In my humble opinion, cardinal and gold thoughts on what I see, what I hear, and what I think.
Question 1: Are the USC Trojans really the preseason No. 4 team in the country?
Well, you could start by saying that until somebody proves otherwise, they are. However, with a questionable placekicking game and replacement needs at key positions along the offensive and defensive lines and inexperienced wide receivers, the first three home games figure to provide some sort of rankings validation.
Question 2: So, will Western Michigan, Stanford, and Texas expose the Trojans for what they really are?
The Western Michigan opener is probably the equivalent of a good tune-up, but No. 14 Stanford – who defeated Rice, 62-7, in the season opener on Saturday in Australia – the following week following Western Michigan is a whole different animal and will expose the Trojans good and perceived not-so-good areas. And then after Stanford, No. 23 Texas, with its first-year head coach Tom Herman known for being a consistent underdog upset maker, arrives in the Coliseum and the Longhorns should be 2-0. The Horns are talented enough to provide a stern test for a USC team that will either have maximum momentum following a victory over Stanford or a character test if the Cardinal pull the upset.
Question 3: Is Stanford the key to the season?
The Cardinal offense will certainly provide the early and quick answers to the Trojans defensive fortunes. The Cardinal offensive line will provide the measuring stick for the Trojans rebuilt defensive line, which on paper looks formidable. FYI, three of the freshmen D-liners (Marlon Tuipulotu, Brandon Pili, and Jay Tufele) are absolute physical studs who will play. The Stanford defense should provide Sam Darnold (photo above) and company a stern test.
Question 4: Is Sam Darnold better than he was a season ago?
Absolutely. Sam alarmed the masses with some early training camp interceptions, but after that he looked like, well, an even more polished Sam Darnold. This past week No. 14, who has now appeared on both the cover of college football preview editions of Sports Illustrated and ESPN The Magazine, was like a machine, although his receivers are still learning where to go, which can be frustrating at times for all concerned.
Question 5: Is the placekicking that bad?
Let’s not use the word bad; let’s just say challenged. The good news this week is that both redshirt freshman Michael Brown and true freshman Chase McGrath appeared to be getting better and more accurate. Of course, there’s the challenge of making kicks in front of 80,000 live people and a national television audience. Bring your Maalox for the Stanford game because this game may be decided on either the total of amount of field goals made or a late winning field goal.
Question 6: Is there a problem with the wide receivers?
Certainly not talent wise, but there is the issue of inexperience. The question isn’t if those growing pains can be solved by Western Michigan but Stanford and then Texas. Then there is the away game inexperience that could show up at intimidating Notre Dame Stadium. However, keep an eye on true freshmen Joseph Lewis IV and Randal Grimes, both of whom will be in the mix. Redshirt freshman Tyler Vaughns has performed well enough to start.
Question 7: Will the offensive line be dominant?
Look, in left tackle Toa Lobendahn, right guard Viane Talamaivao, center Nico Falah, and right tackle Chuma Edoga, there is enough experience. The question is how physical and affective will or can they play? There are no excuses here. There are enough starts by the aforementioned to eliminate any excuses. And after all, who wants to blow an assignment on national television and watch Sam Darnold get sacked? And a name to watch? Try true freshman Andrew Vorhees (6-6, 310) who figures to get significant playing time at either guard or tackle.
Question 8: Do the Trojans have the best set of running backs in the country?
Honestly, the arrival of true freshman Stephen Carr appears to be the equivalent of the arrival of Dodgers rookie all-star Cory Bellinger. Carr is that good. With Stephen, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better group of running backs in America and with all due respect, first-year running backs coach Deland McCullough is the best running backs coach we’ve seen at Troy since Kennedy Polamalu.
Question 9: Is the defense as good as advertised or is the offense not as good as we think?
It’s hard to tell in practice or scrimmages, but the defensive personnel now know defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast’s defense frontwards and backwards. The defensive players flow like a river to the ball and hit like a barrel full of wasps. With inside linebacker Cameron Smith and outside backers Porter Gustin and Uchenna Nwosu, these are proven studs. Somewhat surprisingly, there are still questions about the consistency of the corners.
Question 10: Is this the best group of tight ends the Trojans have had in a long time?
No question. It’s a great mixture of veteran and young talent. The key is the health of sophomore Daniel Imatorbhebhe (hip flexor), who is one of Sam Darnold’s favorite targets from last season. Imatorbhebhe is joined by junior Tyler Petite and an emerging talent in redshirt freshman Cary Angeline.
Question 11: After watching training camp, what will the final regular season record be in 2017?
