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O/NSO: 2018 USC game-by-game predictions edition –Part 2

The Obvious: With Wednesday’s hot news from Pac-12 Media Day that the 2018 USC Trojans have been picked to win the Pac-12 South Division but not the conference championship (Washington), and with next Friday afternoon marking the first day of training camp, the O/NSO unveils Part 2 of our predictions on how the Men of Troy will fare – game-by game – in the second half of the upcoming season.

The Not So Obvious: Judging by the overwhelming outpouring of WeAreSC.com message board viewers and contributors in debating the O/NSO game-by-game Part 1 predictions (we predicted a 4-2 first half seasonal start), can the Trojans run the table the rest of the way? Well, here’s our game-by-game prognostications for the balance of the six remaining regular season games, and have you replenished your party poppers and rotten tomatoes crates?

The Obvious Game 7 – At Utah (2017 record – 7-6/ Ret. 6 off., 6 def./ punter/kicker): The Trojans travel to Salt Lake City to face the Utah Utes in a huge Pac-12 South Division game on Oct. 20 (Kick-off time and TV TBA).

The Not So Obvious Utah game points of view:

The O/NSO optimist: First, this is NOT the trap game of the season (we say at Arizona), but the most consequential game in the terms of the Pac-12 South Division driver’s seat. Given that J.T. Daniels now has at least two starts and is in a groove, the offensive line having shown more testosterone than in the past (they’ll need the juices flowing against another very physical Utah defensive front), and the defensive’s ability to handle an effective Utes’ pounding offense led by junior RB Zack Moss and returning QB Tyler Huntley, the Trojans have a legit chance to come back with a critical Pac-12 victory. Does the word “legit” make you nervous? You can bank on it; the Trojans will score on their first couple of possessions. And one of those scores could come from Utah killer, LB Cameron Smith, who gored the No. 3 Utes in the Coli with his 2015 three interception game-changer. This is the game that Trojans’ placekicker Chase McGrath again shines in the clutch.

The O/NSO pessimist: Having covered enough games at Utah, it wasn’t surprising that in Sam Darnold’s first big road game test, the Trojans went down at the very end of a very physical contest. The famed Utah rooting section, The MUSS, can get to the best of them, and they’ll have their sites on the Trojans’ freshman quarterback. Can Daniels handle it, and can his teammates keep their poise in a real madhouse in Salt Lake City? Well, there are legit questions here. This game will fully test whether the Trojans are willing or capable of playing at a high level of physical football. There is every reason to believe that this game will define what this Trojans’ football team is all about and watch out for the Utes talented junior CB Julian Blackmon who could be especially effective in the secondary. And consider that Utah has the top kicker and punter in the league in Matt Gay and Mitch Wishnowsky, respectively. Gay could negate any advantage that McGrath injects into the placekicking game.

The O/NSO realist: This game figures to be very tight throughout all four quarters, and Daniels’ poise will be tested every which way but up as will the physicality of both Trojans’ lines. The home field advantage for Utah is real and the Utes will really get cranked up in the final quarter especially if the game is close. The O/NSO expects a similar game the last time the Trojans visited Salt Lake City in 2016, but this is a game that both Clancy Pendergast’s defense and placekicker McGrath help decide the outcome…in overtime.

The O/NSO prediction: USC 27, Utah 24 OT

The Obvious Game 8 – Arizona State (2017 record – 7-6/Ret. 8 off., 4 def., kicker, punter): The Trojans return home and play another Pac-12 South Division in rival ASU on Saturday, Oct. 27 (Kickoff and TV TBA).

The Not So Obvious ASU game points of view:

The O/NSO optimist: Come on, tell me the hiring of Herman Edwards as the head coach was a gridiron Halloween joke. The guy talks a good game, but can he coach? Since the game is in Los Angeles, the home field advantage should heavily favor the Trojans. Depending whether the Trojans have a hangover from either a euphoric win or a tough loss at Utah, the Cardinal and Gold might have a tough time getting up for this one. However, there’s enough blend of senior leadership and young determination to avoid a letdown.

The O/NSO pessimist: Maybe Herm Edwards isn’t a joke. So much of college football is attitude and rah-rah, so maybe knowing his personality, it caters to the minds of young ballplayers, which is really what the Sun Devils’ program has needed all along. By the time ASU comes to the Coliseum, we’ll know more about the lads from Tempe. They have some talent and as we all found out not too long ago, it’s never over till it over, so help me 2014 Sun Devils. Or have you forgotten that Hail Mary game-winner in the Coli? And besides, much of the ASU roster comes from California, so that will be a factor as will the Pac-12’s top receiver, ASU N’Keal Harry.

The O/NSO realist: Sorry Herm, you don’t have enough talent to do it this season to pull the upset, but the O/NSO is not so sure that this coaching “experiment” is going to end up a failure. On the contrary, it could be one of the best surprise hires in the history of the university. No upset this time, but maybe next season in Tempe, my extroverted friend.             

