COLUMN: Football still must face tests in season

Spring football practice kicked off this week, and needless to say, there is plenty of hype surrounding USC’s 2017 prospects. Why wouldn’t there be? The Trojans have looked close to unstoppable ever since redshirt freshman Sam Darnold seized the starting quarterback mantle three games into last season, and no opponent seems to faze USC as long as the 2017 Heisman Trophy favorite is under center — not even Alabama.

Just ask tailback Justin Davis and wideout Darreus Rogers, two NFL-bound Trojans who played with Darnold during his breakout 2016 campaign. At the NFL Combine this week, the duo discussed USC’s ugly 52-6 loss to the Crimson Tide in last year’s season opener, which came before the dawn of the Darnold era in USC football.

“With Sam Darnold, man, with him at quarterback, anything can happen,” Rogers said in an interview with “The kid is special. I feel like it would be a better game, closer game, and I feel like we probably could have made the upset.”

Davis agreed with his former teammate.

“Oh yeah, it would have been a totally different story because our team — we always knew we were going to be great at the end,” Davis said. “But it was a matter of when we bought into the system or whatever. We thought we were ready for the first game, but we obviously weren’t.”

There are plenty who share the pair’s sentiments. But even with my infinite optimism when it comes to Trojan football, my first thought when hearing Rogers and Davis’ comments was: C’mon, fellas. There is no disputing USC’s meteoric rise back to national relevance, which culminated in January’s intoxicating Rose Bowl victory, but the fact remains that Alabama has participated in every single College Football Playoff since the system’s inception, winning one national championship in the process. What makes the Trojans so sure they could avenge a 46-point loss in a hypothetical rematch?

It’s tough to imagine USC stopping the Tide’s running game even after their Rose Bowl victory, especially behind Alabama’s trademark, monstrous offensive line. Penn State running back Saquon Barkley pounded the Trojans for nearly 200 yards in the Rose Bowl, and the Nittany Lions finished 55th in the FBS in rushing yards. What would Nick Saban’s seventh-ranked unit do?

Furthermore, Darnold technically did play in September’s matchup (albeit off the bench as a raw redshirt freshman) and didn’t exactly flip the script. He completed 4-of-8 passes for 29 yards, adding nine yards on the ground in three rush attempts. The unflappable gunslinger that would emerge weeks later was nowhere to be seen. If he got a second shot at Alabama, would Darnold be able to rise to the occasion against by far the stingiest defense he has ever faced?

Despite my initial reaction to this hypothetical, the answer to that question has to be an unequivocal yes, right? Because regardless of what you see on paper, Darnold has yet to falter in the face of a challenge. His stats are outstanding, of course — you’d expect that from the reigning winner of the Archie Griffin Award (given to college football’s most valuable player).

But without relying on quantitative analysis, Darnold also just flat-out makes plays. Who can forget his first start at the Coliseum, when he grabbed a fumbled flea flicker against Arizona State and ripped a throw down the sideline to hit sophomore wideout Deontay Burnett for a 40-yard gain? And Darnold was back at it just a week later against Colorado, picking a botched handoff off the grass and firing a dart to sophomore tight end Tyler Petite for a touchdown.

Not to say that pulling plays out of your ass is enough to take down Alabama — but it certainly helps. It has taken some of college football’s greatest improvisational quarterbacks to sink Saban and his Tide, from Matt Stafford to Tim Tebow to Cam Newton, and finally Deshaun Watson this year.

One of the more recent examples came from Johnny Manziel. Hopefully Darnold will not follow Johnny Football’s path beyond college, but the two share playmaking parallels. During Texas A&M’s shocking upset in Tuscaloosa, Ala. in 2012, Manziel took a snap in the red zone, maneuvered in the pocket and bumped into his own lineman. The ball coughed out of Manziel’s hands, but the quarterback stuck with it to make a spectacular play; he plucked the ball back out of midair, rolled to his left and hit a wide-open receiver in the end zone. It was positively Darnold-esque.

After everything we Trojan fans saw last season, it’s not difficult to imagine Darnold slicing and dicing the Alabama defense like Manziel did. I can’t really cite any figures to back this up: The Tide trumps the Trojans in the vast majority of statistical categories.

Nevertheless, there is simply a feeling that, with Darnold, USC’s ceiling is infinite. And that is why I’ve just spent all this time dissecting a passing, hypothetical comment at the Combine — because hopefully it won’t be a hypothetical 10 or 11 months down the line. It’s almost a foregone conclusion that we will see Saban’s crew in the CFP again come December. Now it’s up to Darnold and the Trojans to hold up their end of the bargain and set up a rematch between the two teams next winter.

A host of 2016 Trojans won’t be there — including Rogers and Davis. Hopefully, they’ll be proven right.

Ollie Jung is a junior studying print and digital journalism. He is also the sports editor for the Daily Trojan. His column, “Jung Money,” runs every Thursday.