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O/NSO: 2020 Opening Day edition

The Obvious: After all the heartache and disappointment of a pandemic that has turned college football practices and games into one big unqualified mess at times, the USC Trojans finally take the practice field on Friday for the first of four weeks of training camp in preparation for their early morning (9 a.m. PT) kickoff on Saturday, Nov. 7, in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum against Pac-12 South Division rival Arizona State Sun Devils.

The Not So Obvious: Because of the COVID-19 situation, it should be noted that practice adjustments have been made. Because of local health restrictions and guidelines, practices for the time being will be limited to 75-man groupings, which probably means there could be two groupings practicing on different practice fields. 

The Obvious: Fans will not be allowed to attend any of the practice sessions or actual games.

The Not So Obvious: In terms of media access in these difficult COVID-19 times, the Trojans’ sports information department is still developing protocol and guidelines for practices and games. At the present time, the media will not be allowed in practice but will have access to Zoom interviews on various days.  

The Obvious: According to a digital Pac-12 Media Day held on Wednesday, the Trojans are the overwhelming choice to win the Pac-12 South Division (220 pts.) with the closest division competitor being the Arizona State Sun Devils (181 pts.). 

The Not So Obvious: To no surprise, the Utah Utes (168 pts.) were behind the Trojans and Sun Devils for South Division supremacy. The O/NSO is still scratching our head at last week’s released Pac-12 schedule, which has the Trojans playing the Sun Devils and the Utes in the first three weeks of the season. Opening the season – albeit a modified season – against your expected closest challenger (ASU) makes one wonder just how much politics and television played a part of the scheduling order? The Utah game in Salt Lake City, which was originally scheduled for a Friday night affair in Salt Lake City, is now just a “normal” Saturday game in Utah. Of note, a trip to Arizona is sandwiched between the Sun Devils and Utes.  

When the Trojans run out of the Coliseum tunnel (photo above) to face ASU in the first game of 2020, they will take the field knowing that they are the media’s solid choice to win the Pac-12 South Division.

The Obvious: Oregon has been voted the favorite to win the overall Pac-12 Conference.

The Not So Obvious: Not much changed from the summer in the eyes of the media when selecting the two top teams in the Pac-12. Oregon (21 votes) edged out the Trojans (15 votes) to win the whole enchilada in the conference title game. Given that Oregon has to replace last season’s star quarterback Justin Herbert (San Diego Chargers) and the Trojans return Heisman hopeful signal caller Kedon Slovis, it certainly sounds like there’s more respect for what the Ducks are capable of doing than the Trojans. Not surprisingly, the Trojans and the Ducks won’t meet during the regular season schedule but are the odds-on favorites to collide in the Pac-12 title game, which will be played on Friday night, Dec. 18.  

The Obvious: The 2020 Pac-12 Football Championship Game will be a home-hosted format.

The Not So Obvious: Just what is a “home-hosted format”? So far, no explanation on what happens if the top finishers in the North and South Division both end up undefeated. Inquiring minds want to know. Los Angeles or Eugene in December, where would you rather play?

The Trojans are hoping that if they can win the Pac-12 South Division, they’ll host the conference title game in the Coliseum. (photo above)

The Obvious: The 2020 season will consist of only six regular season games plus one championship game or championship weekend. It’s the first time ever that USC plays a regular-season schedule composed only of conference opponents.

The Not So Obvious: This is also the fewest regular season games Troy has played since 1920, when the Trojans went 6-0. This is also the Cardinal and Gold’s fewest home games in a season since playing two in 1910.

The Obvious: The Trojans return sixteen starters (8 on offense and 8 on defense), plus the placekicker and punter.

The Not So Obvious: The key to having the impressive list of returning numbers is not really how many are back, but how many have improved from last season. Returning numbers don’t guarantee success if the quality and coaching is not there.  

One of the major reasons the Trojans should have an explosive offense is the return of gifted sophomore quarterback Kedon Slovis. (Photo above by Jordon Kelly)

The Obvious: USC returns 90 players from the 2019 team, including 67 who saw action.

The Not So Obvious: That is Troy’s most returning players since 1993, when there were 92 returnees. The Trojans lost 22 players from last season, which are the fewest since 1997, when there also were 22.

The Obvious: This will be the Trojans’ second season running offensive coordinator Graham Harrell’s version of the Air Raid offense.

The Not So Obvious: USC’s offense—which averaged 455 total yards, including a school-record 335 passing yards, and 32 points a game in 2019 —returns its top two passers, top six ball carriers, seven of its top eight pass catchers and three starting linemen.

The Trojans’ offense will again feature explosive receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown (photo above).

The Obvious: A lot will be expected from the Trojans’ offense in 2020, and it will need to come through if the team is going to challenge for the Pac-12 title.

The Not So Obvious: Regarding his team’s offense, head coach Clay Helton said, “With 8 returning starters, our offense is filled with older, experienced players. We had great offensive production in 2019 in the first year under Graham Harrell. He did an excellent job of creating an explosive offense. Now, I’m looking forward to seeing that offense advance as it goes into a second season under Graham. It will be fun to see how all of our quarterbacks progress. Kedon and Matt got lots of work last year and played well.”

The Obvious: The 2020 Trojans defense will be completely new under first-year defensive coordinator Todd Orlando, former DC of the Texas Longhorns.

The Not So Obvious: Looking at his new defensive situation, Clay Helton said, “With 8 returning starters, our defense goes from a young group in 2019 to one that now is experienced and deep this year. I’m excited to watch them develop in an aggressive new system under Todd Orlando. I’m also excited to watch our new defensive coaches work together and bring an energy as they develop our defense.”

A major reason for defensive optimism is fiery first-year defensive coordinator Todd Orlando (photo above).

The Obvious: From an experience standpoint, the Trojans will have a relatively experienced defense.  

The Not So Obvious: The Trojans’ defense welcomes back 11 of its top 13 tacklers from 2019, as well as its leaders in sacks, tackles for loss, interceptions, deflections and forced fumbles.

The Trojans’ 2020 defense will be led by strong safety Talanoa Hufanga (photo above).

The Obvious: While all eyes will be on the development of the offense and defense, if the Trojans are going to capture a Pac-12 championship, they’ll need a strong special teams effort.

The Not So Obvious: Commenting on his special teams, Clay Helton said, “We’re very fortunate to have all of our specialists and most of our returners back from a year ago. I anticipate that our special teams will be among the best in the country. Guys like Chase (McGrath) and Michael (Brown) and Ben (Griffiths) are proven performers. Sean Snyder, our new coordinator, has been a great teacher of special teams play and is known for the development of his players.”

Placekicker Chase McGrath (photo above) should be a major field goal and PAT weapon in 2020.

The Obvious: One of the big questions for the Trojans and the Arizona State Sun Devils is whether the 9 a.m. PT kickoff will affect both teams.

The Not So Obvious: Regarding the 9 a.m. kickoff, ASU head coach Herm Edwards told the media on Wednesday, “We practice in the morning anyway, so it’s business as usual.”

The Obvious: And finally, no doubt the Trojans coaching staff and players were excited to learn that offensive lineman Alijah Vera-Tucker would be returning for the 2020 season instead of immediately preparing for the 2021 NFL draft.

The Not So Obvious: Leave it to Clay Helton to show his inner self upon learning of Vera-Tucker’s return. Gentleman Clay said he “walked away with goosebumps.” Oh my.

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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