Which college football opponents could USC schedule in the future?

Harry How/Getty Images
Harry How/Getty Images /

After adding Alabama to the 2020 USC schedule, the Trojans must start looking to the future, where several open dates wait patiently.

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While Virginia Tech’s non-conference slate is all but fully stocked until 2029 —not to mention a trip to South Bend scheduled for Labor Day 2036— the future USC schedule is among the most barren in college football.

Troy has just one non-ND game scheduled beyond 2023 and is running out of time to lock down marquee opponents. Ohio State and Michigan aren’t free until 2028. Nebraska’s got headliners pegged through 2031 and Texas is set until 2034.

Now’s the time for athletic director Lynn Swann and assistant Steve Lopes to get deals done. The program hasn’t scheduled or announced a home-and-home series with a Power 5 team since 2010, when they snagged Texas.

For years, the Trojans have deployed a three-pronged scheduling tactic of renewing their annual rivalry with Notre Dame, while scheduling one team from a Power 5 conference and another from a Group of 5 conference.

This ensures USC plays at least 11 games against Power 5 opponents in the regular season, a feat they’ve achieved in all but one season since the Pac-12 rolled out a nine-game conference slate in 2006.

It’ll happen for a second time in 2022, when both Rice and Fresno State come to the Coliseum —along with Notre Dame— to form a seven-game home schedule in a year the Trojans will only play host to four Pac-12 schools.

Can the trend stay intact? Will the Trojans get big-name opponents to fill the vacancies earmarked for Power 5 teams? Let’s walk through USC’s options going forward.

Future schedules as they stand

via FBSchedules.com

* Neither BYU or Rice are officially Power 5 teams. However, USC’s schedule in 2022 features two Group of 5 teams, while independent BYU could slot in either column as a historically relevant program.

Notre Dame’s not going anywhere

Since 1926, only World War II has halted the Trojans’ iconic annual rivalry with Notre Dame. Don’t expect that to change despite the current deal only going up to 2023 and the Fighting Irish’s sacrilegious annulments with Michigan, Michigan State and Purdue.

Those Big Ten rivalries lost their annual dates due to Notre Dame opting for a five-game ACC schedule while the B1G was looking to move to a nine-game conference schedule. Athletic director Jack Swarbrick committed himself to the USC and Stanford rivalries for the purposes of recruiting the state of California.

Even if Notre Dame joins the ACC full time, the only way the Trojans and Irish stop playing is if Swann is the one not willing to extend the contract. That seems far fetched, no matter how many times USC finishes outside the College Football Playoff solely due to a loss in South Bend.

BYU gives USC flexibility in 2021 and 2023

Both the 2021 and 2023 seasons feature season-ending home tilts with BYU and mid-October trips to South Bend. With a five home game Pac-12 schedule in odd years, USC is guaranteed at least six home games, which opens up two options.

The simple way out is scheduling a Group of 5 team to complete the three-tiered plan and ensure seven home dates at the newly renovated Coliseum. But as it stands, only two schools –Middle Tennessee and UNLV– are realistically available in the first week of 2021. The list is significantly longer in 2023, including North Texas and Northern Illinois.

Or USC can consider the home game with BYU to fit into the Group of 5 tier and take advantage of the lucrative offerings of a neutral site game against a Power 5 opponent for a 6-5-1 split of home/road games.

Gene Sweeney Jr/Getty Images
Gene Sweeney Jr/Getty Images /

By 2021, both the Rams and Raiders will have new NFL stadiums built in Inglewood and Las Vegas respectively, allowing for the possibility of a west coast alternative to the annual games housed in Arlington, Houston and Atlanta.

Arizona and BYU’s neutral site Vegas game in 2021 has already been tabbed for the new digs off The Strip, but has interestingly enough scheduled for Thursday, September 2. It leaves the door open for a Saturday night game to complete a twin-bill setup similar to that of Atlanta’s Chick-fil-A Kickoff Games.

But this late in the scheduling process, and barring a school uncharacteristically maxing out their schedule difficulty, there’s only one other Power 5 team realistically available in Week 1 of 2021. That’s the Northwestern Wildcats, who have never played a neutral-site game outside of Chicago’s Soldier Field.

Two years later in 2023, the swath of available teams balloons to seven, including the likes of Florida State, LSU and Michigan State.

What determines the path USC goes down? Probably money.

The Trojans would be a massive draw in Vegas and if they were offered the type of deals Alabama gets thrown —such as $6 million for playing USC at AT&T Stadium— that could be all the reason to bypass a seventh home game against the likes of say, Kent State.

When will USC schedule another home-and-home?

It’s hard to believe last year’s trip to Texas marked the last leg of any two-game home-and-home series on the Trojans’ future schedule, which consists of a two-for-one with BYU and a one-off neutral site game against Alabama.

Once the lifeblood of college football, home-and-homes were relegated in the 2010s with the boom in money offered by neutral-site game operators. Big money, plus recruiting exposure in the state of Texas, caused USC to make a sudden tradition of spending election years in the Advocare Classic with Alabama in 2016 and 2020.

Whether or not that continues in 2024 is entirely dependent on when the Trojans’ next major home-and-home series begins, if at all.

There are only five Power 5 teams available for a two-year deal starting in 2024, while just six have open dates for 2025-2026. Starting earlier would allow USC to stack a list of home-and-homes for the foreseeable future, while pushing it off opens the door for another neutral site game in 2024.

Ron Jenkins/Getty Images
Ron Jenkins/Getty Images /

Coincidentally, the development of the Trojans and Tide’s rematch in Texas, coupled with Nick Saban inking landmark home-and-home series with Texas and Notre Dame, presents the possibility of USC making a historic return to Alabama.

The Trojans have never played in Tuscaloosa, as their two trips to Alabama in the 1970s were played in Birmingham. If the Tide are suddenly willing to travel to Austin and South Bend, then visiting the Coliseum for the first time since 1977 isn’t impossible.

SEE MORE: Looking Back at the History of USC vs. Alabama

Right on cue, Alabama is one of the five teams with home-and-home availability in 2024 and 2025, though they could opt for 2025-26 or 2026-27.

Athletic director Greg Byrne has mentioned that they’re keeping their options open and prefer games that generate buzz for the fan base.

“I think it is important for all of us as ADs and our coaches — and Coach Saban and I have very much been in lockstep on it — is finding games that our fan bases are going to be excited to be a part of, and that our teams are going to be excited to be a part of,” Byrne told Bama On Line in 2018.

Surely, USC-Alabama is one of those matchups which gets the juice flowing.

Of the other schools on the available list —shown below— Florida might suddenly be the most likely due to a seismic shift in their scheduling mentality. Until last year’s neutral site clash with Michigan, the Gators hadn’t played a non-conference game outside of the state of Florida since 1991.

But UF has added home-and-home dates with Colorado (2028/29) and Texas (2030/31). They’re available to play the Trojans any year between 2023 and 2027.

Build your own schedule

What would you do if you were athletic director Lynn Swann or scheduling maestro Steve Lopes? Craft your ideal USC football schedule by picking from the teams below, and let us know in the comments and/or on Twitter, at @ReignofTroy. (Updated: May 2019)