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O/NSO: 2019 Game-by-game predictions – Part 1 edition

The Obvious: With the start of USC football training camp just three weeks away, it’s that time of the year when the O/NSO gives our annual two-part, game-by-game predictions for the upcoming season, and in this case a 2019 campaign that may begin and end with the fate of head coach Clay Helton and the immediate future of the Trojans’ football program. 

The Not So Obvious: In Part 1 of our 2019 season prognostications, the O/NSO looks at the first half of the season and once again presents three separate viewpoints: the optimist, the pessimist, and the realist. Last season, we were pretty much spot-on with a 5-7 record. The 2019 players, however, are displaying great optimism because of a new strength and conditioning program, a promisingly creative offense with a highly-anticipated new play-caller, and a defense that we’re told has tinkered with in terms of terminology. Your heart wants the Men of Troy to be vastly better, but your head says we’ve heard this optimism before, which means these Trojans will have to prove on the field that 2019 before we’d consider revising our predictions of not repeating 2018.

So, now by unpopular demand, we’ll go out again on that proverbial limb and make bold, game-by-game final score predictions. You may not like them, but as of today with no games played to prove viewpoints one way or another, this is how we see it. As per the ground rules, you’re allowed to pull the celebratory party poppers or grab a fistful of rotten tomatoes and direct them at your humble scribe, so let’s get started!

The Obvious Game 1 – Fresno State (2018 12-2, 7-1 MWC) – Ret. Off. 2, Def. 6, SPT. punter 1/placekicker 1:The Trojans open the season on Saturday evening, Aug. 31, against the defending Mountain West champs Fresno State Bulldogs in the fully renovated Coliseum (7:30 p.m. PT/10:30 p.m. ET/ESPN).

It should be quite an evening in the Coliseum on Saturday evening, Aug. 31, when the Trojans welcome the Fresno State Bulldogs into the newly renovated Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum whose capacity has been reduced to 77,500. Will the new renovation reduce the home field crowd noise advantage and will the Bulldogs respected “Red Wave” show up in the thousands and thousands?

The Not So Obvious Fresno State game points of view:

The O/NSO optimist: No way that this Fresno State team that returns just a handful of players on offense is a threat to score much off a Trojans’ defense that has been simplified, and don’t tell me the talented USC athletes in the secondary won’t overcome its inexperience. Sure, Bulldogs’ coach Jeff Tedford is a good one, but he can’t outman this USC team. And let’s face it, Trojans’ head man Clay Helton has made the necessary adjustments both on and off the field – and that includes much-needed discipline, so this opener should have a happy ending. BTW, the new Trojans’ offense with so many receiving weapons and an Air Raid OC guru in Graham Harrell should score in all four quarters. It won’t matter if it’s JT Daniels or Jack Sears at quarterback or maybe both, it won’t make a difference. Just look at the Trojans’ wide receivers in senior Michael Pittman Jr., junior Tyler Vaughns, and sophomore Amon-Ra St. Brown. These three guys are locks to someday play in the NFL. And did we mention the possibility of superstar freshman Bru McCoy in the mix if he’s eligible?

Will sophomore JT Daniels be the starting quarterback when the Trojans open with Fresno State?
Or will the starting QB be sophomore Jack Sears taking the first snap on United Airlines Field?

The O/NSO pessimist: Come on, let’s not let the cardinal and gold drool all over yourself. It’s still Helton as the Trojans’ head coach, and Fresno State Coach Jeff Tedford will run circles around Mr. Hotseat. It’s also still Clancy Pendergast and his Trojans’ defense. Yeah, there is a new offensive coordinator in Harrell, but his offense isn’t exactly an unknown. People play against it a couple of times a year no matter whom they play. Fresno State is bringing a program to L.A., and it’s three seasons in a row that they’ve done good, my man. The Bulldogs have a stud tight end in senior Jared Rice and two good ones on defense, senior linebacker Mykal Walker and senior safety JuJu Hughes.  The Trojans should win, but with Helton still getting the last word in the headphones, we wouldn’t take the points whatever they are.

