LOS ANGELES (AP) — For the sixth consecutive summer, Clay Helton is back for another shot at restoring Southern California to an annual spot among college football's national title contenders.
The fact that Helton has received a half-dozen chances to accomplish this task is still the subject of immense angst in many corners of the Trojans' huge fan base.
But the indefatigably optimistic head coach believes No. 15 USC can build on its strong record in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season with a campaign that will put it right back where he has said the school belongs since he got the job six years ago.
“I love USC, because you know what the standard is? Championships,” said Helton, who has won the Pac-12 South twice and the conference title once. “You can be at USC and win every game but one, and if it’s the last one, it’s looked at as a bad season. That’s being at a special place. You can have an undefeated regular season and win the Pac-12 championship, and everybody is sad. That’s a special place to be.”
There is progress, if fans choose to see it: USC finally moved past the successful Sam Darnold era with eight victories in 2019 and a not-quite-as-impressive-as-it-looks record of 5-1 last year, culminating in a home loss to Oregon in the conference title game.
About 16 starters return from last season's Pac-12 South champions, led by third-year starting quarterback Kedon Slovis with USC's usual wealth of skill-position talent around him. The Trojans also got their first full offseason under Graham Harrell and Todd Orlando, who appear to be the most capable pair of coordinators Helton has ever had on staff.
While there are ample questions about the offensive line and pretty much every level of the defense, USC is the preseason favorite in the South for many good reasons.
But the Trojans are loaded with talent every year, and Helton has that one Pac-12 crown, one Rose Bowl victory and no College Football Playoff appearances to show for it.
Will this be the year USC's bountiful talent finally reaches national championship contention? Helton still believes.
“When you’re at a place that’s won 11 national championships, you know the standards of excellence and you know what’s demanded," Helton said. “We welcome that. That’s why we all came to USC. Our job right now is to get back to that (Pac-12) championship game and to win that game, because it opens the doors to the playoff game and the national championship opportunities.”
Slovis took steps backward in 2020, with declines in completion percentage, yards per completion, quarterback rating and interceptions per game (seven in six games after throwing just nine in his entire freshman year) accompanying a lack of confidence in his previously injured throwing elbow.
He still showed poise in leading the Trojans to a handful of comeback wins, and he remains one of the West Coast's most accurate and versatile passers. If his offensive line comes through, Slovis has the targets necessary to be a Heisman Trophy contender.
ABOUT THAT LINE
The Trojans lost starting left tackle Alijah Vera-Tucker, who went 14th overall to the Jets. Every other starter is back, yet every job on the line honestly appears to be in competition this month, and it's unclear how effective the unit will be even after the starters are chosen. They weren't dominant in spring football, and Helton has had talent-laden offenses that never got rolling due to line problems.
Despite losing a few contributors to the NFL, the Trojans have a relatively experienced starting defense headlined by linemen Nick Figueroa and Tuli Tuipulotu, star linebacker Drake Jackson and defensive backs Chris Steele and Isaiah Pola-Mao.
What's more, Orlando ran a drastically simplified defense last season, but had time to install his full scheme this year.
“Todd only got six games last year, and you still saw the improvement of our defense,” Helton said. “It's just the opportunity and the time to grow with Coach Orlando. His personality, it’s really rubbed off on our players. There’s an edginess, a toughness, an accountability.”
USC still could be a few injuries away from big problems — particularly in the secondary, where it's mostly freshmen behind the starters.
USC landed the top recruit in the country last January, and coaches say defensive lineman Korey Foreman has been making big strides in fall camp. He's almost certain to play a role on the Trojans' defense this season, and they're hoping it'll be a big one.
In a huge boost for the Trojans' conference title hopes, they don't play either No. 11 Oregon or No. 20 Washington in the regular season. They also get to face Stanford, No. 24 Utah and UCLA at the Coliseum. Their nonconference schedule isn't easy with their biennial trip to Notre Dame and a late-November visit from Brigham Young.
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