The Trojans will probably be favored in every game. However, in a realistic world, their record will probably be 11-1 or 10-2. Helton’s team probably can’t afford one loss if they want to make the CFP and that loss better be on the road and real nail bitter. A record worse than 10-2 and the cardinal and gold natives will be on the warpath.
Question 12: Can the Trojans win the national championship?
Only if the placekicking issues are solved. If somebody doesn’t upend the CFP dreams early, the inexperienced areas of the Trojans will grow as the season progresses, and when you combine that with the Rose Bowl veterans, that’s a scary thought when you add the likes of Sam Darnold and linebacker Cameron Smith.
From the press box…
A comparison: Last season, Trojans home attendance averaged 68,459. Last season, Western Michigan averaged 23,800. Crowd estimates for the Trojans home opener against the Broncos figures to be around 75,000 – give or take.
Foreshadowing: Sam Darnold was named the first-team quarterback on the first-ever AP preseason All-America team. That’s significant because a number of the voters are also voters for the Heisman Trophy.
Learning and education: On learning how to play effectively as a true freshman, offensive left tackle Austin Jackson says, “If I make a mistake on Monday, I don’t want to make the same mistake on Tuesday. Trusting in my coaches and knowing that my teammates have my back. I have to come out every period and every play whether the last play was off or not, just keep coming 100 percent. Nico Falah took us in, Brent (Neilon), Alijah (Vera-Tucker), and I to watch film almost every day, and guys like Jordan Austin is willing to help out in the weight room. All the guys have been really helpful to us.”
The gifted one: One of the promising true freshmen for the Trojans is nose tackle Marlon Tuipulotu, who arrived early for spring ball and turned heads immediately. On adjusting to college ball and veteran USC offensive linemen, Tui said, “The speed of the game is much faster. It’s not like high school ball where you’re the elite player on the field. I think that speed is something I need to work on up here. I have to go hard on every play like Coach Helton says. The players size up here is full of speed. I think if you go full speed every play, it’s obviously going to make you get better. I need to stay on my grind every single second.”
Congrats: Tip of the WeAreSC cap to former Trojans “All-Pac-10” offensive tackle Pat Harlow (1990), the first-year San Juan Capistrano (Calif.) JSerra head football coach, who recorded his first coaching victory, defeating Corona del Mar High, 45-27.
The post-game show…
New rule changes for 2017 college football: Horse Collar Tackle – The nameplate area of the jersey is added to the inside collar of the shoulder pad and jersey as places where it is illegal for a tackler to grab a ball carrier and immediately pull him to the ground. The committee recognizes that on occasion a tackler grabs the nameplate area and jerks the ball carrier down, with the same effect as if his grip was on the collar.
New rule changes for 2017 college football – Part 2: Leaping and Hurdling – No defensive player who runs forward from beyond the neutral zone may leap or hurdle in an obvious attempt to block a field goal or try. Before this change, a player committed a foul only if he landed on another player. This year, the committee took note of some players being injured in making these moves when trying to block a place kick, so the change is an attempt to take this leaping and hurdling action out of the game.
New rule changes for 2017 college football – Part 3: One point of emphasis for the officials this year will be to have better control of the length of halftime. By rule, halftime is 20 minutes, but there are often some delays in starting the countdown. Also, current rules allow the schools to mutually agree that the halftime will be longer than 20 minutes. One small but perhaps significant editorial change for 2017 is this: the teams will be allowed to agree on a shorter halftime, but they may not make it longer than 20 minutes. And the referees are being instructed to start the 20-minute halftime countdown as soon as the first half ends, per the language of the rule. The hope is that these steps will halt the trend for longer game times.
Future rule change for 2018 college football – Part 4: 2018 Rule Change – Knee Pads – Beginning in 2018, players’ pants must have knee pads such that the pants and the pads cover the knees. Previously, the rules recommended that the knees be covered, but this was not required. The committee is delaying implementation of the mandate until 2018 because a number of schools have already bought equipment for the year. There is great concern throughout the football world about the tendency for some players to wear “biker’s shorts” that only come to within several inches of the knee. This is a safety issue as well as one that does not present a good look for the game.
The last word: In his annual “Herbie” awards, ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit picks the Trojans to make the CFP semi-final game against Ohio State and predicted Alabama to face Florida State. His national title game is Ohio State over Alabama for the national championship. FYI, Herbstreit selects the Trojans to defeat Washington in the Pac-12 title game with Oregon being Kirk’s sleeper team in the conference. The ESPN analyst also picks Notre Dame as one of his surprise teams in 2017.