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O/NSO: 2018 Game-by-game predictions – Part 1 edition

The Obvious: With the start of USC football training camp just two weeks away, it’s that time of the year when the O/NSO gives our annual game-by-game predictions for the upcoming season, a 2018 season that highlights the Men of Troy as defending Pac-12 champions, but a team still in search of a starting quarterback.

The Not So Obvious: In Part 1 of our 2018 season prognostications, the O/NSO looks at the first half of the season and again presents three viewpoints – optimistic, pessimistic, and realistic. As an added bonus, we’ll even go out on that proverbial limb and make bold final score predictions. So, get ready to pull the celebratory party poppers or grab a fistful of rotten tomatoes all directed at your humble scribe and let’s get started!

The Obvious Game 1 – UNLV (2018 record – 5-7/Ret. 7 off., 7 def., punter/kicker): The Trojans open the season on Sept. 1 against the UNLV Rebels in the Coliseum (1:00 p.m. PT/4:00 p.m. ET/Pac-12 Networks).

The Not So Obvious UNLV game points of view:

The O/NSO optimist: Given the talent difference between Clay Helton’s Trojans and UNLV’s Tony Sanchez’s Rebels, this one ranks right there in the Trojans “gimme” category.” There’s a bigger chance of snow dropping on the Coliseum than there is a UNLV upset. If the Trojans are going to break in a new quarterback, then the Rebels are the perfect tomato can to allow either redshirt sophomore Matt Fink, redshirt freshman Jack Sears, or true freshman J.T. Daniels to get their feet wet. It figures that at least two of the quarterbacks will see action. Does it really matter against UNLV? However, most Trojan fans see Daniels as the long-term answer to a successful season; therefore, cardinal and gold zealots hope to see J.T. under center on the first snap of the season. Still, no matter the QB and unproven passing game, the Trojans should also still be able to dominate on the ground. Heck, Helton told us his team was going to be a ground oriented, physical group, so let’s unleash the Kraken! The Trojans’ defense, led by senior All-America ILB candidate Cameron Smith, will stuff the UNLV offense, which should be the expectation.

The O/NSO pessimist: Now, let’s be frank. It could be as nearly as hot in Los Angeles as it is in Las Vegas on this Labor Day Weekend. Okay, maybe not that hot, but the paramedics will be working overtime carting out heat stroke fans, and if you remember last season’s Coliseum opener against Western Michigan, you’ll remember all too well that the outcome of the game was not easy (49-31) nor was surviving the oppressive heat. Add to the fact that the Coliseum is still in the process of renovation, it could all look like an Indiana Jones excavation site. And you can expect plenty of fan grumbling regarding seat relocations and the overall ambiance of the Grand Old Lady.  As for the game, it’s no “gimme” given the fact that the Trojan quarterback won’t be Sam Darnold, and will the heat have a bigger effect on the Men of Troy than UNLV. And what happens if the offensive line doesn’t dominate? And what happens if the passing game is erratic? And what happens if the play-calling and offensive identity is again suspect? Yikes!

The O/NSO realist: Even with an inexperienced quarterback, the Trojans have too much firepower on offense and too much talent on defense for UNLV to make it much of a game. However, if the Trojans play like they did in last season’s opener against Western Michigan, things could get uncomfortable in the second half, and we’re not just talking about the weather.

The O/NSO prediction: USC 42, UNLV 16

The Obvious Game 2 – At Stanford (2017 record – 9-5/Ret. 9 off., 6 def., punter/kicker): Sept. 8, a Saturday night, marks the Pac-12 Conference opener for both the Trojans and Stanford (5:30 p.m. PT/8:30 p.m. ET/FOX) in Palo Alto.

The Not So Obvious Stanford game points of view:

The O/NSO optimist: We’ve got the Cardinal number, baby, having beaten David Shaw’s club twice in a row, once during the 2017 regular season (42-24) and in the Pac-12 title game (31-28). Not only that, my friends, last season the Men of Troy “held” Stanford’s All-America tailback Bryce Love to “just” 160 yards rushing during the season and 125 yards in the title game. Good rushing yards, but not enough to overtake the Trojans and Clancy Pendergast’s defensive schemes. As far the Trojan quarterbacking up on The Farm, it’s probably going to start with Matt Fink, but it’s a possibility that J.T. Daniels gets the starting call. The Trojans understand how to offset the physical Cardinal and appear to have Stanford’s number. If the Trojans can stay close in the first half, they should gain confidence and momentum in the second half for the upset. Yes, upset. The Men of Troy figure to be the underdog going into the Pac-12 opener for both teams.  

