At the start of the 2012 season, many believed that the USC Trojans were one of the best – if not the best – team in the nation. Poor performances and untimely injuries, though, watched them finish the year with a 7-6 record and a share of second place in the PAC-12 South.
With head coach Lane Kiffin now on the hot seat and the pressure on to take advantage of their loaded roster, the Trojans must put pundits at ease in 2013. In a rapidly-improving PAC-12 conference, that’s going to be a lot easier said than done.
Still, the Trojans clearly have the talent to deliver. As long as they can put the pieces together, stay somewhat healthy and answer their few glaring questions during camp, USC should be in position to make a run at the PAC-12 North title.
The first and most important question the Trojans must answer on the offensive side of the ball is who will be starting under center when the regular season rolls around. The safe bet right now appears to be sophomore Max Wittek, who stepped in for Matt Barkley last season but enjoyed minimal success. The other candidate is Cody Kessler, another sophomore with the talent and leadership to be a force for the Trojans. Freshman Max Browne has an outside shot, but would need both Wittek and Kessler to stumble during camp. Who ends up winning the starting job will have a huge impact on the outcome of the 2013 campaign.
The USC running game looks to be at full strength heading into 2013, with senior Silas Redd back in the mix. One of the nation’s top running backs, Redd should be a key cog in the Trojan’s offensive gameplan all season long. Others such as freshman Justin Davis and sophomore Tre Madden should also see their fair share of touches this year.
Wide receiver is one of the Trojans’ most exciting positions, with Heisman candidate Marqise Lee prepared for his biggest season yet. Assuming he can create some chemistry with whoever is under center, Lee should have another outstanding season as USC’s top target. Speedy sophomore Nelson Agholor should also be an integral part of the passing attack. The Trojans also boast Xavier Grimble and Randall Telfer, who are set to shine as arguably the best tight end duo in the nation.
The offensive line returns all five starters, so continuity shouldn’t be an issue. Whether or not Aundrey Walker can improve as the starting left tackle, though, will be a big determinant in how well the starting quarterback plays throughout the season.
After the arrival of new defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast, the Trojans implemented a 5-2 defense that will put five of USC’s top defensive linemen on the field at the same time. Morgan Breslin and Devon Kennard will man the outsides while Leonard Williams, Antwaun Woods and George Uko provide support on the inside. Also look for freshman defensive tackle Kenny Bigelow to make an early impact for the Trojans.
Hayes Pullard and Lamar Dawson will man the two linebacker spots. Pullard is coming off a huge 2012 season while Dawson showed a surplus of upside during spring ball. If both can play to their potential, the linebacker position will be stout for USC this season.
The secondary, however, will pose some concerns heading into 2013. While Dion Bailey will fill the strong safety spot nicely, the Trojans will likely depend on Demetrius Wright to take over at free safety. Meanwhile, at cornerback, Josh Shaw and Kevon Seymour should handle the starting duties on the outside. The lack of experience, though, is going to hurt USC and the backend of their defense.
Like so many other top-tier football programs, the year starts out easy for the Trojans. Their first four contests are winnable, with matchups against Hawaii, Washington State, Boston College and Utah State. From there, though, things get messy.
The next four games pit USC against a couple of the tougher teams in the PAC-12 as well as Notre Dame, a team coming off a National Championship appearance. The month of November gets every worse, as the Trojans will face off against teams such as Oregon State and Stanford before ending the regular season against rivals UCLA at home.
The one bit of silver lining: the Trojans avoid Oregon during the regular season, which should help them keep the loss column as clean as possible until (potentially) the PAC-12 Championship.
USC has all of the tools to get the job done this season. If Kiffin and Co. can’t show marked improvement early on, though, the Trojans could be sporting a new head honcho in 2014.