Football looks ahead to next season’s schedule

Coming off a Rose Bowl win that Trojan fans won’t soon forget, the hype for the 2017 season has already begun. The Pac-12 released the slate of games for next season Wednesday, and the Trojans now know what lies ahead in their mission to the conference championship and potentially the College Football Playoff. Despite losing stars such as junior cornerback Adoree’ Jackson and junior wide receiver Juju Smith Schuster, the Trojans return with talent on both sides of the ball. Redshirt sophomore Sam Darnold, an early Heisman Trophy frontrunner, will have a steady stable of weapons to choose from, and the defense returns most of their starters.

This season, USC will be tested by playing 12 games straight without a bye week. The last time the Trojans’ schedule didn’t have a bye was in 1995. Forced to go through the gauntlet without a break, the team’s depth will be tested. Compared to the 2016 slate, 2017 looks to be a more balanced schedule. Though a schedule without a bye week is less than ideal, the Trojans’ schedule at first glance appears manageable.

Sept. 2 – Western Michigan

Western Michigan and their “Row the Boat” mantra helped them to the Cotton Bowl in an incredible 13-1 season. But now that former head coach PJ Fleck jumped ship, this team has lost a lot of the appeal it once had. However, of all the Group-of-5 teams to play right now, Western Michigan should be a solid opening game for a USC team with a lot of hype entering the season. In comparison with the 2016 opener against powerhouse Alabama, this game should allow the Trojans to play a fairly competitive team, but one that won’t give them too tough of a time.

Sept. 9 – Stanford

The Trojans open conference play at home against a rival. This game will be a good gauge of how well this USC team can perform in a competitive Pac-12 conference. Former star running back Christian McCaffrey is NFL Draft-bound, but freshman running back Bryce Love is more than ready to step up in his place. Unlike last year’s matchup, USC gets this game at the Coliseum, which helps the Trojans out.

Sept. 16 – Texas

Texas is a program in flux. After Charlie Strong failed at UT, highly coveted coach Tom Herman will look to bring the Longhorns back to relevance in the college football picture. Getting Texas early in the season may be good for USC, as Texas will have to learn Herman’s system on the go. A convincing win here against a non-conference opponent would help USC’s resume with the College Football Playoff Committee.

Sept. 23 – at Cal

A familiar face is at the head of Cal’s program this year. Former USC defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox will get his opportunity to upset his former team. This will make for a fun storyline and should be a winnable first road game for the Trojans against a football program that hasn’t had much success in the past decade.

Sept. 29 – at Washington State

USC lucks out this year and gets Washington State instead of Washington. But a shorter week, redshirt junior quarterback Luke Falk’s return and an unpredictable Mike Leach offense all add up to make this USC’s first road test. This game has “high scoring shootout” written all over it.

Oct. 7 – Oregon State

The Trojans get the better draw in the state of Oregon. The Beavers went 4-8 last season and missed out on a bowl game. USC should enter this game confident which means that a slip-up would be costly. With two tough games on the horizon, USC can’t get caught looking past the Beavers.

Oct. 14 – Utah

Under head coach Kyle Wittingham, Utah has turned itself into a consistent threat in the Pac-12 South. After last year’s disappointing loss, USC will be relieved that this game is at home instead of a difficult road stadium. This could be one of USC’s bigger matchups, but that will depend on how the Pac-12 South shakes out the first several weeks.

Oct. 21 – at Notre Dame

Notre Dame suffered a down season in 2016, missing out on a bowl game and finishing with a underwhelming record of 4-8. Even though the program appears to be reeling, the Fighting Irish have nothing to lose. A hungry rival on the road will always make for a big challenge for USC.

Oct. 28 – at Arizona State

Decimated by injuries last year, ASU looks to bounce back from its 5-7 performance in 2016. Redshirt junior quarterback Manny Wilkins is set to return for his final season, but Arizona State doesn’t look to be much of a threat on paper.

Nov. 4 – Arizona

Like its in-state rival, Arizona had a disappointing season in 2016. Though teams can’t go to sleep on head coach Rich Rodriguez, the Trojans’ recipe of getting up early and coasting to victory will come into play against both Arizona and Arizona State.

Nov. 11 – at Colorado

A road game against the defending Pac-12 South Champion will have huge implications in the Pac-12 South. In USC’s toughest road game of the year, head coach Clay Helton will lead his team into Folsom Field against the AP Coach of the Year Mike MacIntyre and his Buffaloes. This game could be the Trojans’ biggest matchup of the regular season.

Nov. 18 – UCLA

Next year will save the Trojans’ biggest rival, the UCLA Bruins, for last. In addition to being the Trojans’ biggest rivalry game, this game will be the first time we see redshirt freshman quarterback Sam Darnold and freshman Josh Rosen matched up against each other, setting the stage for Heisman Trophy voters to judge Darnold. If both quarterbacks are healthy, this game could come down to the last possession.

A look ahead

Though the 12-week marathon of the regular season will be brutal, USC lucked out when it comes to the balance of its schedule. The fact that USC opens with three games at home, including Stanford and Texas, could be a great way to build momentum, something the Trojans lacked at the beginning of the 2016 season. While it won’t be easy, USC is in a good position to make the preseason hype a postseason reality.