The O/NSO pessimist:  The Trojans defense will have to be at its best, and the Bryce Love they will be facing will be not only be healthy but even more motivated, considering the men from the Farm are on a two-game losing streak to the men from the City of Angels. The Cardinal quarterbacking situation will feature experienced and talented sophomore K.J. Costello, and with Love at full strength, the stout USC defense will have its hands full. Stanford’s defense is questionable after losing three starters to the NFL – including All-World DT Harrison Phillips – but the Cardinal returning defenders are smart and disciplined. They figure to give the inexperienced Trojans’ quarterback all sorts of challenges. Also factor in that David Shaw will be fanatical trying not to lose his third consecutive game to his private school rival. The Stanford offense, especially the offensive line, will grind the USC defense, and the Cardinal defense will confuse the inexperienced Trojan quarterback in a difficult away game venue on the national stage.

The O/NSO realist: It’s probably asking too much to expect the Trojans with an inexperienced quarterback to come into Stanford Stadium and pull off the upset. And the Stanford offense will be plenty motivated after last season’s Pac-12 title loss. Playing their first away game and first conference game to boot will be a great challenge. In the end, it’ll be too much Stanford offensive physicality up front combined with inexperienced Trojans quarterbacking, which will spell doom for the Men of Troy early in the season.

The O/NSO prediction: Stanford 34, USC 27

The Obvious Game 3 – At Texas (2017 record – 7-6/ Ret. 7 off., 7 def., kicker): The Texas game in Austin on Saturday, Sept. 15 (5:00 p.m. PT/8:00 p.m. ET/FOX), will again bring together two of college football’s more storied programs.

The Not So Obvious Texas game points of view:

The O/NSO optimist: Oh, baby, did last season’s 27-24 double overtime victory over the Longhorns show the cowboys what real tradition looks like? The Trojans will have settled on a quarterback for the third game, and it figures to be true freshman J.T. Daniels. Even as a true freshman, there are no signs that J.T. will be distracted or intimated by the burnt orange sellout (100,119) inside Darrell K. Royal Stadium. The Trojans will know what to expect this time around from a Tom Herman team, and the Cardinal and Gold will come out of the tunnel with plenty of fire themselves. This one will be a toughie, but somehow the Trojans will pull it out. After all, the Longhorns remember the damage inflicted on them by sophomore USC placekicker Chase McGrath in the double overtime thriller in L.A.

The O/NSO pessimist: You’re dreaming if you think the Trojans are going to push right through the Longhorns in a hot, humid, and hostile Austin environment. This is the Longhorns’ second season under head Texas coach Tom Herman, and his club now has the system down pat and revenge will be a powerful tool. If you remember last season’s game in the Coliseum, Herman’s young program took it physically to the Trojan, and the Trojans almost blinked – almost. However, there is no Sam Darnold to bail them out this time, and it’s asking way too much to expect J.T. Daniels to get the job done no matter how advanced he is at this point of his young career. The Trojans’ offense can’t afford any sort of turnovers, and the USC defense will be far more tested this time around by experienced Texas sophomore quarterback Sam Ehlinger. On a side note, this could be the game that Trojans’ offensive coordinator Tee Martin either is celebrated or is placed directly under intense scrutiny – not to mention Clay Helton.

The O/NSO realist: It’s Longhorn payback time, and Texas will be more than capable and motivated to send the Trojans back to L.A. with an “L” early in the season. The irony will be that if J.T. Daniels survives this experience, it may be the baptism that propels the Trojans into a serious contender for the Pac-12 title down the road.

The O/NSO prediction: Texas 31, USC 20

The Obvious Game 4 – Washington State (2017 record – 9-4/ Ret. 4 off., 6 def., 0 kicker/punter): It’s return to conference play and another out-of-division challenge from the Washington State Cougars on Friday night, Sept. 21, in the Coliseum (7:30 p.m. PDT/10:30 EDT)/ESPN).

