The Pac-12 Championship Game. That’s my expectation for this upcoming season. Not a national championship or one of the four national playoff spots, or even winning the Pac-12 Championship. Just getting to the conference title game. That should be the barometer for a successful season in the Coliseum.
That’s not saying that a Pac-12 title or a top four finish is out of reach — they are very real possibilities. But USC can fall short of that and still have a successful season in my book.
The goal has to be progress for the Trojans, and the next step for USC is winning the Pac-12 South.
It wouldn’t be the first Pac-12 South Championship for USC. The Trojans actually finished atop the division standings in 2011, the inaugural season of the expanded conference. But that was while USC was still ineligible for postseason play.
The Trojans have to play great to come out on top. Arizona, UCLA and Arizona State all made the Preseason USA Today Coaches Poll along with the Trojans, and Utah being ranked at No. 30, so the conference slate will be a slugfest — heck, Colorado is even projected to be halfway decent!
Great doesn’t necessarily mean flawless, though.
Additionally, USC will have to face both of the North division heavyweights with Oregon making the cross-division schedule for the first time since 2012. Throw in a Notre Dame team that Sports Illustrated has ranked as high as fourth in the country and USC probably has the toughest potential path to the playoff out of the conference.
These six heavy hitters are split evenly between home and away games.
The Stanford matchup in particular worries me. USC’s past two victories over the Cardinal might indicate that the power balance in California has shifted back to the South, but both of those wins were pretty unlikely — certainly the upset at the Coliseum two years ago but even last year’s win at Stanford that featured a pair of Cardinal missed field goals and lost fumbles. Stanford is certainly coming off a down year, finishing 8-5 after making BCS Bowl appearances each of the previous four seasons. According to SB Nation’s advanced stat on projected wins, Stanford should have finished last year with 1.4 more wins than it did based off of its total statistical output, indicating that last year’s dip was more of an aberration. I expect Stanford to see big improvements this year, and that should be a tough test early at home. The other matchup that worries me is Arizona. USC defenses have historically had problems with mobile quarterbacks, from Vince Young at the 2006 Rose Bowl to Brett Hundley the last three seasons. The Wildcats’ Anu Solomon looks to be the most likely version of last year’s Tyler Murphy of Boston College.
Unlike Stanford, SB Nation’s adjusted win projection said Arizona should have finished with 2.5 fewer wins than it did last year in its unlikely run to the division title, and the Wildcats will probably regress back toward the mean this year. But like Stanford, Arizona was a late missed field goal away from beating ’SC last year.
Maybe this is just a gut feeling, but I think USC will get up for Oregon and Notre Dame. The Oregon matchup is hard to gauge because it’s been so long since USC has been up there. But if that’s the only time USC goes into a game ranked slightly lower than an opponent, it will probably give the Trojans a mental edge. The Notre Dame game should be much closer than last year’s 49-14 win, but I think that goes to show that the Fighting Irish aren’t on USC’s level.
Arizona State is due for a whooping. No mercy spared after last year.
And of course, the most important of them all. Coach Steve Sarkisian proved that he took back L.A. this past spring by landing the best recruiting class in the nation and nabbing all the best talent Southern California had to offer. It’s time for that to bear fruit on the field. The three-year losing streak to UCLA is almost unthinkable, and for any class of USC football players to graduate without a victory over the archrival is blasphemous. The Trojans have honestly been on the same level with UCLA these past three years, so the Bruins are due for a regression head-to-head, and the loss of the aforementioned Trojan killer Hundley will totally change the dynamic of the game. USC will beat UCLA this season.
There isn’t a game on paper — maybe with the exception of Oregon — that the Trojans shouldn’t win. But looking at the season as a whole, something will probably go wrong, and all of those tests won’t add up to a perfect season.
So that’s why I’m going with an 11-3 prediction. 10-2 in the regular season, winning the Pac-12 South, beating Oregon once but not twice, then capping off the season with a New Year’s Six bowl victory.
Coming off a good but not great 9-4 campaign last season, a No. 1 ranked recruiting class according many media polls and with Sarkisian’s first year now behind him, the pressure will certainly increase for him to bring home a national championship.
But it’s important to remember that this is still a rebuilding program. This is a team that hasn’t legitimately been on that level since 2008, and last year’s class was the first full recruiting class USC has taken since the three-season NCAA imposed recruiting caps.
That’s why the goal has to be progress. Sarkisian by no means should be on the hot seat if the team falls a touchdown short of the conference title or the College Football Playoff. But if the Trojans put up another 9-4 season and play second fiddle in the South to UCLA, then that becomes a real concern going forward.
The key is remembering that a national championship isn’t the only thing to be proud of as a sports fan.
Of course, it’s much easier for me to say this as a junior rather than a senior, but I really think the 2016 season will be USC’s best chance at a national title. The Trojans just aren’t there yet.
But I wouldn’t mind being wrong.
Luke Holthouse is a junior majoring in policy, planning and development and broadcast and digital journalism. His column, “Holthouse Party,” runs Wednesdays.