The 2020 season was supposed to be a make-or-break one for USC football. Coaching decisions have been looming for years, and last year’s young roster was supposed to be ready for the limelight.
How much of that still holds true, given the shortened Pac-12 season and all the logistical hoops USC had to jump through the past seven months, remains to be seen. But here are five burning questions facing USC a week out from the start of the season.
1. Can USC win the Pac-12?
That’s really the only question that should matter for a program like USC, right? The last Trojan conference title came in 2017, and that is consistently the first goal set by any USC team. The Trojans have a pretty clear path to the conference title game; their two toughest opponents, Arizona State and Utah, are both flawed teams that the Trojans can beat. Is USC ready to play Oregon in the championship, though? That remains to be seen after last year’s blowout loss at the Coliseum.
2. Can the Trojans avoid an early-season letdown?
Last season, it was the loss to BYU. In 2018, it was back-to-back defeats to Stanford and Texas. In 2016, the Trojans lost three of their first four games. Slow starts to the year have become something of a recurring theme for USC. But with a six-game schedule, the Trojans can’t afford such an occurrence this season.
3. How quickly do the new defense and special teams gel?
USC hired Todd Orlando and Sean Snyder this past winter to be its new defensive and special teams coordinators, respectively. But the pair only got a solitary spring practice before the pandemic hit, and had to spend the meantime installing everything via Zoom. The Trojans have been optimistic about the installs during training camp, but how does that translate to game action?
4. How serious are depth concerns at linebacker and defensive line?
USC’s linebackers have been hit hard by injury at camp, while the defensive line was the unit most affected by pandemic opt outs. So the linebackers are left with talent, like Palaie Gaoteote and Drake Jackson, but questions if any of the starters get injured. And the defensive line is depending on young players to fill in the gaps. How does that play out over the course of the season?
5. How safe is Clay Helton’s job?
The USC head coach has been on the hot seat for two years after going a combined 13-12 the past two seasons. But the realities of 2020 make it difficult to know exactly what the parameters are for a successful season in the eyes of the USC decision makers. Would a 5-1 regular season and falling short of the conference championship be considered a failure? Or is that good enough, considering the financial toll the pandemic has taken on college athletics?