Will defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast’s defense be able to stop the rush, mount a pass rush, and will the inexperienced secondary be able to stop the retooled Fresno State offense?

The O/NSO realist: The Trojans will score because not only do they have a new passing offense and the skill players to run it, they have the offensive coordinator with his version of the Air Raid to run it. We’ll know if the Trojans can score in the second half in 2019, which will prove how much of a difference a real offensive coordinator can make. For the Bulldogs to win, they’ll have to keep the score close going into the final quarter. Bottom line: The Trojans have too many weapons on offense, and the Bulldogs have too much rebuilding and inexperience on offense to keep the game close. 

The O/NSO prediction: USC 31, FRESNO STATE 17

The Obvious Game 2 – Stanford (2018 record 9-4, 6-3 Pac-12) – Ret. Off.3, Def. 5, SPT. placekicker 1/ punter 1): September 7, a Saturday, again marks the Pac-12 Conference opener for both the Trojans and Stanford (7:30 p.m. PT/10:30 p.m. ET/ESPN) in Los Angeles.

Always a questions: Will the Trojans be able to match the physicality of the Stanford Cardinal?

The Not So Obvious Stanford game points of view:

The O/NSO optimist: There is no way that the Stanford offense can be as potent without former All-America running back Bryce Love at tailback. This is the game that the Trojans front four on defense flexes its muscles, and the Cardinal quarterback better bring a bottle of extra-strength Advil for the headaches he’s going to get from getting sacked by the Trojans’ physical D-line. Just watch our true freshman DL Drake Jackson in the face of junior Stanford QB KJ Costello. Hello America. In fact, look at the improvement of the Trojans’ D-line, which should neutralize the Stanford declining O-line, thanks to star Trojans’ sophomore D-liner Jay Tufele, who will introduce himself to Mr. Costello through the course of the game. This is the game where we’ll see how improved physically the Trojans are along the offensive line, thanks to the return of strength and conditioning coach Aaron Ausmus.

If the Trojans are going to stop Stanford quarterback KJ Costello, sophomore defensive tackle Jay Tufele (above) will need to provide a vicious pass rush like he did in last year’s season opener against UNLV.

The O/NSO pessimist: Yeah, and wait till Costello gets in the face of the Trojans’ inexperienced corners and safeties. Look out below! Flat out, Stanford coach David Shaw is one of the best coaches in the Pac-12… period. It’s a coaching mismatch: Shaw has a system and they run it on both sides of the ball. The Trojans are still learning a new offensive system. A major key is that Stanford has its typical physical offense line led by junior Walker Little (6-7, 315) and an aggressive defense with athletes like sophomore corner Paulson Adebo, and they’re smart on both sides of the ball. Cardinal quarterback KJ Costello is the worst possible matchup for the Trojans’ still inexperienced secondary, no matter how talented. The Stanford receivers are good, although they lost some good ones to graduation and/or the NFL. If the Trojans are going to win, they’ll have to grow a pair and slug it out for four quarters, something that Coach Shaw probably doesn’t believe they can do. 

Will the difference in the Stanford game be the Cardinal head coach David Shaw, one of the Pac-12’s best?

The O/NSO realist: This is the Pac-12 opener for both teams, and there’s a lot on the line so early in the season. Both teams will come to play, and whoever wins this one will out-physical the other, out-think the other, and limit the turnovers. Time of possession will play a big factor in the outcome, and the Trojans have a major weapon in Australian punter Ben Griffiths, who has future NFL written all over him. However, when it’s all said and done, the stability of the Cardinal program in doing what they’ve done for so many years before and the Trojans’ secondary being so vulnerable – especially at the corners – one has to give the nod to the Cardinal. It’s not that the Trojans can’t beat The Farm, but they’re going to have to prove it on both sides of the ball and it won’t be easy. 

