Why USC can win the playoff: Kessler at QB, Jackson everywhere else
EDITOR'S NOTE: FOX Sports college football columnists Stewart Mandel and Bruce Feldman think a handful of teams have a legitimate shot at hoisting the College Football Playoff trophy this season. This week, they'll make a case for each of those squads.
1. What we like: The Trojans have some key pieces to make a run at their first title in over a decade. Start with QB Cody Kessler. He’s heady, accurate and he rarely makes mistakes (39-5 TD-INT ratio). He’s also an excellent leader and has been since the tumultuous 2013 season where the Trojans had three different coaches (and that doesn’t include Steve Sarkisian getting hired before the bowl game.)
USC did lose a terrific WR in Nelson Agholor but the receiving corps is actually much better because it’s much deeper. JuJu Smith-Schuster is a rising star, three-way stud Adoree’ Jackson is a game-breaker, reliable Darreus Rogers is solid and Steven Mitchell is another home-run-hitting threat. The O-line also figures to be the best it’s been since the days when USC was playing for titles. It’s still a pretty young group, but it’s much more talented than it’s been in a while. Same for the secondary. Jackson’s a shutdown cover man and freshman Iman Marshall is a rangy future All-American. Su’a Cravens is USC’s Swiss Army knife on D and a heckuva talent. Better still, USC is now pretty far removed from the NCAA sanctions and the limited scholarships, which means it has some quality depth now.
2. What concerns us: Where I don’t see the absence of Agholor hurting USC, I do think star DL Leonard Williams is much tougher to replace. He was just so much better than the rest of the Trojan D-linemen, and even when he wasn’t close to 100 percent he was still the guy who gave offenses fits and drew so much attention from rival OCs. Buck Allen was a really good RB too. In Tre Madden and Justin Davis, USC has some possible replacements but those guys are still largely unproven in game action.
The other wild card with USC is 41-year-old Sarkisian. He did a very good job turning Washington from a disaster to a good program again, but the Huskies seemed to hit a ceiling under him, and they never finished in the top two of the Pac-12 North. Last year was an OK debut season, but USC was very inconsistent, losing to two unranked opponents and giving up 75 points in those games. Can this team avoid those very flat performances where they seem unfocused?
The road part of the Trojans’ schedule is pretty nasty: at Notre Dame, at ASU and at Oregon. Those are three likely Top 20 teams, maybe Top 15. And that ASU game comes right after facing Stanford, the most physical team on the West Coast.
3. What would the committee think? As mentioned right above, USC’s schedule is a beast. Yeah, Idaho’s a mess, but playing at ND is no cupcake in the non-conference. The feeling here is USC can afford one stumble in the regular season, but if it’s at ND, the Trojans better hope someone else beats the Irish twice or else that’s one team they’d likely be behind in the rankings.
Bruce Feldman is a senior college football reporter and columnist for FOXSports.com and FOX Sports 1. He is also a New York Times Bestselling author. His new book, "The QB: The Making of Modern Quarterbacks," came out in October 2014. Follow him on Twitter @BruceFeldmanCFB and Facebook.