Heading into Saturday’s season opener at the Coliseum, USC won’t be ranked in the Top 10 of either the Coaches Poll or AP Top 25. In Sports Illustrated’s college football preview issue, the publication didn’t include the Trojans in its Top 20. At Pac-12 Media Day, only two people voted for the Trojans to repeat as Pac-12 Champions. Thirty-seven of 42 picked Washington.
“Personally I love when we’re ranked lower than we should be,” said senior linebacker Cameron Smith in USC’s “One for All” video series. “I think it gives us something to fight for … I love being where we’re at right now.”
Entering most USC football seasons, there’s a palpable sense of hype that borders on nauseating. After all, there’s a reason the term “hype train” has been banned from the Daily Trojan lexicon.
In 2018, this preseason hysteria is nowhere to be found. And it predates success for the Trojans.
Last year, the No. 4-ranked Trojans were clearly handicapped by this hoopla. They sputtered right out of the gate with a sluggish performance against Western Michigan. USC subsequently escaped with late victories against Texas and Cal, but couldn’t hide its deficiencies much longer. Two turnovers, nine penalties and a rough outing from quarterback Sam Darnold sealed USC’s fate in a Week 5 loss against Washington State.
The Trojans wouldn’t crack the Top 10 for the rest of the regular season.
Unlike last year, USC doesn’t come into 2018 with ridiculously high expectations, mainly because most of last year’s flashiest and most productive players are now in the NFL.
“We don’t have a star,” said Smith in the same video, echoing his head coach. “We don’t have a Sam Darnold, we don’t have a Ronald Jones. But at the end of the year, we’re going to have stars.”
One of those “stars” could be freshman quarterback JT Daniels.
Daniels — a product of Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, Calif. — should be in high school right now. Instead, he skipped his senior season to join the Trojans a year early. Most high school juniors take lots of naps and study on occasion (maybe I’m projecting a bit). Meanwhile, Daniels was taking extra classes and studying USC’s spring practices.
His unlikely journey to USC reached its climax on Sunday, with head coach Clay Helton naming the 18-year old as the team’s starting quarterback. He beat out sophomores Matt Fink and Jack Sears, both of whom failed to distance themselves in spring practice — before Daniels arrived on campus.
Replacing a Top 3 NFL Draft pick at quarterback is no easy task, especially for a true-true freshman. But offensive coordinator Tee Martin won’t ask Daniels to be Darnold. In fact, Daniels remaining true to himself may be better for the Trojans.
For all of his clutch plays, impossible throws and schoolyard scrambles, Darnold also had a bad habit of giving the ball to the other team.
He threw 13 interceptions and fumbled 12 times in 2017, which directly affected USC’s win-loss record. Against Ohio State in the Cotton Bowl, Darnold fumbled twice and tacked on an interception. The Trojans would manage just one touchdown in the loss, despite out-gaining the Buckeyes 413-277.
Daniels doesn’t need to throw for 4,000 yards and a gazillion touchdowns in order for USC to be successful. He just needs to avoid turnovers and complete key passes when called upon.
By reclassifying and immediately starting, Daniels is doing the unprecedented. However, true freshmen quarterbacks leading their programs to the mountaintop is not. Last year’s national championship game became a duel between two freshmen signal callers — Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa and Georgia’s Jake Fromm. Both were 19 years old when the game kicked off. Daniels, the reigning Gatorade High School Athlete of the Year, turns 19 in February.
Of course, Tagovailoa and Fromm were backed by elite defenses. USC’s defense is far from SEC-caliber, but it should be the class of the Pac-12. The group returns the crux of last year’s secondary, plus loads of talent at linebacker. Smith and fellow senior college football expert Phil Steele ranked both position groups as the best in the conference.
“That group is obviously the strength of our team,” Helton said. “And defense wins championships.”
During the past two years, USC’s defense has led the nation in sacks. They’ve contained Stanford’s Bryce Love, intercepted UCLA’s Josh Rosen and rattled Washington’s Jake Browning. The talent and experience is there. Now, they just need to find consistency.
USC’s season will not be a cakewalk. The schedule’s first half is riddled with grueling match-ups, like road trips to No. 13 Stanford, No. 23 Texas and Arizona. But a return to the Pac-12 Championship — at the very least — is not impossible. The team just needs to avoid a slow start and play with discipline. Ten seniors in the starting lineup should help in both regards.
Unshackled by hype, USC dives into 2018 with something to prove, rather than something to defend. That spells danger for the rest of the Pac-12.
Trevor Denton is a junior majoring in broadcast and digital journalism. His column, “T-Time,” runs every other Wednesday.