The O/NSO prediction: STANFORD 31, USC 27

The Obvious Game 3 – At BYU (2018 record – 7-6)/ Ret. Off. 8, Def. 6, SPT. placekicker 0/ 1/punter 1): The BYU game in Provo will be played on Saturday, Sept. 14 (1:30 p.m. MT/ 12:30 p.m. PT/3:30 p.m. ET/ABC or ESPN or ESPN2), and this will be just the second time that the Trojans have played at LaVelle Edwards Stadium.

BYU’s Lavelle Edwards Stadium is one tough place to play, and it will be the Trojans’ first road game of 2019.

The Not So Obvious BYU game points of view:

The O/NSO optimist: Yeah, BYU is a mature team. Look, all those 26-year-olds and their wives and children won’t stop the Trojans’ offense, which will now have two games under their collective belts. The key will be how the Trojans’ defense handles BYU sophomore quarterback Zack Wilson, who was sensational in the Cougars’ bowl game. However, in the end, the Trojans’ skill players will be too explosive for BYU to keep up the pace. The key here is for the Men of Troy to keep their poise in a very hostile environment. We’ll find out how much the Stanford game the week before took out of the Trojans physically, but that will only come into play if our guys get off to a shaky start from the previous two home games. This will be the game in which USC running backs like juniors Vavae Malepeai and Stephen Carr step to the front both as runners and receivers. Let’s see the Cougars try to stop all those Trojans’ skill players. It can’t be done.

The Trojans figure to need the physical running style of junior Vavae Malepeai to keep the BYU defense honest.

The O/NSO pessimist: This is the “Trap Game,”baby. Now think about it, BYU returns eight starters from a team that clubbed Western Michigan 49-18 in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. Yeah, it was a lower tier bowl game, but didn’t the Trojans have problems when they played Western Michigan to start the 2017 season at home? BYU returns sophomore quarterback Wilson who was nothing short of brilliant passing in the bowl game. The BYU O-line improved throughout last season and four starters return! Defensively, the Cougars return a lot of talent like two D-line starters in Khyiris Tonga and Bracken El-Bakri. Wait till they attack the vulnerable USC offensive line.  

The Trojans inexperienced secondary will hope for sophomore safety Talanoa Hufanga to create some turnovers against BYU’s talented sophomore quarterback Zack Wilson, who could pose a real problem.

The O/NSO realist: BYU is a tough place to play, and the Cougars are very physical and mature. This should be classified as a “trap game.” Don’t underestimate the home field advantage of LaVelle Edwards Stadium. The first road game of the season will test the Trojans under extreme adversity. We’ll find out about their mental toughness in this rare afternoon game. Playing between Stanford and Utah, this game will be a truly tough game to win. It may take the special teams to get it done.

The O/NSO prediction: USC 30, BYU 27 in OT by field goal

The Obvious Game 4 – Utah (2018 record – 9-5, 6-3 Pac-12)/ Ret. Off. 8, Def. 7, SPT. placekicker 0/punter 0): It’s return to Pac-12 conference play and a huge Pac-12 South Division showdown with defending South champs, the Utah Utes, on Friday night, Sept. 20, in the Coliseum (6:00 p.m. PDT/9:00 EDT)/FS1).

The Trojans will have to be at the top of their physical game in order to stay with the Utah Utes, who figure to come to the Coliseum in a major Pac-12 South Division game with the winner probably having the inside track to the division title.

The Not So Obvious Utah game points of view:

The O/NSO optimist: Remember, the last time the Utes came to the Coliseum with a glossy record and got upset. This may be the Pac-12-South season for the Trojans, as the Utes will be the favorite in defending last season’s South title. The biggest USC plusses are the game will be played in the Coliseum, and Clay Helton knows this is the game that could determine his ultimate future as the Trojans head coach. A second Pac-12 loss, especially in the South Division, would be near catastrophic. No matter how you look at it, the Trojans will need every break and need to play near flawless to win. We like the sense of urgency of this game. If Jack Sears is the quarterback, we like our chances. The kid plays better in games than in practice, and the players love him. This will be the time when the Trojans’ offensive line steps up to the challenge. Yeah, it will be a challenge, but with former Tennessee offensive tackle and grad transfer Drew Richmond (6-6, 320) – who, BTW, has played against the best in the SEC – Trojans’ O-line coach Tim Drevno’s O-line will have his lads ready to slug it out.

