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Cal football opponent review: USC Trojans start fresh

Do the Bears have a shot at breaking the losing streak against USC in 2016?

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Clay Helton's transition to the head coaching job at USC can't have gone the way he planned it. He stepped in as interim HC following Steve Sarkisian's departure and beat #3 Utah in his second game, but his team faded down the stretch on the way to a frustrating 8–6 record. (When you're USC, you get to be frustrated with 8–6.) Now, with the benefit of a full offseason to reshape his program, Helton will get a chance to show just what he can do.

Season Review

The Trojans came into the season with high expectations, most of which rested on senior QB Cody Kessler and his band of blue chips on offense. Two nonconference games did little to dispel that, as USC rolled Arkansas State and Idaho by a combined score of 114–15. But with conference play came trouble, as Stanford beat the Trojans 41–31 in the annual Please Don't Make Me Root for One of These Teams Bowl.

USC recovered, trouncing Arizona State on the road, but problems both on and off the field became apparent two weeks later against Washington. The Huskies traveled to LA for a Thursday night game that would be Coach Steve Sarkisian's last. Cody Kessler threw two interceptions, the Trojans offense faltered late in the game, and the Huskies beat their former coach by a score 17–12. Sark was placed on a leave of absence the following Sunday and was fired the following day.

That gave Helton less than a week to prepare for a trip to #14 Notre Dame. It was a tumultuous game to finish a tumultuous week, as the Trojans erased a two-score deficit only to cough up their own lead in the fourth quarter. A 41–31 loss dropped their record to 3–3 at the midway point of the season, with undefeated Utah next on the schedule. But USC rallied for a statement win, led by freshman linebacker Cameron Smith's three interceptions and the Trojans' four rushing TDs.

They extended their winning streak to two with a win over the Golden Bears. Cal trailed by only three at halftime, but a scoring drive by the Trojans followed by an Adoree' Jackson pick-six put the Bears in a hole they couldn't climb out of. Wins against Arizona and Colorado brought the Trojans' record to 7–3.

The chase for a Pac-12 South title hit a snag in Eugene, where Oregon's Vernon Davis threw for six touchdowns (a record for any USC opponent) in a 48–28 win. That left just the regular season finale against UCLA, against whom the Trojans had lost three straight. Kessler threw for two scores and ran for another, while freshman cornerback Iman Marshall's two picks neutralized Josh Rosen.

The rematch against Stanford in the conference title game was reminiscent of their first meeting as the Trojans again conceded 41 points in a loss. Chirstian McCaffrey threw, caught, and ran for scores, equaling USC's entire scoring total and relegating them to a Holiday Bowl matchup with Wisconsin. The Trojans lost that one too, falling 23–21 on a late field goal.

Season Preview

The Trojans have plenty of reasonable excuses for what went wrong this season, but also some reasons for optimism in Clay Helton's first full season. A 5–4 record (2–3 against top-25 teams) is no small feat for a team that dealt with coaching turmoil midseason and despite some notable losses, Helton will have a few interesting pieces returning in 2016.

First, the departures: gone are Kessler (we'll come back to that in a moment), linebackers Su'a Cravens and Anthony Sarao, and nearly all of the Trojans' defensive line. That includes DT Kenny Bigelow—a rising sophomore whose ACL tear in spring practice will keep him out all season.

Behind the D-line, though, the defense looks strong. Freshman All-Americans Iman Marshall and Cameron Smith return, joined by Adoree' Jackson and both starting safeties from 2015. Greatly benefiting from that consistency will be new defensive coordinator and friend of the program Clancy Pendergast, as well as DBs coach Ronnie Bradford (who was Pendergast's administrative assistant at Cal).

Nine starters return on offense for the Trojans, but the few changes there will be even more pronounced. To start, there will be a new quarterback to terrorize the conference. The spring practice battle between sophomore Max Browne and redshirt frosh Sam Darnold didn't yield a conclusion, but one of the two will be the new face of the program come August. Whoever wins the starting job will have help in the backfield from two capable running backs—senior Justin Davis and sophomore Ronald Jones II, who set the all-time freshman rushing record for the Trojans with 987 yards.

Tee Martin was promoted to offensive coordinator before the Holiday Bowl and will retain that position this season. He'll have the help of Clay Helton's younger brother Tyson, who was recently hired as QBs and RBs coach and passing game coordinator.

Unsurprisingly, early predictions for USC are optimistic. ESPN's post-spring top 25 has the Trojans ranked #12, while FPI redicts nine wins. That's impressive, considering the difficulty of the Trojans' schedule, which includes 11 bowl teams from last year. Their hardest matchup may be their season opener—a neutral-site game against Alabama. They'll also play Utah State and close the season against Notre Dame.

So what should we expect when the Bears travel to LA? The main storyline will surely be different from last year's contest, which centered around two of the conference's best quarterbacks. We'll know a lot more about their new signal caller by that time (October 27th, a Thursday night game), but the Trojans offense figures to be as productive as ever with the strength of its running back corps. The flipside of that is that the rebuilt defensive front should have had time to jell, mitigating what is perhaps the Trojans' biggest weakness before the season.

Assuming Helton's transition to full-time head coach goes smoothly, the Trojans are in position to contend for the Pac-12 South. Based on his early returns last fall, there's every reason to believe that will be the case. But coaches will have a lot more tape on his team now and have seen that he's not invincible in big games, so there's still much for him to prove. We won't have to wait long to find out—that Alabama game should say a lot about the Trojans' fortunes in 2016.