The USC Trojans football team completed a perfect 5-0 regular season, but their luck ran out against Oregon in the Pac-12 Championship game on December 18.
The Trojans beat the Arizona State Sun Devils 28-27, the Arizona Wildcats 34-30, the Utah Utes 33-17, the Washington State Cougars 38-13, and the UCLA Bruins 43-38. They were unable to face the undefeated Colorado Buffaloes due to COVID-19 issues within a position group on the team.
Three of those five games came with a game-winning drive by USC in the final minutes. One of the games was practically over in the first quarter.
They went into the championship game ranked No. 13 in the country but dropped to No. 17 after the loss. Their season is over, and they definitely have something to build on. But their mistakes have to improve if they want to contend for a spot in the College Football Playoffs next season.
Clay Helton’s Future With The Trojans
Helton is under contract until 2023, so let’s not say the Trojans can just fire him outright and walk away with clean hands. He has been a part of the USC coaching staff since 2010 and has been the head coach for five seasons. He isn’t a losing coach — he is 45-23 all-time and has led his team to a bowl game in all but one season when the team was 5-7 in 2018. This season, they could have been in a game but chose to end their season with the loss and prepare for 2021.
Trojans fans are just spoiled with the past success and need to look at the bigger picture. If Helton was such a bad coach, these players wouldn’t risk themselves on the field during a pandemic that was making their season tougher than it should be.
Trojans Wire wrote an entire article devoted to pointing out the faults they had this season, with one of them being “USC is a soft team — period.” The article also points out game management issues with timeouts in the second half of games, casual play and a lack of force by players, and poor player development.
As far as player development, there can be a case for that, but there are also more than 20 players in the NFL that have played for Helton at least one season — some of those players being successful in their position.
Ryan Kartje of the LA Times said the defense took a step forward under new coordinator Todd Orlando and special teams improved under new coordinator Sean Snyder, but the offense still has a question mark where the declining running game is supposed to be.
It’s safe to say Helton isn’t going anywhere this offseason, and he’s going to keep Graham Harrell as his offensive coordinator.
The Offense And Where They Can Improve
Sophomore quarterback Kedon Slovis threw for almost 2,000 yards on the season with 67% completion, 17 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions — ranked top-three in the conference in every category.
The Trojans’ running game ranked last place in the conference with an average of 97.3 yards a game and an average of 3.2 yards per rush. Of their main three running backs, only one was able to rush for more than 200 yards on the year — that being senior Vavae Malepeai.
The receiving corps of the Trojans is a special one with four of them with triple-digit yards, two of them with over 400 yards, and one of them — sophomore Drake London — surpassing 500 yards on the year, which ranked him at third, junior receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown at fourth, and senior receiver Tyler Vaughns at fifth in the conference.
Slovis is set to return along with the other sophomores including London, and red-shirt freshman receiver Bru McCoy. St. Brown put together quite the highlight tape and is ready for the NFL. Senior running backs Malepeai and Stephen Carr will likely enter the draft along with Vaughns and they can be a good addition to a professional team.
The offensive line was a bit of a liability to start this season, and it only got worse over time when they were affected by the virus and couldn’t find consistency to end the season. In addition, they will lose their best player on the line to the draft, Alijah Vera-Tucker.
Harrell and Helton have their hands full with improving this offense, and one of the first tasks would have to be making sure they aren’t forced to throw the ball 50 times a game.
The Defense And Where They Can Improve
This year’s defense was led by junior safety Talanoa Hufanga’s 40 solo tackles, three sacks, four interceptions, and two forced fumbles — the stat sheet of a potential NFL draft pick. He was also chosen as the Pac-12 defensive player of the year.
Alongside Hufanga, junior safety Isaiah Pola-Mao’s solid play will likely earn him some noise around draft time, but the lack of stats on paper may lead him to return to USC for another year.
The Trojans may lose a few solid players on the defensive side of the ball, or the unprecedented times may lead some players to stay around for their senior year.
Let’s look at some examples.
Junior linebackers Kana’i Mauga and Palaie Gaoteote IV, who only played two games this season and entered the transfer portal late in the season, are some examples of players that will probably stay in college another year. Junior defensive linemen Marlon Tuipulotu and Nick Figueroa made a lot of noise on the line this season and can be more successful in the draft by playing another college season. Junior cornerback Olaijah Griffin and junior safety Greg Johnson were two big parts of the defense this season and should return to help compete for a championship.
If all goes well, the Trojans’ defense won’t change at all and they’ll be even more dominant than they were this season.
But something does have to improve. They allowed the third-least points and rushing yards per game in the conference and allowed the fourth-least passing yards per game in the conference. They aren’t that bad of a team.
The Recruits In The Class Of 2021
The Trojans were ranked in the 60s nationally in recruiting last season, and they find themselves in the top-15 nationally this season and ranked No. 2 in the conference.
Two standouts from last year’s class that are LA natives — receiver Gary Bryant, Jr. and defensive tackle Tuli Tuipilotu — show that the Trojans have an eye for local talent, and they can’t lose those players to other schools — something that hasn’t been the case in the past.
The 2021 class has 10 players from California — 8 of them from LA-area schools — out of the 19 who have signed letters of intent.
The Trojans have three five-star recruits that they need to go all-in on — No. 1 and No. 2 defensive ends Korey Foreman out of Centennial in Corona and J.T. Tuimoloau out of Eastside Catholic in Washington as well as No. 4 offensive tackle Tristan Leigh out of Robinson Secondary in Virginia.
Foreman is the top player in the country, and USC is competing with Clemson, Arizona State, Alabama, and Arizona for his commitment, but the recruitment experts at 247Sports have USC as the front runner over Clemson.
As long as the Trojans have a plan on how to improve on their surprising season, they should be fine. They were a top team in the conference — for the first time in a while — and they will likely continue to be if they are able to bounce back better than before.
The next big day for the Trojans is National Signing Day on Wednesday, February 3.