If the Trojans are going to upset Utah, offensive line coach Tim Drevno’s unit will have to prove that they can at least play even with Utah’s vaunted defensive line, which some call the best in the nation.

The O/NSO pessimist: Forget about all the positives. Utah is head and shoulders above the Trojans on offense, defense, special teams, and most of all coaching. Kyle Whittingham is as good a coach in the Pac-12 as there is. The Utes have slowly elevated their program to be the big dog in the South Division. Kyle knows what he’s doing, what he’s recruiting, and he knows another win against the Trojans – especially in L.A. – would increase his program’s visibility and could cost Clay Helton his job. Oh, and the Ducks have one of the best running backs if not the best in the conference in physical senior Zack Moss. And to be nice, I left out quarterback Tyler Huntley who can do some severe damage with both his arm and his legs. Have you forgotten that wide receiver stud the Utes have in Britain Covey? A final thought: Again, this could be Whittingham’s best defensive line during his long tenure in Salt Lake City. Names like D-liners Liki Fotu and Bradlee Anae are intimidating by themselves.  

Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham and his rising program will give the Trojans all they can handle.

The O/NSO realist: The Trojans figure to be the underdog at home. As singing great Kenny Loggin’s song “This is it”, this probably is it, and the Men of Troy have to come through – especially with the next two games at Washington and Notre Dame next up in the scheduling pecking order. Get the picture or should we say scenario?

The O/NSO prediction: UTAH 34, USC 24

The Obvious Game 5 – At Washington (2018 record 10-4, Pac-12 7-2)/ Ret. Off. 7, Def. 2, SPT. Placekicker 0, punter 1): The Trojans make the long trip to the Great Northwest and to play the defending Pac-12 champs, the Washington Huskies, on Saturday, Sept. 28 (kickoff time and TV TBD).

It will be all hands on deck when the Trojans return to Husky Stadium for the first time since 2016.

The Not So Obvious Washington game points of view:

The O/NSO optimist: Look, Washington no longer has quarterback Jake Browning and tailback Myles Gaskin, and they lost a great offensive lineman to the NFL. And the last time the Trojans played in Husky Stadium, they made one of the loudest upsets in college football, which propelled them into the Rose Bowl. No way that UW has the firepower they’ve had in the past. UW head coach Chris Petersen isn’t Houdini. His team will be tested like never before this season, and let me tell you, the beauty of that lake next to Husky Stadium is way overrated. The Trojans’ defense will have its best game of the season because, well, they must. And besides, the Huskies are showing weakness at linebacker and that is a solid crack in the armor.

The last time the Trojans played at Washington, Trojans DB Adoree’ Jackson played a major role in upsetting the Huskies 26-13. However, Adoree’ is now in the NFL, and the Trojans will need somebody to provide the explosiveness of Jackson to be a game-breaker.

The O/NSO pessimist: Excuse me, Chris Petersen isn’t Houdini? Okay, how about he’s the best coach in the conference, dude! As for losing his quarterback Browning and tailback Gaskin, Coach Pete simply plugs in Georgia transfer Jacob Eason and replaces Gaskin with another standout tailback in junior Salvon Amed. The offense line returns four standout starters from the Rose Bowl. Yikes!!! For all the ballyhoo over the UW offense, it’s the defense that will cause Graham Harrell’s offense fits. If our memory is correct, Washington State runs the Air Raid and the Cougars’ offense had huge issues trying to move the ball against the Huskies’ defense. This game will be no different.

