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Texas Longhorns 2017 schedule preview: USC Trojans

For the first time since the 2006 Rose Bowl, the Longhorns and Trojans will square off on the national stage this coming season.

NCAA Football: Southern California Spring Game Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

More than a decade has come and gone since Texas and USC transformed the 2006 Rose Bowl into arguably the greatest 60-minute star-studded slugfest in college football history. It all came down to just five yards and one iconic Vince Young scamper for the pylon, which abruptly signified the end of a Pete Carroll-led dynasty in Los Angeles after 34 consecutive wins and the pinnacle of the Mack Brown era in Austin.

The Longhorns and Trojans have since endured their respective falls from greatness, though, winning just 65 and 73 percent of their games since that January 4 night, respectively.

Now at the front end of two drastically different eras, the ‘Horns are eying a rebirth into the world of prominence under Tom Herman, while the Trojans already have their golden child in Heisman favorite Sam Darnold. Unlike Texas, though, the latter now houses realistic aspirations of once again capturing the title that’s eluded each storied program since the mid-2000s.

11 seasons, 89 collective losses and six coaching changes later, Texas and USC will finally cross paths again – this time as part of a Week 3 matchup at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

Key Returners

  • QB Sam Darnold
  • RB Ronald Jones II
  • WR Deontay Burnett
  • LB Cameron Smith
  • CB Iman Marshall

Key Departures

  • WR Juju Smith-Schuster
  • WR Darreus Rogers
  • OT Chad Wheeler
  • OT Zach Banner
  • CB Adoree’ Jackson

Similar to the 2006 Rose Bowl, the looming September 16 meeting isn’t one many expect Texas to come out on top of, largely due to one notable trait resemblant to USC’s 2005 team – an elite gunslinger.

After guiding USC to a nine-game winning streak to close out 2016, including a instant classic Rose Bowl victory over No. 5 Penn State, the Trojans are primed to go as far as Darnold can take them in 2017. The smart money is on a College Football Playoff appearance — VegasInsider currently has the Trojans pegged with the third-highest odds to win the national championship at 7/1. Such expectations aren’t much of a surprise considering the roster remains abundant with blue-chippers, even after the departures of numerous key contributors.

We’ll start with the obvious.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock since last winter, you’re well aware of how palpable the praise surrounding Darnold has been this offseason. As a redshirt freshman, Darnold was inserted into the starting lineup in Week 4, only to see his Trojans fall to No. 24 Utah 31-27. USC then proceeded to rip off the aforementioned nine-game winning streak and closed the season as arguably the hottest team in the nation not named Clemson, courtesy of Darnold’s commonly noted it factor — one of the many traits that have Darnold dubbed the Heisman favorite and potential No. 1 pick in the 2018 NFL Draft.

A poised field general mature beyond his years, Darnold’s lone effort at USC thus far was spent enjoying an abundance of options in 2016 en route to 3,086 yards and 31 touchdowns through the air.

Juju Smith-Schuster and Darreus Rogers’ trustworthy hands will now be at the receiving end of NFL gunslingers passes, though, leaving Darnold without USC’s top two receivers from 2016.

126 receptions for 1,610 yards and 14 touchdowns aren’t so easily replaced, either.

With such elite pass-catching now playing for a paycheck, Jalen Greene and Michael Pittman Jr. serve as USC’s leading returning receivers on the outside after collectively hauling in just 14 catches last season. Not all is lost, though, as USC returns 56 receptions for 622 yards and seven scores in the slot in the form of Deontay Burnett, an explosive playmaker in space, and Steven Mitchell Jr. can be a formidable option if he’s able to return to form after suffering an ACL injury last season. Not to mention, there’s plenty of talent waiting in the wings, such as Keyshawn Young and a pair of newcomers in Jospeh Lewis and Tyler Vaughns, as well as Mackey Watch List tight end Daniel Imatorbhebhe, who will be stepping into a starting role following a 250-yard effort in 2016.

While it won’t quite be the tantalizing crop of pass-catchers Darnold enjoyed en route to Pac-12 Freshman Offensive Player of the Year honors, the Trojans remain a revolving door of elite prospects that will be able to make plays given the opportunity. It also helps to have a field general like Darnold orchestrating the offense and making the life of less proven commodities a bit easier.

How long it takes the fairly more inexperienced group of wide receivers to get up to speed remains to be seen, but in the meantime, offensive coordinator Tee Martin can find solace in a trio of capable ball carriers, headlined by Ronald Jones II.

As a sophomore, Jones essentially served as the second man up behind Justin Davis, who battled injuries in 2016 before departing for a career with the Los Angeles Rams. In any case, due to Davis spending time sidelined, Jones proved to be plenty capable of assuming a role a as a feature-caliber back for the Trojans, leading the team in carries (177), yards (1,082) and touchdowns (12).

With Davis now in the NFL, Jones has unquestionably solidified himself as USC’s feature back and another uptick in production is likely to follow. Last season, Jones was nothing short of a big play waiting to happen, evident by his three 60-plus yard runs and 6.1 yards per carry average, and he’ll need to be even better as a junior for USC to live up to its expansive hype.