The Not So Obvious WSU game points of view:

The O/NSO optimist: The Trojans early record now stands at 1-2, and there’s no question that while the losses were painful, they were not totally unexpected. What was not totally unexpected is that true freshman quarterback J.T. Daniels is the starter and will be for the next three seasons. No matter the difficult experience at Texas, that loss will pay dividends for Daniels down the line and will show positive results against Mike Leach’s Washington State Cougars. The Cougs have a new but experienced quarterback in Gardner Minshew (East Carolina grad transfer), but they could elect to go with junior QB Trey Tinsley (son of former Trojans QB Scott Tinsley) by the time they play the Trojans. WSU is also are woefully inexperienced on defense and suffered a major loss when brilliant defensive coordinator Alex Grinch departed to Ohio State. Throw in the fact they also lost outstanding defensive tackle Hercules Mata’afa, and it could be a tough evening for Wassu in the Coliseum. It figures that Troy will do some heavy rushing damage led by sophomore tailback Stephen Carr (if healthy), and the talented USC receivers, led by sophomore Tyler Vaughns, could really make a statement in this one.

The O/NSO pessimist: Well, let’s cut to the chase. WSU head coach Mike Leach is 2-1 against the Trojans. He burned the Trojans and former head coach Lane Kiffin 10-7 in the Coliseum back in 2013 and basically ruined the Trojans’ chance at a CFP post-season semifinal with a 30-27 upset of Sam Darnold and company last season up in Pullman. If anything should be respected, it should be Leach’s track record against Troy. What makes the Cougs so difficult is that they have a system, and they work it to death on offense. They now have better players, thanks to success under Leach, and they have come on of late on defense. Could Leach do it again to the Trojans? You could say this is a “trap” home game for the Cardinal and Gold.

The O/NSO realist: The O/NSO doesn’t care how good a coach Mike Leach is; he won’t be able to pull off an upset this time around. The Trojans will be looking for revenge, but they’ll also have a great deal of respect by what Leach has done to them in the past. Daniels will now have the experience with at least a couple of games under his belt and will be playing in front of a partisan home crowd in the Coliseum and by this time true freshman wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown will be lethal catching passes from Daniels like the old days at Mater Dei High. The Trojans get the message that they can’t afford a second Pac-12 loss even if it’s against a North Division opponent. The Trojans should roll…even if the Friday night rush hour traffic doesn’t. If the Trojans don’t win this one, Clay Helton will emerge on a red-hot seat and will be taking flak from everywhere. Better win this one coach.

The O/NSO prediction: USC 41, WSU 24

The Obvious Game 5 – At Arizona (2017 record 7-6/ Ret. 7 off., 9 def., kicker): The Trojans finally play a Pac-12 South Division foe in the Arizona Wildcats in Tucson on Saturday, Sept. 29 (kickoff time and TV TBD).

The Not So Obvious Arizona game points of view:

The O/NSO optimist: So, when was the last time the Trojans lost in Tucson? Hmmm. The answer was 2012 (39-36). But the time before that was 1999 (31-24). You get the impression that the Trojans don’t lose much to the Wildcats and not too often in Arizona Stadium. The game figures to be played at night, and the heat could less oppressive heading late into the month. The Trojans will have now made whatever adjustments needed by the fifth game of the season, and while this game doesn’t figure to be easy, Arizona first-year head coach Kevin Sumlin, formerly of Texas A&M, figures to be still tinkering with his personnel and smoothing out his system. The Trojans offense scored 49 points in last season’s 49-35 game in the Coliseum, and it shouldn’t be shocking if the Men of Troy rang up another impressive bushel of points in the desert.

The O/NSO pessimist: Regardless of location, Arizona could prove to be the that proverbial trap game. First, Arizona has a super dynamic quarterback in Khalil Tate, who in last season’s game in the Coliseum ripped off a 32-yard TD run in the third quarter. Tate finished the game with 161 yards rushing and 146 yards passing. Impressed? Now, consider that Sumlin has some experience coaching a dynamic quarterback or have you forgotten former Texas A&M signal caller Johnny Manziel? Get the picture? However, Khalil Tate is not the only threat in the UofA backfield. He’s got explosive sophomore tailback J.J. Taylor, so there are scary options. Playing in their own backyard and in front that extremely rowdy fan base, Arizona could rattle the Trojans’ offense and take advantage of the young USC quarterback.

