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UCLA Football 2018 Opponent Preview: Southern Cal Trojans

Is it a make or break year for Clay Helton?

NCAA Football: Cotton Bowl-Ohio State vs Southern California Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to Bruins Nation’s opponent preview series for the UCLA Bruins’ 2018 football season! Each week, we will be taking a look at an upcoming opponent this year, examine their strengths and weaknesses, and make a bold prediction regarding the outcome.

This week, we take a look at UCLA’s Week 11 opponent: the Southern Cal Trojans.

Last Year

This may come as a shock to some of you, but I have friends who are Southern Cal alumni and fans. I know, crazy. But maybe what was less crazy was how disappointed Southern Cal fans were with last season.

On the surface, that sounds crazy, right? Southern Cal won the Pac-12! They made it to a New Years Six bowl game! That’s the kind of success UCLA has only sniffed in the last two decades (thanks again, Dan!).

And yet....

Clay Helton’s team returned a boatload of starters last year, including Heisman candidate and eventual #3 overall NFL draft pick Sam Darnold, running back Ronald Jones II, and wide receiver Deontay Burnett. The defense had blue chippers at every position, including Uchenna Nwosu and Rasheem Green. This same team (minus a few pieces) had just come off a Rose Bowl victory and was expected to contend for the College Football Playoffs. That didn’t happen.

The signs existed all year. Double overtime was needed for the Trojans to knock off a clearly-rebuilding Texas Longhorns team at home. The first loss at Washington State showcased an offense that looked like it didn’t realize how loaded it was at every position. The best team they played in the regular season, Notre Dame, wiped them off the field in a 49-14 victory that should have disqualified the Trojans from any CFP discussions. Despite the media’s best efforts, that proved to be the case and a 24-7 loss to Ohio State (that really should have been more had Urban Meyer not continued his apparent streak of poor decision-making).

Even the Crosstown Rivalry game, a 28-23 victory by Southern Cal, was the kind of game where no one came away happy. Trojan fans clearly felt their team had barely escaped a game that they should have won convincingly, while Bruin fans were upset that the apparent loss was close enough that Jim Mora might skate by for another year (he was instead relieved of his duties the next day).

So that’s how you get into the situation where Clay Helton may actually be in a make or break year, as Southern Cal fans wonder if he’s actually good at his job or just better by degrees than his disappointing predecessors.

Offensive Outlook

So, here’s problem #1 Clay Helton is going to have facing him: Who is the quarterback going to be?

If you’ll recall, this was the first question Helton had to answer upon taking over the team full-time in 2016. That year, he had a QB battle between Sam Darnold and Max Browne. He eventually chose Browne and Southern Cal lost 2 of the first 3 games that Browne started before eventually letting Darnold take over. That Trojan team started 1-3, which essentially kept the most talented Trojan team of the Helton era out of the College Football Playoffs. With Darnold now gone, Southern Cal once again finds itself with an open starter spot at QB and I’m sure Trojan fans are excited over the prospect of Helton having another QB decision on his hands.

The good news for Helton is that he has some options. Sophomore Matt Fink has actual game experience, having played a bit as Sam Darnold’s back-up in mop-up duty last year, but he’s the low ceiling option of the three. Redshirt freshman Jack Sears is a former 4-star who has a higher upside as well as a year in the system. The real wildcard is incoming freshman JT Daniels, who graduated from high school a year early in order to reclassify into this class. Daniels has the highest upside, but he’d be a true freshman (really, high school senior) being thrown into the fire at a school with a ton of pressure to produce right away.

The better news for Helton is that whoever he picks at quarterback has a ton of talent to support him on offense. Ronald Jones II may be gone, but the Trojans still have Stephen Carr, who was just as effective in his freshman year backing up Jones, and should take over the starting job this year. The big question with Carr is injuries. Carr missed 4 games last year due to a foot injury and had a herniated disk that kept him out of spring practice. So, Southern Cal is going to need to find someone to, at the very least, provide meaningful reps behind him, otherwise the Trojan run game could run into trouble.

