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Notre Dame Football 2015 Off-Season Preview: Southern California Trojans

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Gonna need a better effort than last year.

Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

USC TROJANS

2014 Record: 9-4

F/+ Rank: 16

Wins: Fresno State, Stanford, Oregon State, Arizona, Colorado, Washington State, California, Notre Dame, Nebraska

Losses: Boston College, Arizona State, Utah, UCLA

~~~

Season Recap

USC easily pasted Fresno in the opener and slipped past Stanford by 3 points with a 53-yard Andre Heidari field goal, despite being out-gained by 122 yards. They led BC 10-0 on the road but would allow 452 rushing yards on the night and fall 37-31.

Oregon State was dispatched easily but USC followed that up with a crushing Hail Mary loss to Arizona State at home. They nearly coughed up a 15-point lead in the 4th quarter against Arizona the next week. The Wildcats missed a game-tying 2-point conversion late, but uncovered an onside kick only to miss a game-winning 36-yard field goal.

Colorado was no match and USC dropped a road game at Utah in the last seconds. At 5-3 overall things didn't look great but the Trojans finished strong going 4-1 down the stretch with wins over Notre Dame and Nebraska to close out the season. UCLA won over USC for the 3rd straight season which sticks in their craw.

Series: 45-36-5 Notre Dame

Get ready for the 87th meeting between these rivals. Four out of the last 5 games in the series have featured both teams unranked in the AP Poll. This will be Southern California's 40th game played inside Notre Dame Stadium.

Coach Resume: Steve Sarkisian (9-4, 2nd Year, 43-33 Overall)

"Seven Win Steve" no more? After going 7-6 over 3 straight seasons as the head coach at Washington, Sarkisian picked up an 8th win in 2013 and was hired by USC before posting 9 wins last fall. Will a 10-win season be next?

Returning Starters: 14 Total (7 Offense, 7 Defense)

A nice core of players return, sanctions are over, and great recruiting adds depth to a team that is projected to begin inside the Top 10 and compete for a conference and/or national title.

Linemen Situation: Very Good

Every linemen who started on offense last year will return for 2015. Redshirt junior Chad Wheeler started the first 8 games at left tackle but tore his ACL against Utah. He missed the spring while in rehab. Rising sophomore Toa Lobendahn started the first 8 games at left guard then moved over to left tackle to finish the season. Redshirt sophomore Khaliel Rogers started 3 games at left guard, while sophomore Damien Mama started the final 2 games at left guard, as well as the first 2 games of the season at right guard.

Senior Max Tuerk started at every game at center and is back. Rising sophomore Viane Talamaivao started the last 11 games at right guard, and redshirt junior Zach Banner started every game at right tackle and returns. Lots of options for a unit that could be one of the best in the nation if it improves and meets its potential.

J.R. Tavai (53 tackles, 13.5 TFL, 7 sacks) is lost at the Rush end position, although redshirt junior Scott Felix (36 tackles, 5 TFL, 1.5 sacks) made 9 starts overall and 3 at Rush as Tavai's backup. Leonard Williams (80 tackles, 9.5 TFL, 7 sacks, 6th overall to the Jets) is a major loss at strong-side defense end.

Elsewhere, the depth is being built after some lean sanction years. Fifth-year senior Greg Townsend made a couple starts and returns. Nose tackle and 5th-year senior Antwaun Woods returns but tore his pectoral muscle during bowl prep and missed spring ball. Yet another 5th-year senior Delvon Simmons made 11 starts on the interior and returns, as does senior JUCO transfer Claude Pelon who made 3 starts in 2015. Cody Temple (another 5th-year senior) offered depth at the nose and comes back too.

There are several highly touted players ready to make an impact. Redshirt sophomore Kenny Bigelow (.994) missed all of 2014 with an injury and should be ready this fall. Also added to the mix is a sensational freshmen class including Osa Masina (.984 Composite), Porter Gustin (.981), Rasheem Green (.989), and Jacob Daniel (.964).

Returning Quarterback: Yes

Cody Kessler returns for his 5th-year and in my mind is among the most underrated quarterbacks in the country. He's seemingly been stuck in the average category by many but USC has suffered more from defensive lapses in losses more than anything over the past couple seasons.

Since the beginning of 2013, Kessler has totaled 551 completions on 814 attempts (67.6%) for 6,793 yards with 59 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. Honestly, those are Heisman level numbers if USC is more of a winning program. There's a reason Phil Steele named him a 1st-team pre-season All-American, which I guess doesn't really make him all that underrated anymore.

Biggest Problem for 2015: Finding a Bell-Cow Running Back

Javorius "Buck" Allen decided not to come back for his 5th season and was picked 125th overall by the Ravens after a strong 1,489 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns. He also caught 41 passes for 458 yards. Junior Justin Davis moves up to the top spot after 595 yards last year but the depth after him is highly questionable.

Fifth-year senior Tre Madden (703 yards in 2013) missed all of 2014 with a toe injury and still was not taking contact in the spring. After him a trio of freshmen running backs will all get a hard look at playing time, including Ronald Jones (.982), Dominic Davis (.886), and Aca'Cedric Ware (.871).

It's not as important of a position, however, the tight ends are probably the scariest unit for USC heading into the summer. Randall Telfer (21 receptions, 197 yards, 2 TD, 198th overall to the Browns) is gone and Bryce Dixon (14 receptions, 198 yards, 4 TD) is no longer enrolled and left school this spring. Redshirt junior Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick offers promise but missed all of 2014 due to academics and hadn't picked things up all that well this spring.

