The Obvious: With the start of USC football training camp a week away, it’s that time of the year when the O/NSO releases our annual game-by-game predictions for the upcoming season, a 2021 season full of hope with the return of fans in the Coliseum stands and the hopeful S restoration of USC Trojans football to the national conscience.
The Not So Obvious: In Part 1 of our 2021 season prognostications, the O/NSO looks at the first half slate of games, and once again we present three separate viewpoints: the optimist, the pessimist, and the realist. The Trojans get a schedule break this season by not having to play Oregon or Washington during the regular season. So, without delay, let’s get started with scrutiny at the first half of the season, which includes San Jose State, Stanford, at Washington State, Oregon State, at Colorado, and Utah.
THE OBVIOUS GAME 1 – SAN JOSE STATE SPARTANS
Date: Sept. 4
Location: Los Angeles
Stadium: Memorial Coliseum (77,500)
Time and TV: 2:00 p.m. PT/ 5:00 p.m. ET/Pac-12 Networks
2020 record: 7-1, 7-0 MWC
Returning starters: Off. 8, Def. 10, SPT. Punter/placekicker
THE NOT SO OBVIOUS SAN JOSE STATE GAME POINTS OF VIEW:
The O/NSO optimist: Well, we begin the season with a five-game regular season winning streak – we won’t include the Pac-12 Championship Game last season, so who better to continue the regular season winning streak but against San Jose State, which won last season’s Mountain West Conference. Now that would be a big deal, but it’s still the MWC. And consider, SJS has not had back-to-back winning seasons since 1991 and 1992. You can bet the Trojan’s offense with junior All-Pac-12 quarterback Kedon Slovis (6-3, 205) will be raring to go along with the conference’s most feared receiver, junior Drake London (6-5, 210).
There is supreme confidence that this season offensive coordinator Graham Harrell will show that he is more than a one-trick passing pony coordinator either by necessity or stubbornness. And, hey, new Trojans’ Texas Longhorns senior running back transfer Keaontay Ingram (6-0, 215) will be a major revelation. Defensively, the Trojans are loaded with talent in the secondary, thanks to recruiting coordinator/CB coach Donte Williams, and let’s not forget the aggressive schemes of defensive coordinator Todd Orlando. And you can begin to drool watching sophomore defensive tackle Tuli Tuipulotu (6-4, 290), who makes almost you forget his older brother, Marlon. This will be the game the Trojans break the perception that head coach Clay Helton is at his worst in opening season games. I am calling rout against the Spartans.
The O/NSO pessimist: Dude, it is no perception that in opening games Clay Helton is a definite issue. I mean, first games are always a mystery, but not when it comes to Gentleman Clay and season openers. As far as the Trojans’ offense, let’s see if Kedon Slovis can survive the first game with that "questionable" offensive line. What’s the overs and unders on that? As far as the Trojans' running game that came in last in the Pac-12 Conference in 2020 and 10th in 2019, would you bet the farm that Graham Harrell is going to have a running game epiphany? I mean the guy is flat out single-minded and treats the running game like a mosquito on your forearm.
I’ll give you Troy’s skill talent advantage over San Jose State, but that Trojan offensive line – without Alijah Vera-Tucker at left tackle – looks to me very Mountain West Conference – at best. One thing about San Jose State, they do have a reputable defensive line led by senior Cade Hall (6-2, 260) and junior Viliami Fehoko (6-4, 263). The Trojans will be favored over SJS but laying some Benjamins on the point-spread has been very profitable in the Helton era and not in a good way. By the way, you really think that SJS is coming to the Coli shaking in their Spartan boots? Nobody comes to the Coli anymore thinking the Trojans are going to take them behind the woodshed and deliver a physical beating. Those days are over, dude.