For as long as I can remember, the wide receiver core at Southern Cal has been stacked and this year is no different. The Trojans lost two of their top 3 pass catchers in Burnett and Steven Mitchell Jr., yet there’s so much talent here that it’s hard to see any drop-off in receiver production (at least from the receiver’s end). Tyler Vaughns and Michael Pittman Jr. should be able to more than handle an increased load, especially since they led the team in yards per target last year. There is a host of tight ends to chose from including Tyler Petite and Daniel Imatorbhebhe, who can abuse teams over the middle. And the Trojans will welcome in 5-star recruit Amon-Ra St. Brown this season because the rich just continue to get richer.

The other major question for the Trojans will be on the offensive line. The Trojans return two all-conference nominees on the line and were very good at run blocking, but there is a belief that Darnold’s ability to evade defenders and get outside the pocket helped make the line look better than it actually was. In a more overall look, the Trojans were awful in the red zone and any chance this team has of making a big run at the CFP would necessarily include getting much better inside the 20.

Defensive Outlook

The Southern Cal defense is something of a conundrum. Again, there is talent all over the field, but the defense struggled at enough things that they ended up with the 55th ranked defense, according to defensive S&P+. That’s a big drop from their 20th ranked defense in 2016 and nowhere near good enough considering the amount of talent.

Here’s where things get interesting: I don’t know how much better this defense will realistically be. Cameron Smith, the do-everything inside linebacker, is still here. Trojan fans hope that Porter Gustin will be able to contribute more than 4 games this year (though he is projected to miss the start of the season due to a torn meniscus, so we’ll see), but beyond those two and defensive end Christian Rector, there isn’t a ton of returning talent that really pops out at me on the front seven. That’s especially problematic on the defensive line, which was awful against the run last year and may be relying on redshirt freshmen Jay Tufele and Marlon Tuipulotu to provide meaningful snaps to see anything approaching improvement on that front.

The linebacker corps beyond Smith and Gustin is solid, if not uninspiring, which could also prove problematic. Juniors John Houston Jr. and Jordan Iosefa got playing time last year and incoming freshman Palaie Gaoteote IV was highly ranked coming out of high school, but this group has to try and replicate the production of Nwosu, who was a monster in the pass rush, to the point that he ended up a 2nd round pick. Not to mention, if Gustin is out for an extended period of time, this group could be in trouble.

The problems in the front seven last year masked that this team has an incredibly good secondary (gee, where have I heard that before). Safety Chris Hawkins is no longer here, and cornerback Jack Jones was kicked off the team, but Iman Marshall is still a shutdown corner and Marvell Tell III is still a capable (if, personally uninspiring) safety. There is plenty of talent to fill out the rest of the two deep despite those losses. The big question will be if the Trojan defense can stop the rush enough to make opponents test this secondary.

Bold Prediction

I know, UCLA fan and all, but I’ve personally been picking against the Bruins the past few years, only because I did not trust the coaching staff would put the team in a position to win. That prediction proved correct the past three years, but we’re entering a new era where I actually expect the coaching staff to be able to do their jobs.

On paper, UCLA should not win this game. This is the beginning of a ramp-up under Chip Kelly while Southern Cal should theoretically be at the point of their coaching cycle where the team should be competing on a national stage. But I don’t see that happening for the Trojans. In fact, I see them dropping multiple games early to Stanford and Texas, along with close matchups with Arizona and Utah. By the time this game rolls around, the Trojans could be looking at already possessing 3 losses and, with a season-ending home game with Notre Dame afterwards, they could really be looking past this game.

In fact, I’m counting on it. I don’t call this “Bold Predictions” for nothing, especially because you can’t hold these against me when they don’t happen.

UCLA pulls off the upset and beats the Trojans 24-14.

Go Bruins!