USC football began the offseason ranked No. 15 in ESPN’s Way-Too-Early Top 25.
The ESPN rankings, which were revealed directly after Alabama’s national championship victory over Clemson Monday night, set the Trojans up as the second-most highly ranked Pac-12 school behind Stanford and ahead of Oregon.
While it was already clear that USC’s 2016 schedule is among the toughest in the nation, these rankings affirm just how difficult it will be. The Trojans are due to play six teams in the early Top 25 — Alabama, Stanford, Notre Dame, Oregon, UCLA and Washington. Washington State also made the rankings.
Here’s ESPN’s outlook on USC’s 2015 season:
"The Trojans dropped their final two games after Clay Helton was named permanent coach, but they might be positioned to win the Pac-12 South. USC will have a new starting quarterback; rising junior Max Browne and sophomore Sam Darnold will battle to replace three-year starter Cody Kessler. Whoever wins the job will have plenty of talented skill players to help, as well as every offensive linemen who started in the second half of ’15. There are heavy personnel losses on defense, but linebacker Cameron Smith returns from a knee injury after leading USC in tackles as a freshman. Outlook:"
In a similar vein, Stewart Mandel’s Extremely Early Top 25 for Fox Sports ranks the Trojans at No. 17 with many of the same questions:
"Will be the year the finally play to their potential? Coach Clay Helton and likely new QB Max Browne will enjoy a veteran O-line and skill talent like WR JuJu Smith-Schuster, two-way star Adoree’ Jackson and RB Ronald Jones. Former defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast returns to help rebuild a depleted defensive line. 17. USC (8-6): this Trojans"
Notably from Mandel’s rankings, No. 15 Washington outranks both USC and No. 16 Notre Dame.
The question marks surrounding Clay Helton’s first season in charge make the Trojans a particularly difficult team to rank.
Given USC’s difficult opening slate including games against Alabama, Stanford and Utah, the rankings in the teens may be asking too much of the Trojans after the first month of the season. A strong late-season run, as they were able to accomplish in 2015, could see USC recover their ranking by the end however.
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Much of that will depend on the Trojans quarterback situation. Though ESPN correctly projects a quarterback battle between Max Browne and Sam Darnold, the safe money is on Browne winning that competition. If he can replicate Matt Leinart-esque results in his debut USC’s outlook will appear very different.
Of course, compared to the hype of last season’s top five Way-Too-Early ranking, USC’s perception going into the 2016 season appears to be much more tempered.
With no Heisman trophy candidate and skepticism surrounding the head coach, the Trojans should enjoy a much less pressured offseason at least.