Former Irish recruiting target Taylor McNamara will add much needed depth after using a graduate transfer after a lackluster career at Oklahoma. USC was using redshirt sophomore walk-on Connor Spears as the first-team tight end during spring practice.

Biggest Strength for 2015: Offensive Line

This positional unit just has to be the rock for the offense and team in 2015. There are 4 and 5-star prospects all over the place, a lot of players with experience, and enough depth to mold this into something great.

They had their ups and downs last year, especially against Boston College (20 rushing yards) and UCLA (62 rushing yards), and need to do better than giving up 32 sacks. But they were young and should get much, much better.

Offensive Scheme: Pro-Style

USC has tried to incorporate some spread concepts into their system under Sarkisian but without a mobile running quarterback they've remained pretty steadily on the pro-style spectrum.

4 Players to Remember

WR JuJu Smith, So.- First-team freshman All-American with a ridiculous combination of size (6-2, 215) and speed. Finished second on the team last year with 54 receptions, 724 yards, and 5 touchdowns.

LB Su'a Cravens, Jr.- Picked up first-team All-Pac 12 and some national All-American honors. Started every game in 2014, moving from safety to a rover-like strong-side linebacker spot after 3 games and finished with 68 tackles, 17 TFL, 5 sacks, and 9 pass break-ups.

LB Lamar Dawson, 5th Sr.- Started 16 games up to mid-2013 before a knee injury forced him to miss the end of that season and all of 2014. He's coming back and could be an excellent replacement for Hayes Pullard at middle linebacker.

CB Adoree Jackson, So.- First-team freshman All-American with plenty of other honors including Pac-12 freshman defender of the year. Broke up 9 passes at corner last year and also played receiver with 10 receptions and 3 touchdowns. Totaled 684 yards with 2 touchdowns on kick returns.

Special Teams: 2/4

The aforementioned Jackson is back as kick returner and will likely take over the punt return duties from Nelson Agholor who scored 4 touchdowns there in his career.

Kris Albarado returns at punter but Andre Heidari leaves a big hole at kicker after being a 4-year starter.

Uniforms: 6/10

USC uniforms

Mark J. Rebilas, USA Today Sports

USC's uniforms have stayed fairly consistent over the years. In 2013, they switched to garnet, gold, and silver cleats which I thought looked terrible. Last season they switched back to the traditional black cleats with white laces to return to their classic look.

chromed out helmet was added to the mix last season to general positive reviews. I've always thought their road uniform looked sharper than their home set. That's mostly due to the Nike belly sweat being visible and the thin fabric on the back of the jerseys that allows their shoulder pads leak through and look kind of cheap.

What's To Like About the Matchup

The Irish have a 1-game home winning streak over USC. You shut up about the previous 5 losses! The Trojans offensive line might not live up to their potential. The run game could spin its wheels. Notre Dame is looking for some serious revenge. Maybe it's snows in mid-October?

What's Not To Like About the Matchup

USC is getting back to full strength in scholarships. At minimum, Kessler should be one of the better quarterbacks in the country. There are a ton of great athletes playing for the Trojans. They play on a Thursday the week prior to the ND game and will have 9 days rest. The Irish haven't beaten a very good upperclassman USC quarterback in forever.

Opponent Power Ranking Based on Irish Schedule: 1st Toughest

USC qualifies as a sleeping giant. I know a 9-4 record impresses absolutely no one, especially those in Los Angeles, and I know despite being blown out in last year's meeting the Irish can use injuries as an excuse as we look forward to a future meeting.

That all said, USC played 8(!!!) teams that finished inside the F/+ top 36 rankings last year. Going 4-4 against that gauntlet is pretty good. For comparison, Notre Dame played 5 teams inside the top 36 and went 2-3 with wins over Stanford and LSU and losses to Florida State, USC, and Louisville.

Of course, USC is looking to do better than 'pretty good' and I think they are poised to win 10+ games in 2015.

However, a brutal stretch begins in late September with Stanford, at Arizona State, Washington, at Notre Dame, and Utah. Get through that with only 1 loss and there are games left versus Arizona, Oregon, and UCLA. Honestly, a 2-loss team is eventually going to make the playoffs and there should be enough quality wins for a team like USC to make that challenge if the other conferences are lackluster.

Overall, USC was across the board solid last year finishing 26th in FEI defense and 20th in FEI offense. In the S&P rankings they finished 24th in offense and 32nd in defense. It  might not always seem like it playing in the offensively productive Pac-12 but I think the Trojans are going to improve by a good margin on defense.

The only thing with their offense is that some major proven weapons are absent outside of Kessler. Now, Justin Davis, JuJu Smith, and Adoree Jackson are budding stars who very likely will have tremendous seasons. It's just if there's a weakness heading into the season there's no one you can guarantee is going to dominate at an All-American level--which with USC's history there's at least a couple of those players on their best teams.

If those players step up on offense they should be the favorite in the Pac-12. A national title might be a bit much to ask but we'll see how the season plays out. It's going to be tough to make it into the playoffs in a brutal Pac-12.