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USC and Florida were about even in my ratings at the end of last season and it’s a shame that the two best teams didn’t get to face each other in the National Championship game. The reason for the Trojans’ exclusion was a late September loss at Oregon State by a 21-27 count in a game in which USC out-played the Beavers 6.1 yards per play to 5.0 yppl but were -2 in turnover margin. USC may be able to afford one loss this season given the enhanced strength of the Pac-10 this season and the tougher non-conference schedule (at Ohio State and visiting a ranked Notre Dame team). While the Trojans could make it to the National Championship game with one loss, they should be favored to win each and every week, including at Ohio State (although they may not be).
Yes, USC must replace 8 defensive starters that were selected in April’s NFL draft, including 4 in the first 2 rounds, but the Trojans’ secondary is going to be just as good and most of the replacements along the defensive front 7 are going to be headed to the NFL when they’re done kicking ass for the Trojans. FS Taylor Mays returns to lead the unit after earning 1st Team All-American honors last season and replacing departed defensive backs Kevin Ellison and Cary Harris will not be difficult, as new starters Shareece Wright and Kevin Thomas are better NFL prospects than either Ellison or Harris (both 6th round draft picks). In fact, Thomas defended more passes (7 broken up and 3 interceptions) as a back up last season than either Ellison or Harris did as starters. The question on the defense is the front 7, which employs 6 new starters and has to replace 4 players drafted in the first 2 rounds. There is always talent waiting to fill the holes at USC, but the holes are pretty big this year and the lack of experience may be a minor problem early in the season (we’ll find out on September 12th). I don’t expect the USC defense to be historically good as it was in 2008 (allowed a miniscule 3.7 yards per play to a schedule of teams that would combine to average 5.7 yppl against an average stop unit), but the Trojans should still rank among the best defensive teams in the nation.
While the defense has to replace many stars, the offense only has to replace one. Quarterback Mark Sanchez had an excellent season as the starter and will now be starting for the New York Jets. It’s tough to imagine sophomore Aaron Corp or freshman Matt Barkley being as efficient as Sanchez was last season, but the same was said of Matt Leinart when he had to replace Carson Palmer and of John David Booty when he followed Leinart. The only bad year for the USC pass attack was in 2007 when the receiving corps lacked talent and experience after Steve Smith and Dwayne Jarrett left campus, but the Trojans’ pass attack has rated between +1.8 yards per pass play better than average and +2.8 yppp in the other 6 seasons since 2002 and the average new starter during that time had a rating of +2.3 yppp. The receiving corps is loaded with talent and experience heading into this season and WR Damian Williams is poised for an All-American season after nabbing 58 balls at 15.0 ypc and 9 scores as s sophomore last season. I expect the new USC quarterback to be about 2.3 yards per pass play better than average, which is down some from the +2.7 yppp rating of Sanchez last season. The rushing attack, meanwhile, should be even better than last season. The top 4 backs return to run behind the nation’s best offensive line, which returns 5 starters (although C O’Dowd is questionable to start the season) and the Trojans could average over 6 yards per running play after averaging a stellar 5.6 yprp last season behind an inexperienced line that returned just 1 starter. Stafon Johnson, Joe McKnight, and company should enjoy running through the holes that this year’s Trojans’ offensive line should create. USC averaged 6.7 yards per play in 2008 (against teams that would allow 5.1 yppl to an average attack), and I think they could be even better this season.
USC’s special teams were a mixed bag last season, as the punting (33.0 net average) and punt returns (opponents averaged 36.7 net) were bad while the kickoff team was the 2nd best in the nation (21.8 yard line average opponent field position after kick-offs) and the kick return unit was good (26.5 average return). The Trojans must replace the punter (no problem there) and kicker David Buehler but the kick and punt return specialists are back. The departure of P Woidneck is likely to be a positive, but Buehler did a great job on kickoffs (although a bit worse than average on field goals) and I doubt the Trojans can repeat their great kick-off coverage stats. However, I expect more out of the punt return team and the kick returns should continue to shine. USC should once again be good overall in special teams.
The Trojans rank as my #2 rated team behind Florida entering the 2009 season, but that rating is contingent on Corp or Barkley continuing the recent tradition of great USC quarterbacks. The first big test is at Ohio State on September 12th, but I think the Trojans will be better than the Buckeyes on both sides of the ball even if the new quarterback isn’t quite ready to play at typical USC standards. The Pac-10 schedule presents tough tests at Cal and at Oregon and a non-conference road game against a Notre Dame team that for once may actually be pretty good (although still likely to lose by 10 to 14 points to the Trojans). It will be a tough task for USC to come away from those 4 challenging road games with 4 wins, but I’d favor the Trojans in each of those games. An 11-1 season and another BCS bowl win is the most likely outcome (unless that BCS bowl game is against Florida), as USC tends to slip up in one Pac-10 game every year.