The O/NSO realist: A lot of folks are saying that the Trojans are going to win eight or nine games this season. If they do, San Jose State will have to be one of those eight or nine wins. The Spartans are a developing program under fifth-year head coach Brent Brennan. They have more than enough returning starters returning from last season’s championship team to test the Men of Troy. Spartans senior quarterback Nick Starkel (6-3, 214) knows what he is doing, having previously played at Texas A&M and Arkansas. He can spin the pigskin, but a Spartan weakness is at wide receiver, having lost their two best. Both sides of the SJS lines have an abundance of returning starters, and the Spartans do have good running backs.
As for the Trojans, they will want to get out of the gate quickly and not allow San Jose State to gain confidence quarter by quarter. The Trojans will be hellbent on establishing a running game (watch redshirt freshman left tackle Courtland Ford, 6-6 and 305, and perhaps a new right tackle in redshirt freshman Jonah Monheim (6-5, 295), showing they can replace Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Talanoa Hufanga, and prove that defensively (are you listening junior LB Drake Jackson (6-4 and 250) and DL Tuli Tuipulotu?) they can stop the run. In the end, the Trojans have too much talent and too much motivation on both sides of the ball to slip up. This may the game offensively that new running back Keaontay Ingram introduces himself to the USC faithful. And let’s not leave out some new wide receiver transfers like sophomore Tahj Washington (Memphis, 5-11, 175) and Colorado grad transfer K.D. Nixon (5-8, 190). And just maybe we will see Trojans true freshman quarterback Jaxson Dart (6-2, 215), the 2020 Gatorade National Player of the Year, take some snaps. Wouldn’t that be cool?
The O/NSO PREDICTION: USC 41, SAN JOSE STATE 24
Comment: Troy has too much firepower to mess it up, right?
THE OBVIOUS GAME 2: STANFORD CARDINAL
Date: Sept. 11
Location: Los Angeles
Stadium: Memorial Coliseum (77,500)
Time and TV: 7:30 p.m. PT/10:30 p.m. ET/FOX
2020 record: 4-2 Pac-12 North
Returning starters: Off. 6, Def. 7, SPT. punter
THE NOT SO OBVIOUS STANFORD GAME POINTS OF VIEW:
The O/NSO optimist: Now this is a game I am really looking forward to and expect after this game the Trojans to be 2-0 on the season. The Cardinal have lost their way, and that once vaunted physical offense with a precision passing game seems to have some real soft spots this time around. Yep, the glory days of that “genius” head coach David Shaw is a thing of the past and in the Trojans' new strength guy from Notre Dame, Robert Stiner, the Cardinal are going to be shocked how physical the Cardinal and Gold have become.
Trust me, fans will show up for this one even though it’s a night game, and if the Trojans can provide some expected offensive fireworks, the place will be rocking, especially for a night game on national television. This could be the game that Kedon Slovis throws his helmet in the ring and becomes a bona fide Heisman Trophy front runner. Can you just see Kedon cashing in with Slovis jersey sales skyrocketing? Stanford has issues at quarterback, and their defense isn’t what it once was, although Shaw sounds optimistic. That’s a bad combination if you’re going to beat the Trojans in the Coli.
The O/NSO pessimist: Am I missing something here? Stanford may not be Stanford from four years ago, but they still have a very good coach in David Shaw, good assistants, and very smart players, who are disciplined and good athletes to boot. Oh no, there’s that word disciplined again. Right there and most importantly, they have a philosophy on both sides of the ball – be physical and be mentally tough. BTW, what is Helton’s philosophy this week? We’ll find out about the Trojans this week simply because they don’t do well against physical teams.
We’ll see if new Trojans’ strength guru Stiner is going to make a difference. This will be the first test of the “new order.” Don’t get me wrong, the Trojans could still hammer the Cardinal if Stanford lets the Trojans get off in the air because there are questions regarding the Cardinal secondary.
The O/NSO realist: If the Trojans were going to get Stanford right where they want them, this is probably the year. There are realistic questions at quarterback for Stanford, and right now there seems to be debate on who will be the starter – senior Jack West (6-4, 216) or sophomore Tanner McKee (6-6, 227). The Trojans secondary, under the direction of coaches Donte Williams and Craig Naivar, should be able to control the questionable Stanford QBs, and this could be perhaps a coming out party for Trojans heralded true freshman defensive line prodigy Korey Foreman (6-5, 265), and let’s not forget about senior safety Isaiah Pola-Mao (6-4, 205).
