How the 2016 USC Football Team is Similar to the 2005 Team

Mar 8, 2016; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Southern California Trojans coach Clay Helton during spring practice at Howard Jones Field. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 8, 2016; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Southern California Trojans coach Clay Helton during spring practice at Howard Jones Field. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports /

When the USC-Alabama game was announced two years ago, many circled the date as a potential coming out party for Steve Sarkisian’s Trojans. But now, a cynical question of national contention hangs over USC football.

It was going to be the junior seasons of highly touted freshmen like Adoree’ Jackson and JuJu Smith-Schuster. The promising offensive line full of 2014 rookies would be well-seasoned and potentially dominant. The championship window was supposed to be open.

If you’re a longtime listener of Reign of Troy Radio, you know we made it clear that this would be the start of something great for Sarkisian and USC.

Yet here we are, two months from the most anticipated season opener since 2004, and it’s hard to assess where the Trojans are now that Clay Helton has taken over the program from Sarkisian.

On the surface, all of the expectations levied on the team’s shoulders two years ago ring true.

This will mostly likely be Jackson and Smith-Schuster’s final years at USC.

Both are projected to be highly coveted players in next year’s NFL Draft. Both have the ability to be dark horse Heisman Trophy candidates and are among the most exciting players in the country to watch.

And the offensive line, despite their struggles in 2015 under coach Bob Connelly, is oozing with ability and experience.

SEE MORE: USC’s Offensive Line is Nation’s 2nd Most Experienced

Zach Banner, who will almost surely be a first round pick in next year’s NFL Draft, is back and ready to lead a group whose only loss is Max Tuerk, whom they already replaced midseason last year.

But that talent and experience is only is good as the plan and its harmony, something that USC has learned quite often in recent years.

For all his faults, Sarkisian was a sound architect of building a team with an abundance of talent, and a plan to take them to the next level.

Case in point, look at Washington’s progression from 2012 to 2013, followed by four players taken in the first two rounds of last year’s NFL Draft.

With a hybrid offensive plan to maximize the strength of his players, while relying on defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox to do same on defense, USC has the material pieces to win a lot of games now and going forward.

The problem is that Wilcox’s undertaking on defense proved to be a bigger struggle than anticipated, and it’s put USC at a familiar place.

In a lot of ways, the 2016 Trojans feel a lot like the 2005 team.

No, they won’t be the wire-to-wire No. 1 team going into the postseason. And no, they aren’t a team that ESPN will prop up as being arguably the greatest college football team ever assembled.

RELATED: 30 Biggest Victories Since USC Hired Pete Carroll

But these Trojans, like those Trojans, are a team offset in their development.

They are teams anchored by near-generational talent and experience on offense, while the highly talented — but supremely raw — defense appears to be at least a year away from being anywhere close to as revered.

In 2005, that meant that the ridiculous offense of Matt Leinart, Reggie Bush, LenDale White, Dwayne Jarrett et al. Those players could maul teams on their own accord, masking how fundamentally flawed the defense was.

It took a Herculean effort from Reggie Bush against Fresno State to eek out a win, and if it wasn’t for a failed fourth down conversion in the Rose Bowl, USC would have won a national title strictly on the grounds of their historic offense.

But that team, much like this team, was only flawed on defense due to the mishmash of good but not transcendent veterans, and extremely talented but inexperienced players.

What was the ‘bad’ 2005 defense, blossomed into the historically great 2008 defense, with seniors Rey Maualuga, Brian Cushing and Kevin Ellison leading the way.

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That’s where USC football sits now.

All of those things that could be said about the 2016 Trojans two years ago, then primarily because of the development of the offense, can be echoed about the defense now, with 2018 in mind.

Sarkisian’s No. 1 recruiting class in 2015 was built on defense. Add in Clancy Pendergast’s flexible 5-2 scheme and there’s no reason to think it can’t be at the top of the Pac-12 soon, even without a returning starter on the defensive line, a linebacker corps in transition and two safety positions that haven’t seen a pair of starters seize their places outright.

READ MORE: How Clancy Pendergast’s 5-2 Fits With USC’s Roster

But for now, the rebuilding mode in the wake of Su’a Cravens’s early departure to the NFL puts all of the onus on the offense to come through as the defense develops, at least early on in the season.

With defensive juggernauts Alabama, Stanford and Utah in the first four weeks, that’s a tall task.

Especially for an offense that despite talented stars like JuJu Smith-Schuster, Ronald Jones and Adoree’ Jackson, struggled to consistently score more than three offensive touchdowns per game under Helton down the stretch in 2015.

Can they answer the bell to give run support for their yet-to-bud counterparts on the other side of the ball?

They’ll need to be unstoppable like 2005, or else USC will only be as good as their unproven defense.