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O/NSO: Predictions and rules edition

The Obvious: Depending on who you are reading, the 2018 USC Trojans are slotted in somewhere between No. 15-20 in the country, which sounds about right, given the uncertainty at quarterback. Thus, the new prognostications have begun, which brings a little distraction from the boredom of the long “off-season.”

 The Not So Obvious: ESPN college football senior writer Mark Schlabach has made his fourth off-season evaluation of the 2018 Trojans and writes, The battle to replace Sam Darnold commenced this spring without perhaps the most important participant. Incoming freshman J.T. Daniels was wrapping up his junior year (yes, you read that correctly) at Mater Dei High in Santa Ana, California, while sophomore Matt Fink and redshirt freshman Jack Sears battled for the job during spring practice. Daniels, who reclassified to the Class of 2018 and will graduate from high school a year ahead of schedule, might be the front-runner to replace Darnold when he joins the competition this summer. He led Mater Dei High to a 15-0 record last year and passed for 12,014 yards with 152 touchdowns and 14 interceptions in three seasons. Daniels was a regular visitor to USC’s spring practices and spent time watching film and studying the playbook with the Trojans’ coaches this spring.”

The Obvious: College football is always looking for ways to improve the game through either  technical adjustments or for safety concerns.

The Not So Obvious: In the next couple of O/NSO editions, we’ll look at some of the issues and rule changes in store for next season. FYI from the rules committee, “The NCAA football rules committee has completed its work on the rules for the 2018 season and has received approval from the Playing Rules Oversight Panel for a number of changes. Because this is an even-numbered year, the committee was able to consider changes for all aspects of the game. Under the guidelines for the two-year process, only player-safety rules may be changed in odd-numbered years.”

The Obvious: The Trojans have tried to have success in recent seasons with kickoff returns, but last season you didn’t see a whole of big returns.

The Not So Obvious: According to the rules committee, “The kickoff return continues to be the play with the highest risk of head injuries. So in recent years, there have been a number of rules changes intended to provide incentives for a team not to return the kickoff. One such rule was made in 2013: after a touchback on the kickoff, the ball is brought out to the 25-yard line rather than the standard 20. In response, some kickers have perfected the art of the “pooch kick,” lofting the ball deep in the receiving team’s space in an attempt to pin them down with poor field position or effectively force a return.” 

The Obvious: John Baxter is the Trojans’ fulltime special teams coach and with the new rules, he may have to assess his kickoff return philosophy.

The Not So Obvious: According to the new 2018 rules, “To counter this trend (kickoff returns mentioned above), the committee this year created a new rule: if a kickoff receiver makes a fair catch inside his 20-yard line his team will have the ball at the 25-yard line – just as if the ball had been caught and downed inside the end zone for a touchback. So, for example, if a receiving team player makes a fair catch of a kickoff at, say, his 5- or 10-yard line, his team will put the ball in play at the 25. The hope is that this change will encourage teams to take advantage of the better field position rather than return the kick.” If this helps in better safety for the players, the O/NSO is all for it.

The Obvious: Penalties have plagued the Clay Helton era, and new rules are being focused on penalties that pertain to field goals.

The Not So Obvious: According to the rules committee, there has been emphasis on how penalties should be administered during field goal attempts. “Under the current rules, if the defense commits a personal foul or unsportsmanlike conduct during a field goal, the kicking team must either take points off the board and continue the drive with a first down, or decline the penalty and keep the three points. But the penalty would not carry over to the kickoff after the successful field goal. Beginning in 2018, there is the option to keep the three points and enforce the penalty on the kickoff – just as with such a foul during a touchdown. The effect of this change is to make penalty enforcement the same on all scoring plays.” The O/NSO see this as a good rule.

The Obvious: Mike Leach is the successful, eccentric head coach of the Washington State Cougars.

The Not So Obvious: In a recent Pac-12 teleconference, Leach explained – as only he can – why he didn’t like the new kickoff rule, Leach said, I think there aren’t very many of these rules changes that haven’t done something to limit strategy and even though they’re well-intended, they haven’t had that effect. Most of them basically are the equivalent to the halo rule and we’re still caught up in the halo-rule syndrome, failed with the halo rule, took two years to eradicate it and ever since then we’re determined … to get one and make it right and say, ‘Oh my god, you’re a genius. You came up with this brilliant rule.’ Failure after failure after failure and this is the latest piece of that. And there will be one next year too.”

The Obvious: The Pac-12 went an ugly 1-8 in post-season bowl games last season.

The Not So Obvious: In the aforementioned Pac-12 coaches media conference, respected Stanford head coach David Shaw gave his perspective on the conference’s post-season debacle. In explaining his own team’s close 39-37 loss to TCU, Shaw explained, “One team made a few more plays than the other team, so that’s how it goes, but that game doesn’t say anything about our conference. So that’s what I think gets blown out of proportion. You’d love to have a stronger showing, but when it’s all said and done, I think the strength of our conference is understood and what we do from here on out is really on the individual teams. If we go undefeated in bowls next year, it doesn’t mean our conference is any better; it just means that those teams won on those days.” It should be noted that only Utah won a post-season game, 30-14, over West Virginia, which isn’t exactly a triumph over Alabama or Ohio State.

The Obvious: Clay Helton has his own theory on why young quarterbacks, like his incoming freshman JT Daniels, appear so advanced.

The Not So Obvious: On the Pac-12 coaches conference call, Helton said, They (freshmen quarterbacks) are more advanced, more mature, as far as their game goes. They’re already reading coverages and given two plays that can get us in the right play. I’ll never forget J.T. Daniels being here for a seven-on-seven camp that we were having and he was calling all the plays, so it’s amazing how far advanced not only from a physical nature but the mental aspect of the game is where I think things have changed because they’re truly thinking about it year-round.” Okay, coach, so will this theory hold up when JT competes for the starting spot come August training camp?

The Obvious: The Coliseum renovation is well underway with plans to be completed in time for the 2019 season opener with Fresno State.

The Not So Obvious: Simultaneously, the College Football 150th Anniversary in 2019 is only eight months away and planning is well underway for the “sesquicentennial celebration.” “CFB150” will plan and administer a national celebration of 150 seasons of collegiate football, showcasing the rich history and traditions of the sport and its contribution to American society and culture.

The Obvious: Speaking of season openers, a good trivia question is when was the last time the Trojans opened up a season on the road?  

The Not So Obvious: The answer is 2016 when they played Alabama on a neutral field in Arlington, Texas. Of course, most USC fans would rather forget that experience.

The Obvious: A better trivia question for those that know their USC football history is when was the last time the Trojans opened a season on the road in an opponent’s stadium?

The Not So Obvious: The O/NSO knew you’d remember that one. How can you forget an opener in Hawaii? The Trojans traveled to Aloha Stadium in 2013 and defeated their island hosts 30-13.

The Obvious: And finally, John Robinson is one of USC’s all-time head football coaches who still works for and represents the university.

The Not So Obvious: JR and Hall of Fame running back Ricky Williams (Texas) – once a major USC recruit – will be inducted into the Cotton Bowl Hall of Fame during a ceremony at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, on May 8.

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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