As for the Trojans’ offense, all you need to know about the Stanford defense is they no longer have their top defensive lineman, top inside linebacker, and their top two defensive backs, all of whom have departed Palo Alto. However, the Cardinal do have a good one in senior defensive lineman Thomas Booker (6-4, 310), and Shaw thinks that Booker is one of the best in the country. And seriously, if ever the Trojans were going to take advantage early of the Stanford holes on both sides of the ball, this is it for Clay Helton and his team.
The O/NSO PREDICTION: USC 34, STANFORD 20
Comment: Get ready again for the comparisons between Trojans’ head coach Clay Helton and Stanford’s David Shaw. And if the Trojans lose, just get ready.
THE OBVIOUS GAME 3: AT WASHINGTON STATE
Date: Sept. 18
Location: Pullman Washington
Stadium: Martin Stadium (32,952)
Time and TV: 12:30 p.m. PT/3:30 p.m. ET/FOX
2020 record: 1-3 Pac-12 North
Returning starters: Off. 8, Def. 10, SPT. No returning punter/kicker
THE NOT SO OBVIOUS WASHINGTON STATE GAME POINTS OF VIEW:
The O/NSO optimist: You can mark it down, it’s a Trojans' road trip victory and 3-0 on the season after this one. It’s also Washington State on the road in early September. Does it get much better than that? Last season, first-year WSU head coach Nick Rolovich and his defensive staff decided for some godawful reason to play the Trojans elite receivers man-to-man. What a Cougars disaster that was, and nobody was happier to see the man-to-man secondary than Trojans' OC Graham Harrell. Who needs a running game when WSU basically says score whenever you like, and the Trojans almost did just that, 38-13?
I’ll guarantee you that if Rolovich has his defense play man-to-man up in the Palouse Country this time around, he’ll find the same result and he may even hear the boobirds chirping loud and clear. Let’s make this simple, the Cougars can’t stop anybody, and this should be an exhibition game for our Cardinal and Gold. As far as a defensive challenge for the Trojans, WSU coach Rolovich has his system in place, and Tennessee quarterback grad transfer Jarrett Guarantano (6-4, 220) could be the starter, but last season the Cougs could manage only 13 points against Todd Orlando’s Trojans defense.
The O/NSO pessimist: Hold on there, Mr. Optimist. There is no way that Rolovich can be so hardheaded that he would play the Trojan man-to-man. I mean, if he does, he and his team get what they deserve – a thrashing at the highest level. One thing to keep in mind, there is better talent on this season’s Cougars team, and let’s remember this is the second season of running Rolovich’s run-and-shoot offense.
Knowing that the Trojans’ run defense is suspect inside, that unit will have to contend with WSU’s returning senior running back star Max Borghi (5-10, 205), who was slowed last season by COVID and injury, and remember, this is USC’s first road game and when Martin Stadium gets into it, it can interfere with an opponent’s concentration and confidence level.
The O/NSO realist: Well, if you’re a Washington State fan, you have the first returning quarterback since Luke Falk in 2017. The Cougars have some depth at quarterback, an elite back in Borhi, a dynamic player in speedy senior Travell Harris (5-9, 180) and a good offensive lineman in Abraham Lucas (6-7, 320). On the other side of the ball, WSU has a good corner in former USC commit Jaylen Watsen (6-3, 200), who plays the position with some physical authority. All that being said, the Trojans need to show they can be a superior team on the road, and the Cougars could give them a mild test.
WSU has shown from last season’s abbreviated schedule that if you physically dominate them early, they tend to crawl into a fetal position. That being said, this game would be another step for Trojans’ offensive line coach Clay McGuire, a former WSU O-line coach, if his unit can manhandle the Cougars. If they don’t, that might be an ominous sign for the future. Expect Kedon Slovis and his NFL-to-be receivers to have a rollicking good time in Pullman. Last season, in the Cougars three losses, they gave up 43 (Oregon), 38 (USC), and 45 points (Utah).
