The USC Trojans will travel to Berkeley this season for a Halloween matchup. Sounds spooky, right? The good news is that noted bogeyman Nelson Agholor won't be coming with them. You remember Agholor, right? The wideout who torched Cal's defense for 216 yards and two touchdowns last year? The good news is he's now with the Eagles, haunting the NFC East. But there's bad news too. The Trojans have restocked their undead army of five star recruits, and they're out for braaaiiinnss...er...a conference championship.
In fact, there's quite a bit more bad news about this year's matchup. Don't scream yet though, because there's some good news too, and because Cody Kessler is right behind you and if you scream he'll definitely eat your brains.
The bad news: USC has won the last 11 meetings by a combined score of 357-149. That's what we in the business call major ownage, and it ties the 1959-69 Trojans for longest win streak in the history of the series. Last year's game ended 38-30, but was never really that close. Cal nearly clawed back from a 29 point second quarter deficit, but a failed onside kick put those hopes to bed. USC finished the season 9-4 (6-3) with a Holiday Bowl win over Nebraska, a second place finish in the Pac-12 South and a top 25 ranking. Cal, as you may know, did not do any of those things.
The good news: Agholor is gone and... actually that's about it. Let's move on.
The bad news: Steve Sarkisian enters his second year as head coach of the Trojans, having returned to USC after five years coaching the Washington Huskies. As a head coach, Sark is 43-33. That middling record would usually go in the good news section, except for the fact that Sark's teams are 6-0 against Cal. LiffeyBear wrote an excellent breakdown of the USC offense last year, and we should expect to see more of the same this year as almost all of last season's coaching staff returns. In broad strokes, expect an uptempo offense that spreads the field to pass, but one that can also carve it up on the ground. In addition to the obvious threat from Cody Kessler, Sarkisian's offense has produced a 1000-yard rusher every season (Chris Polk 2x, Bishop Sankey 2x, Javorius Allen).
The good news: Um. Coach Sark has never been named WAC Coach of the Year?
The good news: That's right, we're doing the good news first because we actually have some: Nelson Agholor is gone! He's not the only one, either. The Trojan offense also loses Allen, WR George Farmer, and TE Randall Telfer, all of whom will be getting a shot in the pros. The biggest loss, however, is on defense. Two time All-American DE Leonard Williams was selected sixth overall by the Jets, leaving a big hole to be filled on the Trojans' defensive line.
The bad news: It's USC. When one star leaves, another blue chip steps into his place. Reinforcements come in the form of the first full recruiting class since being freed from NCAA sanctions. Sark and his crew took full advantage, signing the top class in the nation according to Rivals and Scout. USC also returns seven starters each on offense and defense, including JuJu Smith, who is expected to take Agholor's place as the wide receiver of our nightmares. Look out as well for two new running backs: Justin Davis should be the Trojans' new speed guy, complemented by Tre Madden as the power back. And all this brings us to...
The bad news: Remember how good Jared Goff was last year? Even if your heart refuses to believe it, the numbers say Cody Kessler was better. He was the second most efficient QB in the Pac-12 between Marcus "Heisman" Mariota, and the 10th most efficient in the country. He completed nearly 70% of his passes last season for 39 TDs and 5 INTs, including four scores against the Bears. Ugh.
The good news: One of Kessler's interceptions last year came against the Bears, so we have that. Kessler and Goff are both on the Maxwell Award watchlist and these are both guys who should be playing on Sundays very soon, so this matchup should be highly entertaining.
The Matchups: USC O vs. Cal D
The bad news: I'm going to assume you read the previous section and don't need any more encouragement to be afraid of Cody Kessler. If you do need more for whatever reason, look no further than his offensive line and Preseason All-American center Max Tuerk. That unit, one of the best in the Pac 12, matches up rather well with a Cal defense that recorded a conference low 16 sacks last season.
The good news: The rest of the Trojan offense isn't exactly weak, but it does field some question marks going into the season. The Davis and Madden tandem of running backs is relatively unproven, as is the wide receiver rotation behind JuJu Smith. The tight end position is also uncertain after USC announced that last year's starter Bryce Dixon is no longer enrolled at the university.
The Matchups: USC D vs. Cal O
The bad news: Myles Jack. Shaq Thompson. Adoree' Jackson. The first two are scary two-way players. The third is a scary three-way player, and just the kind of guy who figures to have a big day against the Bears. Look out for him at CB, WR, and returning kickoffs. He shouldn't be hard to find. Another player to watch on the USC defense (and NCAA All-Apostrophe team) is Su'a Cravens, who led the team in interceptions and TFLs last year.
The good news: Leonard Williams is a genuinely huge loss. A big game from Cal's running backs should go a long way towards buying Goff some time in the pocket. Another factor to consider on both offense and defense is that the Trojans' depth is still limited by a few years of lost scholarships. Cal could benefit from playing a banged-up USC team at that point in the season.
The bad news: Cal won't be wearing those excellent Joe Roth throwbacks this year. They probably won't have time to go trick-or-treating either. Also the USC band will be there.
The good news: Maybe the Bears can go trick or treating earlier, since they have a long week to prepare after a Thursday night matchup against UCLA.
The Bears certainly missed a couple of golden opportunities to break the streak against USC while the Trojans had a sanction-weakened roster. They should be back to near full strength this year as Sark continues to install his strategy and Cody Kessler continues on his tireless search for braaaiiinnss...er...a spot in the College Football Playoff. But the Trojans have some vulnerabilities, and most importantly they don't have Agholor. My prediction? Expect a game with lots of offense, and even more cutaways to TV announcers who are wearing costumes for some reason.