USC Football Schedule: Tough Slate Starts in Week 1

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Much has been made of the seemingly soft early USC football schedule, as the 2015 Trojans open the season with a pair of Sun Belt teams, Arkansas State and Idaho.

RELATED: Ranking USC’s 2015 Football Schedule By Threat Level

But while Idaho is practically an FCS program clinging onto their final seasons at the FBS level, Arkansas State has consistently been one of the best Group of Five teams in the country the last half decade. They stand to be a much more competitive foe than Fresno State was last year.

The Red Wolves have represented the Sun Belt as the conference champion in bowl games in four straight years, all with a different head coach.

This year, for the first time in seemingly forever, they return their boss, as Blake Anderson is back for Year 2.

And unlike Fresno State a year ago, they return 14 starters, nine of which are on an offense that led the Sun Belt in passing and threw for more yards per game (260.1) than UCLA, Miami and Ohio State.

Senior quarterback Fredi Knighten completed a solid 62.3 percent of his passes in his first year as a starter.

John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Against teams with winning records, Knighten had a 15 to 3 touchdowns-to-interceptions ratio and a 142.4 passer rating that was higher than superstar quarterbacks Jared Goff (132.2), Connor Cook (129.4) and Trevone Boykin (126.4).

SEE ALSO: An Early Look at Arkansas State

Not to mention, he ran for 779 yards last season, which were more than Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota.

While gross numbers are affected by strength of schedule, keep in mind that those numbers are from a team that was ranked 66th nationally in F/+ in 2014.

For comparison’s sake, Power Five schools Kentucky (68th), North Carolina (70th), Oregon State (74th), Oklahoma State (75th) and Texas Tech (82nd) all finished lower.

If the Trojans were facing Rutgers, who lost more starters than anyone else in the Big Ten and finished 81st in team F/+ last year despite an 8-5 record, the gripe against the Trojans’ non-conference schedule featuring Arkansas State would be virtually non-existent.

It’d also be much different had USC and Texas A&M finalized their series that was slated to start this season. Without the Aggies on board, the Trojans had to scramble two years ago and add Idaho to the mix, in addition to Arkansas State a month prior.

FLASHBACK: Texas A&M vs. USC Home and Home Series No Longer Happening

A non-conference slate of Notre Dame, Texas A&M and Arkansas State would’ve almost surely been the nation’s toughest.

Now, they’ll have to settle for watching TAMU play divisional rival Arizona State, while USC preps for their late night opener and get slammed for a myopic narrative of playing a cupcake schedule, despite going out of conference to play a Sports Illustrated predicted playoff team on the road in October.

And of course, it’s the context of the non-conference schedule that matters the most to the Trojans, who while being hyped way up as a national contender, have a brutal schedule down the stretch in November making that goal remarkably challenging. So starting out strong in September is key.

USC gets a manageable early test from a good Arkansas State team, followed by a paycheck game against Idaho. But together, they’re precursors to a daunting first two games in Pac-12 play that could ultimately derail the entire season if they don’t start well.

If USC isn’t ready for Stanford and ASU, they kiss any chance of winning the Pac-12 goodbye.

The Trojans face Stanford in Week 3 at home, followed by traveling to Tempe to play ASU, where they haven’t won since Pete Carroll was the head coach.

Head coach Steve Sarkisian said earlier this month on the Dan Patrick Show that September plays a specific role.

“Our first two games before we play Stanford are really good for our football team,” said Sarkisian. “We’re very young, and we’re going to have to play a lot of true freshmen. So we’re going to have a chance to rotate a lot of guys early in the season.”

RELATED: USC Opens as Big Favorite vs. Arkansas State

On the one hand, he’s right. If USC isn’t ready for Stanford and ASU, they kiss any chance of winning the Pac-12 goodbye. For a coach with a somewhat overblown reputation for mediocrity and boosters craving for wins, that cannot happen for the Trojans, therefore prepping for the big games is important.

On the other hand, USC cannot fall into the trap of considering Arkansas State a preseason game for unproven players. They’re way better than you think.

The Trojans need to use the first two games for what they are: experience builders for the entire roster. They’ll all be needed at some point, not just the unproven freshmen.

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