The O/NSO PREDICTION: USC 41, WASHINGTON STATE 20
Comment: Only a COVID outbreak can stop the Trojans in Pullman.
THE OBVIOUS GAME 4 - OREGON STATE BEAVERS
Date: Sept. 25
Location: Los Angeles
Stadium: Memorial Coliseum (77,500)
Time and TV: TBA
2020 record: 2-5 Pac-12 North
Returning starters: Off. 9, Def. 7, SPT. punter/kicker
THE NOT SO OBVIOUS OREGON STATE POINTS OF VIEW:
The O/NSO optimist: If the Trojans aren’t 4-0 after whipping the Beavers, I’ll watch all the reruns of Leave it to Beaver on Sunday. Don’t get me wrong, the Beavers program has been elevated by head coach Jonathan Smith, the former Beavers QB star, but with the Trojans rolling, I don’t care if the Beavers bring back QB Terry Baker, FB Bill “Earthquake” Enyard, C John Didion, RBs Steven Jackson and Jacquizz Rodgers, WRs T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Chad Johnson, OT Rocky Freitas, LB Skip Vanderbundt, and former head coach Dennis Erickson, it won’t make a difference, trust me.
At this point in the season, expect the offensive line under first-year coach Clay McGuire to demonstrate why he was hired by head coach Clay Helton and highly recommended by OC Graham Harrell.
The O/NSO pessimist: In the immortal words of former President Reagan, “Well, there you go again.” Sure, on paper this looks to be another tomato can victory. However, if you underestimate what Jonathan Smith has done in Corvallis since his arrival, he knows what he is doing. Yes, the Trojans have the talent edge, but don’t they normally do under Clay Helton, unless it’s Ohio State, Alabama, Notre Dame, Iowa, and on and on. You know the drill. Remember, Coach Smith learned what he knows as a coach from Hall of Famer Dennis Erickson and his dynamite offensive playbook, and “Coach E” was one helleva mentor.
The Beavers return nine starters on offense and seven on defense and may we add both the punter and kicker return. No, if the Trojans don’t put the Beavers away early, you can bet Oregon State won’t give a damn. Get it? The Beavers don’t give a “damn.”
The O/NSO realist: Here’s the deal, Jonathan Smith has made the Beavers' offense into a respected unit. He proved he believes in a running game when he arrived and showcased running back Jermar Jefferson. Yes, Jefferson is gone, but Smith believes he has a good one in junior Damir Collins (5-9, 185), who can run it and catch it with authority. However, Collins will have to probably beat out predicted redshirt junior starter B.J. Taylor (5-11, 208). The Trojans figure to face Colorado senior transfer Sam Noyer (6-4, 220), who was selected All-Pac-12 second team last season, or it’s possible that sophomore quarterback Chance Nolan (6-3, 201), who can both pass and run, may be at the offensive helm. We all know the Trojans have had difficulty with quarterbacks that can run.
Of note, all five OSU starting offensive linemen return and will face a Trojans defensive line that will probably be getting its best test since Stanford. Defensively, the Beavers have experience up front in ends Simon Sandberg (6-3, 287, Jr.) and junior Isaac Hodgins (6-0, 274). And remember, Oregon State beat Oregon last season, 41-38, the same Ducks team the Trojans lost to in the 2020 Pac-12 Championship Game in the Coliseum. If the Trojans can get out early, it could break the spirit of the visitors. We’ll see how well Trojans’ quarterback Kedon Slovis is protected. This could be the game when – after three previous games – we can see if this USC offensive line has made improvement over last season.
The O/NSO PREDICTION: USC 38, OREGON STATE 23
Comment: This game may be closer than you think or predicted.
