Optimism around USC’s prospects for 2020 continues to rise, prompting ESPN to introduce the Trojans into the 2020 Way-Too-Early Top 25.
Earlier in February, we at Reign of Troy looked at the reasons USC would become a dark horse media favorite during the 2020 offseason.
Wouldn’t you know it, the rankings are already creeping up.
On Wednesday, ESPN’s Mark Schlabach redid his “Way-Too-Early College Football Top 25” and USC got a boost up into the picture at No. 21.
Why did the Trojans get a mention now when they were left out back in January?
"It was a surprise to many USC fans that coach Clay Helton wasn’t fired after this past season, but there’s reason for optimism heading into 2020. The Trojans bring back 17 starters on offense and defense, perhaps the best receiver corps in the FBS and two very highly regarded quarterbacks. USC was downright awful on defense last season, but youth and injuries were legitimate reasons for some of the struggles. Nine freshmen or sophomores started on that side of the ball in a 49-24 loss to Iowa in the San Diego County Credit Union Holiday Bowl. Former Texas defensive coordinator Todd Orlando was hired after another major shake-up to Helton’s staff. He was able to retain offensive coordinator Graham Harrell, who was contacted by Texas. Quarterback Kedon Slovis ranked third in the FBS in completion percentage (71.9%), 11th in total QBR (76.2) and ninth in yards per game (291.8) as a freshman. JT Daniels, who is coming back from a torn ACL, is sticking around to compete with him this spring."
Schlabach may be getting ahead of himself talking about a competition between Daniels and Slovis this spring as the former isn’t even likely to participate fully in Spring Camp.
Still, his reasoning for propping up the Trojans is sound. Returning starters, particularly at quarterback, move the needle in terms of offseason hype. That’s particularly true when you factor in the talent level still available on USC’s roster. As disappointing as the Trojans have been at times as a team, players like Talanoa Hufanga at safety, Amon-Ra St. Brown and Tyler Vaughns at wide receiver, Jay Tufele at defensive tackle, Markese Stepp at running back, Drake Jackson at defensive end, Chris Steele at cornerback and many more promising players will be able to provide a strong foundation to build on.
The more skeptical wing of USC’s fanbase will shout about putting lipstick on a pig with Clay Helton being the root problem. And that’s a valid perspective. The overhaul Helton put in place after the 2018 season only managed to improve the Trojans’ record slightly, but it didn’t prevent USC falling into familiar and embarrassing performances against Oregon and Iowa.
An optimist could, however, look at the change at defensive coordinator and the retention of a successful offensive coordinator like Graham Harrell and see steps in the right direction.
In the end, it’s the optimists standard that Helton needs to be held to since athletic director Mike Bohn and Helton himself are the ones pushing that narrative. When ESPN points out the reasons for taking the Trojans seriously as a ranked team, the bar for USC’s performance in 2020 is more clearly set.
The next step is following through.