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USC Trojans to win it all

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Every college team has question marks but USC has some knowns and some positive trend lines that make them my pick for the national title winner.

Notre Dame v USC Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

That’s my pick this year.

The smart money is on Alabama, it’s always on Alabama, and sometimes I follow the smart money and pick Alabama to win. However, there are three cracks in the armor I see for the Tide that make me hesitant to pull the trigger for them this year while USC seems to have the least troubling question marks of the common title picks.

For Alabama my concerns are as follows. Firstly, the offensive coordinator turnover they experienced IN THE MIDDLE OF THE PLAYOFFS and then immediately after was a pretty serious red flag. Brian Daboll may prove to be an inspired hire and Nick Saban runs a lot of quality control over every facet of this program regardless but there’s still some reason for caution in projecting their offense to make a leap and be an elite, championship-driving unit. The second concern is on defense, where Alabama is losing a ton of star talent along the line. Sure, they’ll plug in some more bluechip recruits that have been “process’d” but there’s likely to be a decline from what Jonathan Allen and co provided.

Finally, Clemson really went after their pass defense and proved once again that the Tide are vulnerable to a team that can execute a drop back passing attack. A team like USC.

Also picking Alabama is boring.

Florida State and Ohio State are two other trendy picks, but both teams feature QBs with big question marks and the Buckeyes have to reload on defense as well and integrate multiple starters without missing a beat in a competitive Big 10. But USC? They are in nice shape over there in the Pac-12 with a load of key returners and a similarly deep roster. Here’s what I like about the Trojans...

A title-winning feature on offense

Winning a title requires that you have some dimension to your offense that is a guarantee to put 30 points on the board even if you’re facing another top program with a loaded defense. For USC that winning dimension is probably best summed up as “Sam Darnold.

Darnold is very strong in the option game both with keepers and quick, accurate passes out to speedsters on the perimeter. He’s also brilliant in the dropback game, which when executed at a high level is the crane kick of football.

Rose Bowl Game presented by Northwestern Mutual - USC v Penn State
“If do right, no can defense.”
Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

The 2017 Trojan offense has a couple of returning starters at tight end in Tyler Petite and Daniel Immatorbhebhe, receiver Deontay Burnett, and three returning starters around Darnold on the offensive line. From there it’s simply a matter of plugging in the best options from USC’s previous top recruiting classes around Darnold’s multi-faceted skill set.

It’s pretty much a lock that the Trojans will be balanced on offense this coming season but also that they’ll have the dropback game in their back pocket as a trump card against a top defense and to give them a great chance of winning a close contest on a final drive. None of the other trendy picks can say that with as much boldness as can the Trojans.

The necessary caliber of defense

Check out the last five years of USC S&P+ rating on defense.

2012: 30th.

2013: 4th.

2014: 37th.

2015: 41st.

2016: 20th.

Which of these two are not like the others? Obviously USC was significantly better on defense in 2013 and 2016 than the surrounding seasons and those happened to be the two years in which Clancy Pendergast was the defensive coordinator.

Now he’s back in charge and finally has a chance to go into a second consecutive year with the program. If Pendergast’s defensive stylings were simply about getting vets to play sound, simple schemes that may not mean as much but he actually has a diverse and pressure-oriented playbook that can only see better execution with multiple offseasons of install and fine tuning.

The 2017 Trojans will be returning three starters in the secondary while plugging in a fourth year player in the nickel (Ajene Harris) and a former five-star sophomore at cornerback (Jack Jones). Up front they return a starting middle linebacker (Cameron Smith), both OLB/DEs (Porter Gustin and Uchenna Nwosu), and have lots of guys with three-years or more under their belt along the DL.

Their athleticism at cornerback, experience at safety, and playmaking along the line could make for a really nasty unit. Here’s a glimpse into the sort of defense they were playing just last year in this scheme:

The weak side linebacker blitzes an interior gap while the outside linebackers take the edges to apply pressure and keep the ball contained. Coverage wise, the dropping free safety and middle linebacker take the RB and TE in man coverage respectively while the backside corner is also isolated in man coverage. However to the passing strength, USC is playing “2-read” over the receivers to get an adjustable “three over two” effect and deep safety help.

The Trojans were good in these schemes last year and will only be better with another year to learn how to work in concert and to disguise it all. There was never really a question whether they had the “jimmies and joes” to be good and you can see sam DE/OLB Uchenna Nwosu here taking advantage of his outside angle to work through the TE and the pulling guard on his way to the ball. This won’t be a fun unit to try and find an offensive rhythm against this coming season.

The weak spots

Every college team always has question marks, that’s just the nature of the beast. USC’s are somewhat troubling, like they are for every team, and they are as follows.

Firstly, last year’s dropback passing success wasn’t entirely a function of Darnold’s brilliance. They are moving on this season without either of the starting offensive tackles, both of which were seniors, and without top targets Juju Smith-Schuster and Darreus Rodgers.

In the spring they were looking to plug former five-star recruit Chuma Edoga in at left tackle and he asked to be moved over to the right side where he felt more comfortable. Consequently left tackle will be manned by last year’s starting center, Toa Lobendahn. That’s certainly a bit alarming.

At receiver the big question is whether they have someone that can run DBs down the field on vertical routes and free up the necessary space for Darnold to carve opponents apart in the seams throwing to the tight ends and possession receivers. The most talented guys on campus here are underclassmen and haven’t cracked the top of the depth chart yet.

Finally the defense still has a leap to make in order to become an elite unit and there are some potential depth scares up front that could complicate the issue.

However for all of those issues, none of them are strong enough to disqualify the Trojans as my pick. USC was good in pass protection last year not simply because they had good and experienced tackles but because they worked well as a unit and they didn’t give up inside pressure with their guards and center. The interior returns two starters while the maestro is now on the blind side where he can always get help from TEs or RBs if necessary. Anyways, Sam Darnold is huge, evasive, and has a lightning quick release so he doesn’t need Jonathan Ogden to buy him enough time to carve up opponents.

At receiver there’s no question that the Trojans have speed and athleticism, if they can find just one more guy that can consistently get open on the field then they’ll be pretty overwhelming for opposing pass defenses to try and lock down. If you need to pressure the QB and get bracket coverage on two different guys every play, you won’t hold up for four quarters.

Bud Elliott says there are 10 teams in college football talented enough per recruiting ranks to win a national title this year. I have some misgivings on the “blue-chip ratio” metric but no doubt, there are only so many teams with enough elite dimensions and few enough holes to get through a season without too many losses and then go on to win a playoff. Of those teams, my best guess is that USC is most well-equipped to pull it off. What say you?