Anything from 4-8 to 11-1 is on the table for USC this year. Have fun with that, Clay Helton

usa today 11729207.0 - Anything from 4-8 to 11-1 is on the table for USC this year. Have fun with that, Clay Helton

Helton is overseeing tons of changes after USC’s first losing season in 18 years, and the schedule has nothing but tricky test after tricky test. Yikes.

Bill C’s annual preview series of every FBS team in college football continues. Catch up here!

In last year’s USC preview, I wrote about how a coach’s third year in charge of the Trojans tends to tell the tale. Clay Helton better hope that does not hold true.

Helton saw success even more quickly than coaches like Tollner and Smith did. After a slow start to his first season (2016), his Trojans caught fire behind redshirt freshman quarterback Sam Darnold. They won 13 games in a row into 2017, and after a rickety 2-2 stretch, they finished 5-1 that season, too. Two years in, they were 21-6, with a conference title, two major bowl appearances, and a classic Rose Bowl victory. Not bad, right?

Not great, either. USC won 11 games in 2017 due in part to both happy bounces (the Trojans were 4-1 in one-possession games) and a sketchy schedule (their S&P+ SOS ranking fell from eighth to 59th that year).

In 2018, the schedule got tougher (44th), and the breaks went away (2-4 in one-score games). USC got worse, too. The offense was up-and-down under freshman quarterback JT Daniels, and the defense slid for the second straight year.

The result was something unfathomable: a losing season.

Lane Kiffin disappointed in his final seasons as USC’s head coach, but he went 7-6 in 2012 and was 3-2 in 2013 when he got dumped. Pete Carroll’s last season was pretty listless, in part because of a freshman quarterback. But the Trojans still went 9-4.

USC finished 5-7 last year. Even for a team with a young QB, that’s mind-blowing. The Trojans had suffered one losing season in the last 28 years (5-7 in 2000).

Helton had evidently built up just enough goodwill in his first two years to save his job, but he did quite bit of shuffling on his staff. He brought in fired Bowling Green head coach Mike Jinks as new RBs coach, hired journeyman Greg Burns as new DBs coach, brought Boise State defensive line coach Chad Kauha’aha’a to town in the same role, and promoted former WVU defensive coordinator Joe DeForest from analyst to OLBs coach.

He also made two offensive coordinator hires. First, he scooped up fired Texas Tech head coach Kliff Kingsbury in a move that appeared to be one of the offseason’s true home runs. USC desperately lacked a clear offensive identity last year with Tee Martin running the show, and few have stronger identities, or offensive track records, then Kingsbury.

Kingsbury’s track record was so strong, in fact, that he was hired away to become the Arizona Cardinals’ head coach weeks later. Scrambling, Helton then took a chance on another former Texas Tech quarterback and potential spread mastermind: Graham Harrell.

Harrell is basically a Younger Kliff. Both left Lubbock for journeyman pro careers, then quickly gathered steam in the coaching ranks. Kingsbury was a co-coordinator at Houston by his third year in the profession and became Texas A&M’s sole coordinator two years later. Harrell coached receivers under Mike Leach for two years, then became North Texas’ coordinator in 2016.

He did well in Denton. He inherited a truly moribund offense, one that had ranked 126th in Off. S&P+ the year before his arrival and hadn’t ranked better than 80th since rejoining FBS in the 1990s. But the Mean Green were 65th by Harrell’s second year and held steady at 67th in his third. They went from averaging 15 points per game before his arrival, to 25 in his first year, to 35 in his next two.

Harrell isn’t Kingsbury, but he’s got some chops, and he’s got a chance to save Helton’s USC tenure.

Of course, it’s at least a little bit odd that Helton didn’t more fully address his flagging defense, too. But we’ll get to that.

2018 usc trend - Anything from 4-8 to 11-1 is on the table for USC this year. Have fun with that, Clay Helton

Tyler Vaughns, Amon-Ra St. Brown, and Michael Pittman Jr. were all targeted at least 80 times last year — plus an interesting tight end in Josh Falo. St. Brown was a particularly efficient option, Pittman was all-or-nothing, and Vaughns was basically in-between.

  • Leading rusher Aca’Cedric Ware, easily last season’s most efficient rusher, is gone, but returnees Vavae Malepeai and Stephen Carr combined for 174 carries and caught 23 of 27 passes last year, albeit for minimal yardage. Malepeai clears the efficiency bar, and Carr’s a former top-20 recruit.
  • This being USC, there is the requisite batch of young blue-chippers: sophomore receiver Devon Williams, redshirt freshman back Markese Stepp, and incoming freshman receivers Bru McCoy (who had one of the strangest post-signing day recruitments you’ll ever see), Kyle Ford, and Drake London, plus tight end Ethan Rae.
  • usa today 11728272 - Anything from 4-8 to 11-1 is on the table for USC this year. Have fun with that, Clay HeltonGary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
    JT Daniels

    Granted, you still need a quarterback delivering the ball to the skill corps. Harrell had a hell of a quarterback at North Texas in Mason Fine, and he at least has candidates here. Sophomore Jack Sears was efficient in his lone appearance, going 20-for-28 for 235 yards against Arizona State, but the assumption is obviously that Daniels will retain his job.

    Daniels’ freshman year was a roller coaster. He was overwhelmed in losses to Stanford and Texas, but he began to find a rhythm before a midseason concussion (which forced him to miss ASU) threw him off-track.

