COLUMN: Football has to live up to top ranking

We told you so!

The Trojan family is still basking in post-Rose Bowl glory. All of our kicking and screaming late in the season feels validated after the epic victory in Pasadena — USC is one of the best teams in the nation, and redshirt freshman quarterback Sam Darnold is the real deal. And you can’t help but wonder what heights this team could have hit if it had taken Washington or Ohio State’s place in the College Football Playoff.

On Monday night, the rest of the country finally caught up to what most of us in Troy already knew, and USC was ranked No. 3 in the 2016-17 season’s final AP Poll. I don’t need to rehash the already overtold story of Darnold’s meteoric rise; the team that won the Rose Bowl is clearly not the same team that Alabama humiliated in Arlington to open the season. These Trojans deserve the No. 3 ranking, and I guarantee you they believe they could top national champions Clemson — or Alabama for that matter — if the schools played each other this weekend. Would you dare bet against USC in either matchup?

But alas, this season is over, and the Trojans who charge onto the Coliseum field to take on Western Michigan in September’s opener will not be the same group that morphed into world-beaters last fall. Yet, next season’s squad will likely receive the windfall from this year’s turnaround. It wouldn’t be surprising to see USC well inside the preseason top 10, a prospect that should worry Trojan fans.

Columnist Luke Holthouse reminisced about the football program’s glory days in Wednesday’s column, and you can’t fault him for hoping this Rose Bowl victory will be a stepping stone toward returning to that golden age. But I can’t help but remember what happened in 2015, the last time USC entered a season as a trendy playoff pick.

Going into Steve Sarkisian’s second year as head coach, the Trojans were flying high with — no joke — Heisman candidate quarterback Cody Kessler and sophomore superstars JuJu Smith-Schuster and Adoree’ Jackson. They thumped Arkansas State and Idaho at home to start the season, climbing to No. 6 in the AP poll.

We all know how that story ended. USC came up short in a Week 3 shoot-out against Stanford and went on to lose to Washington as well in Week 5. Sarkisian was fired after that game, and the Trojans finished the season with an 8-6 record and a Holiday Bowl loss to Wisconsin. In retrospect, it is painfully obvious that the team missed stalwart nose tackle Leonard Williams, as well as Kessler’s favorite receiving target, Nelson Agholor (both players were taken in the first round of the 2015 NFL Draft). The Sarkisian scandal didn’t help, but that wasn’t what sank the 2015-16 campaign. The talent was overestimated. Kessler wasn’t really a premier college quarterback; no receiver emerged to complement Smith-Schuster in the passing game.

The outlook for 2017 shares eerie parallels. USC will enter Clay Helton’s second season as full-time head coach having lost a star receiver to the draft. And while he may not be Leonard Williams, you can’t dismiss the loss of nose tackle graduate transfer Stevie Tu’ikolovatu, who transformed the Trojans’ defensive line during his single graduate season in Los Angeles. USC also will graduate both of its starting offensive tackles, senior Zach Banner and senior Chad Wheeler, and junior guard Damien Mama will depart for the NFL, robbing Darnold of valuable pocket protection.

Oh, yeah, and Adoree’ might be leaving. As Trojan fans, we must prepare ourselves for the forgone conclusion that our dynamic     jack-of-all-trades will be on his way to the professional level this spring. How can USC replace a player that was somehow a home-run threat on offense, defense and special teams? It’s an impossible task, but the need to replace Jackson’s presence in the return game and at cornerback is another daunting challenge for the Trojans’ upcoming season.

But still, despite the negatives, this particular team feels different, like it’s immune to these setbacks — and that confidence starts under center. Does Darnold need weapons, or does he make weapons? Without Agholor, Kessler couldn’t turn any receiver into a threat, instead feeding Smith-Schuster throughout his senior season. Smith-Schuster racked up a team-leading 1,454 receiving yards in 2015; Jackson was second-best with 414.

Darnold, on the other hand, made a star out of sophomore slot receiver Deontay Burnett, and the tight-end duo of redshirt freshman Daniel Imatorbhebhe and sophomore Tyler Petite emerged as legitimate red-zone targets. Senior Darreus Rogers was Darnold’s man in the upset victory at Washington. Senior De’Quan Hampton caught two huge touchdown passes when the Trojans rolled over UCLA. Smith-Schuster was still the focal point of the passing game, leading USC in receptions, yards and touchdowns (and making perhaps the biggest play of the Rose Bowl with his spectacular one-handed grab late in the game), but you don’t get the sense that Darnold will be lost without him.

Every once in a while, you stumble across a player who flat-out raises the level of play of those around him. Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers jump to mind — and there is a reason the latter is a popular comparison for Darnold. The freshman may just be one of those rare gems: unflappable, unstoppable and simply spectacular. If USC has a tendency to get caught up in preseason puffery (see: 2012 and 2015), Darnold’s even-keel persona could be the antidote that reverses that trend.

So while we Trojans would be smart to temper our expectations for next year, you can’t blame many of us for looking ahead with bright eyes, still soaking in the miracle that was the 2016-17 season. It may take an inhuman effort from Darnold and company for USC to live up to the hype next fall. But we’ve already seen crazier.

Ollie Jung is a junior majoring in print and digital journalism. His column runs on Thursdays.