The O/NSO realist: One gets the sense that this is the trap game. The Trojans will need to control the game – both on the clock and on the scoreboard. A victory is not a given, but it would be extremely disappointing if the Trojans returned to LAX with a defeat. Hold on to your hats. It’s imperative the Men of Troy grab the lead early and play whistle to whistle and quarter to quarter. And, BTW, Helton’s lads better avoid lethal turnovers along the way.

The O/NSO prediction: USC 41, Arizona 31

The Obvious Game 6 – Colorado (2017 record – 5-7/ Ret. 4 off., 6 def., punter/kicker): The Trojans return for a one-game homestand against the Buffaloes on Saturday, Oct. 13 (Kick-off time and TV TBA).

The Not So Obvious Colorado game points of view:

The O/NSO optimist: The last time Colorado defeated the Trojans was…NEVER! Yep, the Buffs have never beaten the Trojans at home or away and are currently riding an 11-game losing streak. This is not the way that 6th-year head coach Mike MacIntyre envisioned his program’s progress (25-38) at this point. The Trojans don’t care and won’t show any mercy on the Buffaloes after returning from raucous trip in Tucson. Another Pac-12 South Division showdown, the Trojans will be coming off a welcomed bye week, so one would think the team is as healthy as they can be at the mid-way point of the season. It doesn’t hurt that Colorado has issues replacing a graduated defensive line and top rusher, Phillip Lindsay, who has graduated. It also figures that some of the Trojans’ highly -touted freshmen class is starting to assert themselves, and this will be a good sign heading into the second half of the season. And, FWIW, it’s also Trojans Family Weekend!

The O/NSO pessimist: One thing that is a proven, Mike MacIntyre can coach, as illustrated by being named the 2016 National Coach of the Year. Mike can scheme his way to making games competitive, not a shock given he is the son of a coach. MacIntyre knew that turning the Colorado program around wasn’t going to be easy. However, it takes talent, and the Buffs cupboard still has some notable players. The Buffs return talented junior quarterback Steven Montez, who runs hot and cold. Montez’s receivers are good, and the offensive line is expected to be productive. Defensively, the Buffs have some holes to fill, but those replacements are considered good prospects.

The O/NSO realist: Let’s not kid ourselves, Colorado is definitely the underdog in the Coliseum. Let’s also not kid ourselves that MacIntyre will have his team ready, especially hoping to appeal to the number of recruits that are expected to be in the Coliseum. This is an exposure shot for the Buffaloes program, but it’s the Trojans that will reap the benefits on this Saturday.

The O/NSO prediction: USC 34, Colorado 17

The Obvious: So, at the end of the first six games, the O/NSO sees the Trojans with a record of 4-2 overall and 3-1 in conference.

The Not So Obvious: Will the Trojans actually be 4-2 at the halfway point? Well, they should be favored against UNLV, Washington State, Arizona, and Colorado. They figure to be underdogs at Stanford and at Texas. They should have adjusted to life after Sam Darnold with J.T.Daniels. Next Friday, the O/NSO will finish with the backend of the 2018 season schedule, which includes at Utah, ASU, at Oregon State, Cal, at UCLA, and Notre Dame. Can the Trojans return to the Pac-12 title game? Find out in next Friday’s Part- 2 of the seasonal predictions.

Greg Katz

Now entering his 59th season of either writing, broadcasting, or just plain watching USC football, WeAreSC columnist Greg Katz began his affiliation with the website back in 2001, introducing his well-received O/NSO (The Obvious/The Not So Obvious) column and later adding his respected IMHO Sunday opinion and tidbits column. Greg, a former ESPN.com college football columnist covering USC, is also a member of the Football Writer's Association of America. He is also known in Southern California as a professional public address announcer, having called the the 1996 Rose Bowl Game between USC and Northwestern. Greg also holds a master's degree in athletic administration and was a former varsity high school coach of 27 years.

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