    • Daniels’ first three games (1-2): 57% completion rate, 12.2 yards/completion, 113.8 passer rating
    • Next three games (3-0): 60% completion rate, 14.1 yards/completion, 149.8 passer rating
    • Last five games (1-4): 61% completion rate, 11.6 yards/completion, 128.1 passer rating

    One assumes Harrell and Daniels will form a nice bond, but we won’t know for sure until it happens.

    One thing that could get in the way of a happy QB-OC marriage: a rebuilt offensive line. Three starters are gone, including all-conference tackle Chuma Edoga. If there’s a silver lining, it’s that a lot of guys saw action on last year’s banged up line, so including Tennessee grad transfer Drew Richmond, there are six guys with starting experience. That’s something.

    2018 pac 12 offense - Anything from 4-8 to 11-1 is on the table for USC this year. Have fun with that, Clay Helton

    Porter Gustin was on his way to a 20-TFL season but missed the last six contests — and the defensive backs rotation was a revolving door as well.

    Still, the bar’s high when you recruit like USC recruits.

    1037533908.jpg - Anything from 4-8 to 11-1 is on the table for USC this year. Have fun with that, Clay HeltonPhoto by Harry How/Getty Images
    Talanoa Hufanga (15) and John Houston Jr. (10)

    The injuries may turn into a saving grace this year. While the Trojans rank 21st in offensive returning production, they are a woeful 118th on defense, primarily because of what they lose in the secondary. Five of last year’s top six DB tacklers are gone (including draftees Iman Marshall and Marvell Tell III), but at least the replacements saw decent playing time.

    There are quite a few exciting sophomores in the defensive back eight, but they’re still going to be sophomores. Corners Greg Johnson and Olaijah Griffin, safeties Talanoa Hufanga and Isaiah Pola-Mao, and linebackers Palaie Gaoteote IV and Kana’i Mauga were all well-touted recruits, and all flashed disruptive potential. But yikes, there’s some serious youth here. Senior inside linebackers John Houston Jr. and Jordan Iosefa are going to have to carry serious weight from a leadership perspective.

    usa today 11593113 - Anything from 4-8 to 11-1 is on the table for USC this year. Have fun with that, Clay HeltonTroy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports
    Brandon Pili (91) and Christian Rector (89)

    The line isn’t exactly full of veterans either; end Christian Rector is the only senior in the rotation. But sophomore tackles Jay Tufele and Marlon Tuipulotu were among last year’s best defenders, and junior nose Brandon Pili has been around the block. JUCO end Nick Figueroa and blue-chip freshman Drake Jackson will need to fill rotation spots pretty quickly, but the starting lineup up front will be strong.

    2018 pac 12 defense - Anything from 4-8 to 11-1 is on the table for USC this year. Have fun with that, Clay Helton

    Special Teams

    At least one unit rebounded in 2018. After bombing from 19th to 89th in Special Teams S&P+, USC split the difference and ended up 50th last fall, thanks primarily to strong place-kicking from Chase McGrath and, after McGrath tore his ACL, Michael Brown.

    With Brown, McGrath, kickoffs specialist Alex Stadthaus, and return men Velus Jones Jr. and Tyler Vaughns, the unit returns mostly intact. The only loss comes at punter, but since USC ranked 112th in punt efficiency, new blood there probably isn’t a bad thing.

    2019 outlook

    2019 Schedule & Projection Factors

    Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
    31-Aug Fresno State 51 7.7 67%
    7-Sep Stanford 32 3.2 57%
    14-Sep at BYU 50 2.6 56%
    20-Sep Utah 17 -2.1 45%
    28-Sep at Washington 15 -9.4 29%
    12-Oct at Notre Dame 12 -10.9 27%
    19-Oct Arizona 52 7.8 67%
    25-Oct at Colorado 68 6.5 65%
    2-Nov Oregon 20 -0.6 49%
    9-Nov at Arizona State 49 2.3 55%
    26-Nov at California 60 4.8 61%
    23-Nov UCLA 63 10.2 72%
    Projected S&P+ Rk 29
    Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 26 / 45
    Projected wins 6.5
    Five-Year S&P+ Rk 17.0 (14)
    2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 16
    2018 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -10 / -6.4
    2018 TO Luck/Game -1.5
    Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 61% (79%, 43%)
    2018 Second-order wins (difference) 7.0 (-2.0)

    Since Carroll’s peak ended in 2008, USC’s existence has been one of brief bursts and steady slides. Helton didn’t invent this phenomenon.

    2018 usc progression - Anything from 4-8 to 11-1 is on the table for USC this year. Have fun with that, Clay Helton

    Still, the rapidity of the regression is alarming, and again, it wasn’t just an offense problem last year.

    Helton did make some intriguing moves. Harrell might not be Kingsbury (yet), but he proved quite a bit at North Texas, and if the defensive issues were due more to all the shuffling in the back eight, and not any major structural or tactical issues, then maybe things will end up alright there. The turnover in the back is alarming, though.

    Helton is coaching for his job, and hoo boy, is the schedule packed with possible anxiety. The Trojans face nine games projected within one score, including each of the first four games of the year (Fresno State, Stanford, at BYU, Utah).

    With just a little bit of variation in play, the Trojans could be 4-0 or 1-3 when they head to Washington on September 28. If Harrell’s offense finds its rhythm quickly, a 10-win season is all sorts of conceivable. If it doesn’t, or if the defense falls off of an inexperience-driven cliff, 4-8 is on the table as well.

    Have fun with that, Trojan fans.

    2019 pac 12 projections - Anything from 4-8 to 11-1 is on the table for USC this year. Have fun with that, Clay Helton

    Team preview stats

    All 2019 preview data to date.

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