THE OBVIOUS GAME 5 - AT COLORADO BUFFALOES
Date: Oct. 2
Location: Boulder, Colorado
Stadium: Folsom Field (50,183)
Time and TV: TBA
2020 record: 4-2 Pac-12 South
Returning starters: Off. 9, Def. 8, SPT. punter/kicker
THE NOT SO OBVIOUS COLORADO GAME POINTS OF VIEW:
The O/NSO optimist: Hot damn, the smell of the Rocky Mountain air and a 5-0 start after the Buffaloes take a powder in Boulder. Playing in Boulder at the beginning of October almost guarantees a victory for our beloved cardinal and gold. After all, no snow and comfortable temps will make it seem like a vacation. Yeah, we know that last season everybody was jumping on the Karl Dorrell coaching bandwagon. Well, when it was all said and done, it was the undefeated Trojans that represented the Pac-12 South Division and not the Buffs. Okay, so what if there was crazy rules stuff that prevented Colorado from playing and leaping over the Trojans (the game was cancelled due to COVID). Well, guess what, the Trojans will stuff the Buffs in Folsom Field and prove a point that it would have happened last season if the two divisional rivals had played.
If you think the Trojans' offense is going to be slowed because Colorado has a new defensive coordinator in Chris Wilson, a former USC defensive line coach (2014-15) hired by former Trojans’ coach Steve Sarkisian, you’re smoking those funny cigarettes. Wilson is the much-traveled assistant who last season was the Buffs’ D-line coach. Here’s a dirty little secret, last season the CU defense gave up 5.4 yards per rush, which added up to 181.2 yards per game. Are you listening Trojans running backs Vavae Malepeai (6-0, 220, Sr.) and Keaontay Ingram?
The O/NSO pessimist: Okay, you can stop the slobbering over the Buffaloes. Let me be serious here for a moment. Colorado has some talent, Mr. Optimism. They have a very good running back in sophomore Jared Broussard (5-9, 185), and defensively they've got a good one in senior linebacker Nate Landman (6-3, 235). You can also add fellow junior linebacker Carson Wells (6-4, 250). Another fellow who should be monitored is all-purpose sophomore performer Dimitri Stanley (6-0, 195).
Overall, how can you expect a cakewalk when the Buffs return nine starters on offense, eight on defense, and both their kicker (soph Evan Price) and punter (junior Josh Watts)? And here’s a little something extra, watch out for senior Oklahoma linebacker transfer Robert Barnes (6-3, 230), who is being counted on to start. Barnes can also play safety. I think this could be a trap game for the Trojans, and if they drop this one, they are in mucho trouble, amigo.
The O/NSO realist: First, remember that the Buffs lost original starting quarterback Sam Noyer on a transfer to Oregon State. He was a second team All-Pac-12 selection. Why did Noyer leave? Well, the obvious reason is who was playing behind him. Freshman Brendon Lewis (6-3, 209) and transfer JT Shrout (6-3, 216) leaped over Noyer while he was recovering from shoulder surgery. Broussard is a stud at running back. The good news is that Colorado is built around a speed offense, and that should play into the hands of the Trojans' speedy defense.
To be honest, this will be the biggest road test to date since playing at Washington State. A victory over the Trojans by the Buffs would be a huge recruiting selling point, and a loss by the Trojans would also get the buzzards circling. However, when it’s all said and done, the Trojans should escape with a victory but don’t count out Colorado if they get some breaks. The last time the Men of Troy played at Colorado, it was a wild game as USC had to storm from behind in the late stages of the final quarter to pull it out, 35-31. An added note, Colorado will play at ASU the week before, so there could be some real ramifications after that South Division game, both in the standings and the physical status of Colorado.
The O/NSO PREDICTION USC 34, COLORADO 24
Comment: Don’t underestimate the Buffs in Colorado. Last time the Trojans did, they almost lost.
