Do the Trojans have the leaders in football and basketball for Final Four runs? Who is the best QB in California? RoT’s USC Football mailbag gets to the answers.
With the offseason stretching on, musings and hypotheticals rule the day when it comes to our USC Football mailbag.
One thing is sure, whether looking forward or looking back, the reasons for optimism around USC only get bigger as summer approaches.
We’ve got the questions. Now let’s get to some answers…
QUESTION: There’s a lot of buzz about USC having a shot in reaching the Final Four in football & basketball, is there enough player leadership? — @fowler_mario
ANSWER: That’s an easier question to answer on the basketball side of things where the Trojans return plenty of veteran leaders.
Jordan McLaughlin stands out as the elder statesman of the group while Chimezie Metu and Bennie Boatwright will be juniors and should take on even more personal and team responsibilities.
It’s reasonable to assume that kind of experience will translate to USC finding a more consistent level and at least putting themselves in a position to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament.
Playing devil’s advocate for a second though. Experienced leadership doesn’t necessarily equal Final Four level leadership. Those players will need to prove that their influence is something that boosts the team rather than holding it back.
On the football side of things, the Trojans do lose a lot. All four team captains –Zach Banner, Michael Hutchings, Adoree’ Jackson and Max Browne– are gone and while Sam Darnold already replaced Browne in a literal and practical sense, filling the holes left by Banner and Hutchings may be a bit more difficult.
Banner was a larger than life figure while Hutchings’ impact on the defense as a leader is probably underrated — it was Hutchings who helped build a better culture of preparation and film study. Someone will need to carry on that torch and maintain that responsibility.
And there is no shortage of players ready for that role. On defense, linebacker Uchenna Nwosu’s rise as a player has followed the same trajectory as his rise as a leader. He’s someone with a strong mentality who commands his teammates’ respect. Opposite him on the line, Porter Gustin has set a high standard in the weight room which can’t be ignored.
Linebacker Cameron Smith let’s his play do the talking while safety Chris Hawkins is more vocal, but no less influential when it comes to fostering the development of young players around him.
Offensively, coaches have praised receiver Deontay Burnett for setting a strong example with his work ethic.
But it all probably comes back to Darnold. With an even temperament and supreme confidence in himself and his teammates, the quarterback will steer the ship. And if last year is any sign, that’s a very good thing for USC’s playoff hopes.
QUESTION: Who’s the best QB in California? Including college and pros. — @BeardedPelfrey
ANSWER: Raiders fans will say Derek Carr. Chargers fans, those left at least, will say Phillip Rivers. UCLA fans will say Josh Rosen. And USC fans will say Sam Darnold. (Would Rams fans say Jared Goff?)
Since they’re already proven at the NFL level, Carr and Rivers probably deserve top billing, with the former beating out the latter on present form. Behind them, Darnold’s dynamism is a good argument to put him ahead of Rosen but the 2017 season will do a lot to settle that debate.
QUESTION: Would you ever want Justin Bieber to wear any USC jersey? — @Dar_Gar
ANSWER: If Bieber is only wearing jerseys of teams that are good enough to get attention, then sure, why not. That’s a cheap price to pay to see a top quality Trojan team take the field this year.
And it’s not like USC fans aren’t used to celebrity fans.
QUESTION: What does USC’s 2016 season look like if they instead played the 2017 schedule? What do you think the 2017 season looks like with the 2016 schedule?? — Greg
ANSWER: This is an exceedingly interesting and complex question, particularly because the USC that finished the 2016 season only existed because of what happened in September.
In this scenario, the 2016 squad starts out, not with Alabama, Utah State, Stanford and Utah, but Western Michigan, Stanford, Texas and Cal.
Led by PJ Fleck, that Bronco team won 13 games, but they didn’t exactly start fast, squeaking out a one-point win over Northwestern to open the season. It’s safe to say Max Browne’s Trojans would have survived that test.
Next up, Stanford at home would’ve been an easier prospect than on the road and maybe the Trojans wouldn’t have been so shell-shocked so soon after the Alabama beatdown, but looking back the projection probably comes back with a loss for the Trojans.
Then the early non-conference slate would finish up with a Texas squad that would go on to amass a 5-7 record. At the Coliseum, that’s a win for USC.
The same goes for the Trojans up north in Berkeley against a weak Cal side.
That means USC would have started out 3-1 in Clay Helton’s debut campaign –and Browne would still be the Trojans’ starting QB.Having trouble? Listen on BlogTalkRadio, iTunes, Google Play or Stitcher.
As outstanding as Sam Darnold was during his stretch as a starter, he was aided by a defense growing in confidence week-by-week and a strong running attack. Those things would remain in this scenario, so after besting an intriguing but beatable Washington State and lowly Oregon State, the Trojans would face Utah at the Coliseum under significantly more favorable circumstances. Call it a win.
From there, Notre Dame, Arizona State and Arizona still wouldn’t pose too many questions. All the while, it’s Max Browne’s team, not Sam Darnold’s.
A November road game at Colorado with the Pac-12 South title potentially on the line stands out as a possible trip up though. Having given USC the benefit of the doubt against Utah, let’s say the Trojans fall to the Buffaloes thanks to cracks in the offense still ill-fitting for Browne compared to Darnold.
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They’d then recover against the Josh Rosen-less UCLA to finish the regular season 10-2 while still missing out on the Pac-12 title game. Whether or not they’d end up in the Rose Bowl would come down to where the College Football Playoff committee ranked them relative to Colorado.
What does that exercise teach us? Unless there are some significant steps up for some of USC’s 2017 opposition, the Trojans have a pretty favorable road this year, especially with Darnold at the helm.
As for the other hypothetical, with the 2017 squad facing the 2016 schedule, Alabama and Stanford still look like potential losses. However, the current squad is much more equipped to face Utah in Week 4, allowing them to rip off nine consecutive wins to end the season, winning the Pac-12 South in the process.
Then it would come down to a Pac-12 title game rematch with Washington to spark a massive debate over USC’s playoff resume despite two losses. Fun (hypothetical) times.