The USC Trojans(11–3) ended their 2017 season with a 24–7 loss to the Ohio State Buckeyes in the Cotton Bowl. It was one of many poor performances by Pac-12 schools during the bowl season. USC entered the season with high aspirations but instead endured a season of ups and downs. For the most part, the Trojans won the games they were expected to win, including two victories over Stanford, the second win coming in the Pac-12 Championship at Levi Stadium, with USC winning 31–28.
It was in the big regular season games where the Trojans fell flat. A fourth quarter meltdown against Washington State and a thorough thumping against Notre Dame ended their chances of securing a spot in the College Football Playoff.
Redshirt junior quarterback Sam Darnold also experienced a rocky season. He entered the season as the Heisman frontrunner because of his play during the 2016 season. He took over the starting job from Max Browne after USC stumbled out to a 1–2 record. He went on to throw for 3,086 yards, 31 touchdowns and 9 interceptions. This season, he threw four more interceptions and five less touchdowns this past season than he did in his 2016 breakout campaign.
As the Trojans look ahead to the 2018 season, there will be big changes offensively. Darnold, running back Ronald Jones II, and leading receiver Deontay Burnett all declared for the NFL earlier this month, leaving a big hole in the core of the Trojans offense. Darnold is projected as a top five pick. Jones II rushed for over 1,500 yards and scored 19 total touchdowns. He is expected to be drafted within the first two rounds. Burnett led the team in receiving yards with over 1,000 yards and became the 13th Trojan wide receiver to crack the 1,000 yard mark. He is viewed as a middle-round pick.
Darnold’s entry in the NFL Draft came as a surprise to many. He did not have the same stellar season as the 2016 campaign and the Trojans figured to be competitive again. But, at the same time, his draft stock couldn’t be any higher, with some mock drafts having him go No. 1 to the Cleveland Browns. If that does indeed happen, he will be tasked with turning around an absymal franchise coming off the heels of an 0–16 season.
The Trojans will gain some reinforcements in the form of incoming high school recruits. Palaie Gaoteote, the top linebacker prospect in the country, joins returning seniors Porter Gustin and Cameron Smith to form a formidable linebacker corps. JT Daniels, the junior five-star quarterback from Mater Dei in Santa Ana, reclassified to the 2018 class. He will graduate early and join USC for the upcoming season. According to Rivals.com, the Gatorade Football Player of the Year is the No. 1overall recruit.
Daniels could start week one as a true freshman. If so, he would be just the second true freshman to start in the season opener for the Trojans. It is more likely that USC starts either sophomore Jack Sears or redshirt sophomore Matt Fink and allow Daniels to develop. Mistakes from either will have Trojan fans clamoring for Daniels to take over.
USC ended the season ranked No. 12 in the country, the highest of any Pac-12 school. The Trojans will look to seriously enter the College Football Playoff conversation and seamlessly move past the Darnold era.
With the Trojans entering the season with question marks at the quarterback position, the defense will be leaned upon heavily. Top cornerback Jack Jones must learn to gamble less and not leave the second level vulnerable. Also, coaches must figure out what to do with Iman Marshall and his weaknesses in coverage.
USC opens the 2018 season with a home game against UNLV before going on the road for back-to-back games against Stanford and Texas. Unlike last season, the Trojans have a bye week between their road game against the Arizona Wildcats and a home matchup against the Colorado Buffaloes.