Why USC will be a dark horse media favorite in 2020

With quarterback Kedon Slovis, a wealth of production returning and a beefed-up coaching staff, don’t be surprised when USC is a dark horse media pick for 2020.

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Prepare yourselves, Trojan fans. The hype machine is coming for USC’s 2020 squad.

It won’t be the type of hype USC is accustomed to. There will be no No. 1 ranking or dreams of the College Football Playoff. Even so, the perception of the Trojans going into that matchup with Alabama on September 5 is bound to transform from, “They’re going to get romped,” to something like, “This could be interesting…I mean, it could happen?”

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At the very least, prepare for the likelihood of USC being proclaimed a favorite to win the Pac-12 South at the conference’s Media Day in July. And brace for post-Spring Camp Top 25 rankings to begin featuring the Trojans.

Why? It’s simple math.

A returning starting quarterback plus tons of returning production plus a new defensive coordinator plus savvy staff moves plus inevitable camp optimism equals hype.

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Let’s start with the quarterback.

Kedon Slovis already has 25-1 odds to win the Heisman Trophy, putting him among the Top 10 players vying for the award in offseason discussions at least. Nor is the attention unwarranted. Slovis was a stud in 2019, ranking third nationally in pass completion percentage, seventh in passer rating and ninth in yards per game.

If he could put up those kinds of numbers as a true freshman in his first year in Graham Harrell’s Air Raid, people will rightly wonder what he could do in Year 2 with the same system, the same OC and most of the same pass-catching targets.

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Indeed, the offense will return most of the playmakers who worked their magic around Slovis last year.

Losing Michael Pittman’s 1,275 yards and 11 touchdowns is a blow, but the Trojans will have Tyler Vaughns, Amon-Ra St. Brown and Drake London available to pick up the slack. They’ll also get highly-touted recruits like Kyle Ford and Bru McCoy back healthy and ready to make an impact.

At running back, USC’s four leading rushers—Vavae Malepeai, Stephen Carr, Kenan Christon, and Markese Stepp—return.

The offensive line loses two starters, and they’re the big gaps to fill. Even so, regular starters Alijah Vera-Tucker, Jalen McKenzie and Brett Neilon are back, while Andrew Vorhees is slated to return from a lengthy injury issue.

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USC returns 77 percent of its offensive production from 2019, which ranks 25th nationally, according to Bill Connelly of ESPN.

Having scored 32.5 points per game in 2019, the Trojans are set up to build on those scoring numbers with an exciting offensive attack.

It’s even better on defense.

USC gets 87 percent of its production back, ranking seventh.

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Sure, USC was a mess defensively in 2019, but the squad was loaded with talent which, frankly, underachieved in Clancy Pendergast’s final season.

Take that talent and put it in the hands of someone more capable of getting something out of it and things could turn around quickly.

Enter new defensive coordinator Todd Orlando.

Orlando’s career has been somewhat up-and-down, so USC can’t bank on anything when it comes to his success level.

His first season at Texas, when he had the Longhorns ranked 14th in S&P+ defense and seventh in FEI defense, is the ultimate encouragement. Based on that alone, it would be easy to expect improvement from the Trojans.

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When he was introduced as USC’s new DC, some of the first words out of Orlando’s mouth involved physicality in practice. Positive reviews from Spring Camp will get people talking.

That’s not to say USC will live up to its vast potential this time around. Trojan fans have seen this offseason movie before and would be wise to avoid falling into the trap.

Clay Helton has proven capable of winning a Rose Bowl and Pac-12 with a stellar quarterback and a loaded roster, but his mismanagement in the last two seasons has destroyed all goodwill towards him as a head coach.

Trust between the people in charge and fans at USC has eroded.

The Trojans preached about practicing tougher in the past, only to fall back into old habits as soon as the season began. Helton himself made discipline a focus last season, yet USC was still a team plagued by penalties and a general lack of focus.

Skepticism should still reign when it comes to USC. But what is the offseason for if not for stirring up hope, however dubious?

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