Eleven grueling weeks stand between USC and the end of the regular season. Head coach Clay Helton’s squad will face reigning MAC champion Western Michigan to open the campaign before tackling a remaining schedule that features three teams ranked in the preseason Coaches Poll. At the end of the 11-game gantlet, USC will hope to have three games left to play — the Pac-12 Championship and the College Football Playoff.
Here’s what’s in store for the Trojans in each regular-season matchup this fall:
What to watch for: After last year’s season opener resulted in a brutal 52-6 beatdown at the hands of Alabama, the Trojans will be hungry to send a message in their first home game of this season. Western Michigan might seem like the perfect opportunity to set the tone — the team is an unranked, non-conference opponent looking to rebuild after the departure of head coach P.J. Fleck. But the Mustangs will also be hungry to make a mark in one of their toughest games of the season. It should be a sure victory, but that doesn’t mean the Trojans can relax.
What to watch for: The Cardinal will certainly be a different team without the versatile Christian McCaffrey, but this unit still brings a wide variety to the field. Entering the season ranked No. 14, the Cardinal is the second-ranked team in the Pac-12 behind the Trojans. The defense will have to shut down running back Bryce Love, who shouldered the rushing offense after McCaffrey suffered an injury last season. Love notched 129 yards against Notre Dame last season, and he’s expected to easily produce over 1,000 yards for Stanford this season. But against a run-heavy offense, if the Trojans can plug up the line and limit Love’s yardage, they should be able to keep Stanford out of the end zone.
What to watch for: Although Texas is a non-conference opponent, this game provides a chance for the Trojans to notch two victories against Top-25 teams within the first three weeks of the season. The Longhorns enter the season with a No. 23 ranking, but their team is at a crossroads after the departure of running back D’Onta Foreman and the arrival of new head coach Tom Herman. The USC defense will need to keep an eye on quarterback Shane Buechele, whose hot-and-cold freshman season ended with 2,958 passing yards, 21 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.
What to watch for: It’s a rebuilding year for Cal, which means that the annual Weekender game should be a celebration for USC fans. This will be the first season for head coach Justin Wilcox, and it will be the Golden Bears’ first game against a ranked opponent after opening the season against North Carolina, Weber State and Mississippi. The Bears still haven’t announced a starting quarterback, eyeing a decision between junior Chase Forrest and sophomore Ross Bowers. Their defense will also feature a first-year coordinator in theface-off against Sam Darnold’s offense.
What to watch for: This second-straight road game should be another chance for Darnold to pad his stats and for the defense to do some damage. The Cougars finished last season 8-5 and lost two of their best receivers to the NFL Draft, so their offensive attack will mostly remain on the ground. The team will have a decent defensive front, returning nine of the starters who allowed 406 yards and 26 points per game last season. But a cleanly executed game by the Trojans should end in a decisive victory.
What to watch for: At this point, the Beavers will have had several games against unranked opponents and a tough matchup against Washington to settle into their rhythm for the season. The Trojans should also be similarly settled, with any rough edges on both sides of the ball smoothed out. If running back Ryan Nall stays healthy, Oregon State could give the Trojans something to worry about on the ground. But the Beavers struggled mightily in defending the run game last season, and junior running back Ronald Jones II could have a field day at the Coliseum if Oregon State hasn’t shored up its defensive line.
What to watch for: This one’s about redemption. Last year, USC almost broke out of its early-season losing slump at Utah only to watch a victory slip through their fingers. It was Darnold’s first game as a starter, and although the 27-31 loss sparked the team’s thundering resurgence, the Trojans left Utah with a bitter taste in their mouths. Currently ranked No. 25, the Utes will always provide a challenge — the team’s defense is smothering, forcing teams to go an average of 7.9 yards on third down last season — but the Trojans will have home-field advantage for this year’s rematch. This will be a date circled on every USC player’s calendar from the start of the season.
What to watch for: Last year’s home game against Notre Dame was a rain-soaked, high-scoring celebration of a team fully redeemed with Darnold at the helm. This year’s Fighting Irish team isn’t ranked after a dismal 4-8 season. But it’s Notre Dame vs. USC, and it’s in South Bend, where anything can happen. Junior Josh Adams leads a stacked running back corps — he finished last season with 1,768 yards — and the team is returning a deep defensive secondary. Darnold and his offense must remain disciplined to take away the rivalry victory in enemy territory.
What to watch for: The Sun Devils took a brunt of losses last season, going 5-7 and only notching two conference victories. This year, they’re looking to rebuild, but they’ll have their work cut out for them. Arizona State’s two main challenges last season were a lack of passing defense and an inability to block offensively, which play into the main strengths of this year’s Trojan squad. With their quarterback still uncertain and their run game stagnant, the late October game could give USC a moment to take a breather before entering the final stretch of the season.
What to watch for: Last year’s Arizona team finished last in the Pac-12 in scoring, which led to the team’s dismal 3-9 finish to the season. The team found its rhythm on defense in the final third of last year’s season, but its lack of offensive production will be confounded by a lack of depth at both the running back and receiver positions. This is another example of a game during which the Trojans must refuse to relax, even against a low-ranked team in the Pac-12. The discipline of a young team helmed by a second-year quarterback may be tested in game situations like this.
What to watch for: Heading into the season, Colorado is a bubble team that dropped out of the Top 25 rankings in the middle of summer practices. Last season, the team broke out to win 10 games and barely clinch the Pac-12 South title over the late-blooming Trojans. They’ll be looking to rebuild after the graduation of four-year quarterback Sefo Liufau, but sophomore quarterback Steven Montez will lead a core group of nine returning starters on the attack. Despite being unable to win the South, the Trojans beat Colorado 21-17 last year. Against a young defense, USC will look to repeat the victory in a more dominant style to close out the final quarter of the season.
What to watch for: Ending the season with the Bruins is fitting in many ways. The rivalry game could very well decide the victor of the Pac-12 South, sending one team to the conference championship game in Santa Clara. It will also be the first time that Darnold will face off against Josh Rosen after the opposing quarterback sat out last year’s matchup with an injury. Despite his injury, Rosen is predicted to be side-by-side with Darnold in the race for this season’s Heisman. This game will be a shoot-out, and it’s one that Darnold will be hungry to win.