The O/NSO prediction: USC 41, ASU 20

The Obvious Game 9 – At Oregon State (2017 record – 1-11/ Ret. 7 off., 8 def., kicker): The Trojans fly up to Corvallis, Oregon, to play Oregon State on Saturday, Nov. 3 (Kick-off time and TV TBA).

The Not So Obvious Oregon State game points of view:

The O/NSO optimist: The final score is the only thing in doubt because there’s such a mismatch in talent, you could call the plays on offense and defense and come back to L.A. with a victory. Of course, the Beavers could have a punchers chance with first-year coach and former OSU QB Jonathan Smith. The Beavers could have a chance if Smith, a former OSU standout QB, can have a one-game eligibility grant from the NCAA.     

The O/NSO pessimist: You’re all too smart to pull the wool over your eyes. But let’s say there is cold, heavy rain and fog in Corvallis, and the Trojans can’t read their sideline signs. Maybe the Trojans’ defense will get lost in the Williamette Valley.  Maybe the elements can flashback the Beavers into their famous 1967 upset of John McKay’s eventual national championship team. Then again, fuhgeddaboudit, dude. 

The O/NSO realist: This will be a feel-good game for Helton and his program. If not, there needs to be a congressional investigation.

The O/NSO prediction: USC 48, Oregon State 13

The Obvious Game 10 – Cal (2017 record – 5-7/Ret. 10 off.,8 def., 0 punter/kicker): It’s the USC Homecoming Game against the Golden Bears on Saturday, Nov. 10 (Kick-off time and TV TBA).

The Not So Obvious Cal game points of view:

The O/NSO optimist: If the Trojans are still in the driver’s seat to win the Pac-12 South Division, the Pac-12 North Golden Bears will be in trouble. Let’s not underestimate that this is the Trojans’ homecoming game, so there should be enough motivation and inspiration to make the alumni happy and ready to write out a donation check. So, who leads the Trojans out of the Coli tunnel for homecoming? Will Ferrell? Jim Hardy (shameless plug)? So, why hasn’t Hardy, a former Trojans quarterbacking legend, not done the honors? Okay, enough of the politicking, but wouldn’t you be stoked to see a 90-plus former QB, who lives in the Palm Springs area, lead his beloved cardinal and gold onto the field? The O/NSO would be.

The O/NSO pessimist: Remember when everybody was saying that second-year Cal head coach Justin Wilcox sucked as the Trojans’ defensive coordinator? Even when that was going down, Wilcox maintained his cool and those in the know still believed he could be an outstanding head coach. Well, last season in Berkeley, he had a very good beginning to his program, and the Trojans should be reminded that the Bears, despite losing, really came to play up in Strawberry Canyon (30-20). Now a year later, Cal believes they can beat the Trojans even in the Coli. There’s reason for concern as the Bears return starting junior quarterback Ross Bowers and nine other teammates on offense including running back Patrick Laird and on defense talented linebacker Jordan Kunaszyk.

The O/NSO realist: No doubt that Wilcox has the Bears headed in an upward direction; however, this season his club won’t be playing this game in NorCal but in L.A. There’s reason to believe that the Trojans won’t be caught unaware and will have greater respect for the Wilcox program this time around.

The O/NSO prediction: USC 37, Cal 20

The Obvious Game 11 – At UCLA (2017 record – 6-7/ Ret. 5 off., 7 def., kicker, punter): The Pac-12 South title could very well be on the line one way or another when the Trojans travel to Pasadena and the Rose Bowl to face crosstown rival UCLA on Saturday, Nov. 17 (Kick-off time and TV TBA).

The Not So Obvious UCLA game points of view:

The O/NSO optimist: At this point, the Trojans out-talent the Bruins, and this will be a factor in the game, a Pasadena slugfest that should be even more intense than the last three previous crosstown rivalry affairs all won by Troy. The young Trojans are now totally experienced, and with many of the team’s goals still intact – like winning the Pac-12 South – the Trojans win streak over the Westwooders continues. The Trojans’ defense should be more than ready for a Chip Kelly offense. It’s no longer the surprise element it was in Eugene. If the Trojans get on a roll early, this game could get out of control. While the focus of the game will be on the two young quarterbacks of each team, it will be the rushing attack led by sophomore tailback Stephen Carr and senior Aca’Cedric Ware that could spell the difference.   

The O/NSO pessimist: The Bruins have really everything to gain and nothing to lose in this one. Conversely, the Trojans could have everything to lose – not only the Pac-12 title but the home city recruiting advantage. If the Bruins upset the Trojans, the recruiting battle for SoCal will close considerably. By this time of the season, the Bruins will more than know the Kelly offensive and defensive schemes. Speaking of the Chipster, Kelly is no dummy; he’ll know how to attack the Trojans on both sides of the ball, and he’ll know what a victory will mean to his program’s future. And UCLA junior tight end Caleb Wilson will have a score to settle with his former Trojans’ teammates.