Complimenting Jones in the backfield will be a pair of juniors in Aca’Cedric Ware and Dominic Davis. In 2016, Ware and Davis combined for 529 yards in limited reps and should each aid in replacing the 110 carries Justin Davis absorbed after each averaged upwards of five yards per carry last season.

As opposed to last season, though, there’s an additional roadblock for Darnold and a Jones-led stable of running backs to overcome — uncertainty in the trenches.

In 2016, USC allowed just 12 sacks all season, marking the sixth-best effort in the nation. Darnold enjoying the luxury of such extensive protection isn’t likely to be the case this coming season, though, considering the Trojans lost left tackle Chad Wheeler, right tackle Zach Banner and left guard Damien Mama to the NFL. That said, with starting center Toa Lobendahn returning after missing the majority of last season due to an MCL and ACL injury suffered against Alabama, USC essentially returns three starters in the trenches. Former five-star tackle Chuma Edoga will also be filling the void left by Wheeler, so while USC will certainly take a step back in regards to experience and proven protection, the Trojans still boast no shortage of talent.

The key, however, will be how quickly that group meshes under offensive line coach Neil Callaway with a brutal three-game stretch to begin the season, which kicks off against a Western Michigan club whose lone blemish last season came No. 8 Wisconsin in the Cotton Bowl.

Flip the field and the Trojans return a strong core from a defense that allowed just 17.4 points per game throughout the final seven games of Pac-12 play.

Of course 2016 Thorpe Award winner Adoree’ Jackson’s departure and the exceptional coverage and return prowess he took with him to the NFL will be missed, but Iman Marshall looks to be a star in the making after notching three interceptions and eight pass breakups as a sophomore. Safety Leon McQuay III is gone, as well, but Ajene Harris and Marvell Tell III return as familiar faces with some experience, although the secondary doesn’t seem like it will overwhelm opponents, at least early on.

Where the Trojans can see a considerable uptick in the dominance department comes close to the line of scrimmage. USC loses linebacker Michael Hutchings and nose tackle Stevie Tu’Ikolovatu and their collective 119 tackles and 4.5 sacks, but what remains is noteworthy.

Linebackers Cameron Smith and Porter Gustin, USC’s top two leading tacklers, are back after combining for 151 tackles and 20 tackles for loss in 2016, as is 280-pound lineman Rasheem Green, who led USC last season with six sacks in addition to two blocked field goals. Uchenna Nwosu also returns after tallying 7.5 tackles for loss and three sacks last season, but collectively, the entire USC squad got to the quarterback just 26 times in 2016. Not to mention, the 19 40-plus yard gains allowed ranked 100th nationally. That said, express progress with some stout pieces headlining a more experienced unit; one that will likely resemble its Pac-12 play performance rather than the 52 and 49 points allowed to open and close the season against Alabama and Penn State, respectively.

As far as what Texas can do to compete with and potentially shock a USC squad comprised of a unique blend of uncertainty, upside and pro potential is concerned, the ideal gamelan seems relatively clear-cut.

For the 'Horns, considering USC replaces both tackles and the left guard, the front seven's ability to disrupt the flow of things is critical. To that end, there's plenty of room for optimism.

With the exception of Paul Boyette Jr., Texas returns the bulk of a box that led the way for 41 sacks in 2016, which ranked 5th nationally. Such a unit returns with more experience and adds the expertise of Todd Orlando, who, as Herman put it, made chicken salad out of some lesser parts.

For example, bearing in mind that USC’s greatest weapon is Darnold, Orlando led his Houston defense against two Heisman-caliber quarterbacks and the eventual winner in Lamar Jackson last season during meetings against No. 3 Oklahoma and No. 5 Louisville. In doing so, Orlando’s elaborate and aggressive blitzing scheme resulted in 16 total sacks and thus, allowing just 33 total points against the Sooners and Cardinals — two of the nation’s most potent offenses.

If Texas can remain true to its 2016 form and create havoc in the backfield just as Orlando's defense did during victories over Oklahoma and Louisville, asking a crop of fairly unproven USC wide receivers to create separation that much sooner becomes a much taller task.

Of course, overwhelming a talent like Darnold is easier said than done, but Orlando’s defense did just like that with quite favorable results against Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield and Louisville’s Jackson; a pair of gunslingers that performed at a higher level than Darnold in 2016.

Offensively, Texas’ bread and butter should be its passing game.

Throughout the offseason, Shane Buechele has earned continues praise for his progress following a record-breaking freshman campaign, and he’ll be slinging the ball around to a wide receiver corps that Herman noted as the deepest and most talented he’s ever coached. With USC replacing two starters in the secondary, in addition to uncertainty in the backfield, the ‘Horns best hope is attacking through the air against a defense that gave up plenty of big plays in 2016.

If the passing game and pass rush can click on all cylinders, Texas has a shot; albeit a long shot.

Considering USC holds a 75.6 percent chance to beat Texas, per ESPN’s FPI, the ‘Horns Week 3 meeting with the Trojans will essentially serve as a measuring stick for how Herman’ club stacks up against elite teams with matchups against Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Kansas State coming soon thereafter.

In short, Texas isn’t expected to topple the nation’s preseason No. 4-ranked Trojans, but the ‘Horns first-year head coach wasn’t expected to guide Houston to wins over No. 9 Florida State, No. 3 Oklahoma or No. 5 Louisville, either.