THE OBVIOUS GAME 6: UTAH UTES
Date: Oct. 9
Location: Los Angeles
Stadium: Memorial Coliseum (77,500)
Time and TV: TBA
2020 record: Pac-12 South
Returning starters: Off. 7, Def. 9, SPT. kicker
THE NOT SO OBVIOUS UTAH POINTS OF VIEW:
The O/NSO optimist: In the most anticipated game of the first half of the season, let’s welcome to the Coliseum the Utah Utes to their annual loss in Los Angeles. The Utes have never won in the Coli, and they’ve played there nine times. Think about it, nine straight losses in the Coli! Yes, I respect head coach Kyle Whittingham, but even this coach can’t win the big one in L.A. One hates to use the word “choke” with a Whittingham team, but the record playing in the City of Angels speaks for itself. The Utes fold like a Santa Monica beach chair. But enough of the trash talk even if the record speaks for itself.
Last season, the Utes were embarrassed by the Men of Troy in Salt Lake City, 33-17. Yeah, the Utes had a difficult schedule situation with the COVID, but didn’t almost everybody? And a reminder again about the last time the Utes played in our town, Kedon Slovis got hurt and backup Matt Fink came in and riddled the Utes. The good news for Utah is that Fink decided to hang up the cleats and venture into the business world. With Slovis back again, you don’t think that with perhaps the South Division on the line Kedon isn’t going to light up the blue L.A. sky? `
The O/NSO pessimist: Dude, let get realistic here. Any bets that Kedon Slovis isn’t even the quarterback to face the Utes on this Saturday? I am not trying to sound the alarm, but there’s a lot of folks that believe that by the time this game rolls around, Slovis will have already suffered one of his annual injuries, which will knock him out of this game. The irony here, of course, is that former Utah native Jaxson Dart might be the starting quarterback for the Trojans or come off the bench.
You can bet that always physical Utah will be laser focused to again take Slovis out. If you think there is doubt in the 2021 USC offensive line to protect their all-conference quarterback, this will be the game that erases all doubt. This game will be for the big boys, and Utah brings big, bad boys like junior defensive lineman Mika Tufua (6-3, 250). If you think this Utah team has lost too much talent, one look at who transferred in will eliminate that thought. A former star Baylor quarterback and a former highly-recruited Oklahoma running back should draw your attention. And did we mention the entire Utah O-line returns? And did we also mention that Utah might have the toughest overall defense in the conference? Folks, Utah will be coming in with plenty of weapons and experience.
The O/NSO realist: Let’s hope that Kedon Slovis is ready to go for the Trojans. Utah figures to bring former Baylor QB star Charlie Brewer (6-1, 210, Sr.) to the forefront. The Utes return one of the most dynamic players in explosive junior receiver and kick returner Britain Covey (5-8, 172). At running back, the Utes have former Oklahoma junior transfer T.J. Pledger (5-9, 193), who must beat out standout freshman Micah Bernard (6-0, 201). The Utes have a future offensive line star in freshman Sataoa Laumea (6-4, 305) and junior center Nick Ford (6-5, 315). Trojans’ inside linebackers Kana’i Mauga (6-2, 245, Sr.) and Ralen Goforth (6-2, 235, Jr.) will have their hands full. And the Trojans’ secondary will also be tested by Covey and an excellent tight end in junior Brant Kuithe (6-2, 230). The Utes also have a good one in the secondary in senior Vonte Davis (6-0, 180).
The Utes have a standout kicker in sophomore Jadon Redding, but the Trojans also have a good one of their own in sophomore Parker Lewis. If this one gets down to punting, the Trojans appear to hold the edge with the ageless junior Ben Griffiths, the oldest Trojan, as opposed to Utah freshman Jared March.
The O/NSO PREDICTION: UTAH 31, USC 30
Comment: The law of averages finally tips in favor of the Utes, who figure to put an end to the L.A. losing streak.
The Obvious: And finally, at the end of the first six games, the O/NSO sees the Trojans with a record of 5-1 overall and 4-1 in conference.
The Not So Obvious: As a schedule note, the Trojans draw a bye after the Utah, so there will be no game on Saturday, Oct. 16. Find out next Friday - the opening of training camp - in Part 2 of our game-by-game predictions how the Trojans will finish the second half of the season along with a final analysis.