but we’d much rather talk about championship hopes than sanctions or head coaching changes.
Welcome back to school, folks. This is going to be a fun ride.