The O/NSO realist: The Trojans have more talent than the Bruins, but there is the lingering question about how much the Bruins have progressed this season under Kelly and his staff compared to the Trojans’ Clay Helton and his staff. Some answers should be revealed in this rivalry game. A big victory by the Trojans and it reestablishes not only superiority against their Westwood brethren, but also retards the progress of Kelly overtures that the Bruins are closing the gap. No question, this is a real litmus test for both programs. Point of information: While this is the Trojans’ final conference game, the Bruins will host Stanford next Saturday while the Trojans do battle with the Fighting Irish in the Coliseum.

The O/NSO prediction: USC 34, UCLA 24

The Obvious Game 12 – Notre Dame (2017 record – 10-3/ Ret. 6 off., 9 def., punter/kicker): As the Trojans’ regular season concludes, it’s the nations’ greatest intersectional rivalry – USC/Notre Dame – in the Coliseum on Saturday, Nov. 24 (Kick-off time and TV TBA).

The Not So Obvious Notre Dame game points of view:

The O/NSO optimist: If ever a Trojans team should be focused for a Notre Dame team, the 2018 Trojans certainly fit the bill. After last season’s embarrassment both physically and execution wise in South Bend – resulting in a disturbing 49-14 shellacking to the Irish – the good news is that the game is being played Thanksgiving Weekend in the Coli and this being the end of the season, inexperience should not be an issue…unless the younger Trojans get caught up in playing Notre Dame, a distinct possibility. The last time the Irish visited the Coliseum, they came away with a convincing 45-27 loss to the Men of Troy, a very satisfying victory for Clay Helton and his program. In fact, the Trojans are riding a two-game Coliseum winning streak over the parochial school Midwesterners. One potential plus for the Trojans is that ND is breaking in a new defensive coordinator (Clark Lee) and returning Irish senior QB Brandon Wimbush can unwind if pressured and tossed around. Are you listening Porter Gustin?

The O/NSO pessimist: It’s really hard to think that the Trojans have so increased their physicality after last season’s whipping by the Irish that they are ready for a rematch. Irish head coach Brian Kelly prides his program on tough, physical football, and ND will go out and prove it once again. Sorry Trojan fans. The ND defense returns with a host of future NFL draft picks like huge DL Jerry Tillery (6-7, 300), but the offense must rebuild a line that sent two first-rounders (OT Mike McGlinchey and OG Quenton Nelson) to the NFL. The problem is that ND seems to just reload on the O-line. Of course, if the Trojans are to have any chance, its own offensive line will have to take it up a notch or more to handle the stout Irish front.

The O/NSO realist: If the Trojans can’t match the Irish physically, this one could get very ugly again. Granted, the game is being played in the Coliseum, but at some point, the Trojan linemen on both sides of the ball have to put on their big boy pants and make it a war in the pit. If not, it doesn’t much matter what else happens. Until the O/NSO sees the Trojan linemen moving the ND linemen around both on offense and defense, the Irish have the upper hand. 

The O/NSO prediction: Notre Dame 34, USC 27

The Obvious: And finally, more than anything else, this season gives experts, analysts, and fans a chance to measure where Clay Helton’s program is headed. After all, many are saying that with Sam Darnold no longer the quarterback, this is where we find out if Helton and his staff can scheme and coach to victory.

The Not So Obvious: Overall, the final 2018 regular season record depends on your point of view.

The O/NSO optimist: If the Trojans get off to a 3-0 seasonal start, which includes a victory over conference rival Stanford in Palo Alto and an upset of Texas in Austin, the Men of Troy are in the hunt for some big rewards down the road. If undefeated, Helton’s team should be in good shape heading into a huge and hostile game at Utah. In hindsight, the Utah game could very well decide the Pac-12 South title, and the Trojans won’t miss this winner-take-all opportunity.

The O/NSO pessimist: If the Trojans start the season 1-2 and then take a dip at Utah, it could lead to some other downers, and we’re not even getting to the end of the season at UCLA and the homer against Notre Dame. If the Men of Troy lose back-to-back rivalry games to the Bruins and Irish, you wouldn’t want your mother-in-law to be under that fan and media heat. On second thought, you probably would.

The O/NSO realist: If you expect the Trojans to finish the regular season undefeated, don’t bet the family farm on it. A good to very good season would be winning the Pac-12 south and upsetting Washington or Stanford in the Pac-12 title. So much of the Trojans’ fortunes depend on the development of quarterback J.T. Daniels and his supporting cast. We would be remiss if we didn’t mention that if things go south, this offensive coaching staff will be under extreme scrutiny no matter who the quarterback turns out to be. Before we forget, Clay Helton reminds us that his offense will be a run-first unit. Well, we’re see about that.

The O/NSO prediction: Based on the O/NSO analysis and repeating the old Coach McKay saying, “If the Trojans play as well as they can play, and the opponents play as well as they can play, we’ll win,” we see the Trojans finishing a best-case scenario 9-3. However, if the Trojans don’t play as well as they can play, and the opponents play as well as they can play, a reasonable worse-case scenario could be 7-5 (road losses at Stanford, Texas, Utah, and Arizona, and at home against Notre Dame). What say you, my friends?

Greg Katz
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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