“I hate to say this, but I think [USC’s football team] should go undefeated.”
That’s what ESPN radio host Colin Cowherd told USCFootball.com’s Ryan Abraham on Abraham’s podcast. Except he didn’t say it prior to last season, when the Trojans started the year as the No. 1 ranked team in the Associated Press top 25 poll.
Nope, he said it on Monday.
Let’s get something out of the way — Cowherd spews notoriously dumb and controversial nonsense all the time. He likes to stir the pot for the sake of stirring the pot, so I tend to take his strongly-worded statements with a grain of salt.
Yet, to be fair, Cowherd does know his college football. He’s also a big fan of the Pac-12, particularly USC’s program, so I decided to rethink his claim.
On the surface, it seems absolutely insane. USC was the most disappointing team in the country last season at 7-6. The team lost to Georgia Tech in the Sun Bowl, and now four-year starting quarterback Matt Barkley is gone. The Trojans don’t know who’s going to replace him yet.
With that in mind, expectations around campus are pretty tempered. Fourth-year coach Lane Kiffin is on the hot seat, and nobody is expecting him to pull off 11 or 12 wins, let alone an undefeated season. Any sort of improvement over last year with this overhauled roster would probably be received fairly positively, all things considered.
Yet, maybe Cowherd actually has a point. He alluded to USC’s schedule to defend himself, and he’s not wrong for doing so. The Trojans’ first four games are an absolute joke — at Hawai’i, followed by three home games against Boston College, Utah State and Washington State. There’s no reason why USC shouldn’t be 4-0 entering a road matchup against Arizona State on Sept. 28, also a very winnable game.
Then there’s the best news of all: no Oregon to be seen in 2013. USC’s toughest challenges will be at Notre Dame on Oct. 19 (certainly no cupcake) and home games against Stanford on Nov. 16 and UCLA on Nov. 30.
That Notre Dame game is perhaps USC’s biggest challenge. Though the Fighting Irish were blown out by the University of Alabama in the national championship, they bring in a highly ranked recruiting class and still have an incredibly stingy defense.
But this is a rivalry game, and that means you can throw almost everything else out the window. Notre Dame squeaked out a win against a Barkley-less Trojan squad last year at the Coliseum, but let’s not forget USC’s 31-17 victory in South Bend the year before.
Unlike the Trojans, Notre Dame has a brutal schedule that would seem to forebode a regression from 2012. The Fighting Irish play at the University of Michigan and have home games against Michigan State, the University of Oklahoma and Arizona State before taking on the Trojans. They’re going to come into a matchup against USC already battered and bruised.
The other thing to keep in mind? Despite the departures of mainstays like Barkley, wide receiver Robert Woods, center Khaled Holmes, safety T.J. McDonald and cornerback Nickell Robey, the Trojans are still very, very talented.
The quarterback position is in flux, and that’s what most pundits have honed in on. But for the first time in years, USC will throw out a talented group of running backs with unique styles of play. The Silas Redd/Curtis McNeal combination was supposed to provide a much-needed balance out of the backfield, but both were injured for long periods of the season. Redd now returns as the de facto starter and a senior leader. USC also brings back the formerly injured Buck Allen, plus two freshmen, one of whom — Justin Davis — has been lighting it up in spring practice.
Then there’s the rest of the offense: Tight ends with NFL potential (if Kiffin ever chooses to include them in his game plan), a wide receiver who could legitimately win the Heisman (Marqise Lee) and another with the potential to easily replace Woods (Nelson Agholor).
On defense, new coordinator Clancy Pendergast is installing a unique system that very well could crash and burn. But considering how much talent the Trojans have — especially on the defensive line — that seems unlikely. The defensive side of the ball appeared to bottom out last season, and I’d count on it rebounding.
With all that being said, I still don’t see USC finishing the season undefeated. I know, I know, really going out on a limb there. What I would say, however, is Cowherd’s vote of confidence might not be as crazy as it sounds. The Trojans, despite everything that happened last season, are still poised to be a potentially great football team. The odds are heavily stacked against them to beat Notre Dame, Stanford and UCLA, but why couldn’t they beat at least two of those teams?
Expectations are low for USC football right now, but they really shouldn’t be. I’m just surprised Colin Cowherd of all people had to be the voice of reason on the matter.
“The Fifth Down” runs Wednesdays. To comment on this story, email Alex at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit dailytrojan.com.