Troy’s offensive coordinator Graham Harrell may get his stiffest test of the young season when his own version of the Air Raid offense tries to control and move the ball against a tough UW defense.

The O/NSO realist: Then, of course, one has to take into account the Husky Stadium volume intimidator and the potential for inclement weather. The Trojans will be a sizeable underdog, and if this turns out to be the third conference loss in three tries, will Clay Helton even be coaching against Notre Dame in two weeks?

The O/NSO prediction: UW 34, USC 24

Schedule note: The Trojans draw a bye after the Washington game, so there will be no game on Saturday, Oct. 6.

The Obvious Game 6 – At Notre Dame (2018 record – 12-1)/ Ret. Off. 8, Def. 6, SPT. placekicker 0, punter 0): It’s college football’s greatest intersectional rivalry, as the Trojans face the Irish in South Bend, Indiana, on Saturday, Oct. 12 (7:30 p.m. ET/4:30 p.m. PT/ NBC).

The Trojans figure to the underdog when they play the Irish on Saturday evening, Oct. 12, in storied Notre Dame Stadium. However, as many as 10,000 USC fans and the Trojans Marching Band could provide some confidence and support for the Men of Troy.

The Not So Obvious Notre Dame game points of view:

The O/NSO optimist: The Trojans will be coming off a bye week, and that is a good thing when traveling back to the Midwest to play the Irish in Notre Dame Stadium. If the Trojans come into South Bend with a winning record, this one could get interesting. Simply on the law of averages, the Men of Troy are due for a win in the Midwest. If the starting quarterback for Troy is Jack Sears, the Irish will have a tough time trying to get to the Trojans’ mobile quarterback, and ND remembers when another mobile USC quarterback, Sam Darnold, was a challenge. The Trojans played the Irish very well last season in L.A. and barely lost 24-17. With thousands of USC fans coming to Notre Dame Stadium for the ND Weekender, there will be plenty of support and incentive for the Trojans to play their best game of the year.  

If he doesn’t start the season, Trojans’ mobile quarterback Jack Sears could be the starter against the Irish, which would provide the Notre Dame defense with a true dual-threat quarterback that could slow the ND defensive line.

The O/NSO pessimist: Wow, you almost convinced me the Trojans had a chance in this one…not! Okay, so when was the last time that a Clay Helton team won at Notre Dame? Try never. In fact, the last two times that the Trojans played in South Bend and Helton was the coach, the scores were 41-31 and 49-14, respectively. See a pattern there? Look, ND returns eight starters, which includes starting QB Ian Book. Four starters return on the O-line, and that is always scary for the Trojans’ defense. The Domers will score more points than last season’s 24 in the Coli. And the Irish defense just reloads with talent, and the Trojans will have to deal with senior preseason All-America DL Julian Okwara. This could be another spanking in South Bend. No, just drop the “could be.”

If the Trojans are going to upset the Irish in South Bend, they’ll have to do a better job of containing Irish senior quarterback Ian Book, who gave the Cardinal and Gold all sorts of fits last season in the Coliseum.

The O/NSO realist: The Trojans will fight like mad, but the Irish will be too physical, too talented, too motivated, and head coach Brian Kelly will have ND ready to go to the CFP committee. As for the Trojans, the thought that this might be Clay Helton’s last game as a Trojan – if he already hasn’t been replaced – could very well be in the offering. We suspect the Trojans will battle like hell, and the offense will go as far as its turnover ratio. Defensively, the Irish offensive line will wear down the Trojans defense in the second half. This isn’t negative but realistic. You know it, the O/NSO knows it, and so do the respective rooting interests.

The O/NSO prediction: ND 41, USC 24

The Obvious: So, at the end of the first six games, the O/NSO sees the Trojans with a record of 2-4 overall and 0-3 in conference.

The Not So Obvious: Find out in next Friday’s Part- 2 of the season predictions if Clay Helton will be the coach, and what the final six games will bring.

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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