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USC Football 2016 Team Preview: This Schedule is Brutal

USC is in the hands of Clay Helton and Lynn Swann now.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Notre Dame took down USC last year but surely has nightmares from the last trip to the Coliseum. Let's hope the regular season finale goes much better in 2016.

2015 Record: 8-6

F/+ Rank: 17

S&P Rank: 17

FEI Rank: 17

Wins: Arkansas State, Idaho, Arizona State, No. 17 Utah, California, Arizona, Colorado, UCLA

Losses: No. 3 Stanford (x2), Washington, No. 11 Notre Dame, No. 19 Oregon, No. 21 Wisconsin

*****

USC is still wandering in the wilderness. The school is now 2 full-time head coaches, 2 interim coaching periods, and 2 athletic directors away from the Peter Carroll era. Somehow, in the year 2016 they've landed on Clay Helton and Lynn Swann as the guiding lights of progress.

The Trojans' struggles in recent years are well documented. Overall, the school is 61-31 since 2009 which isn't terrible by any means but they haven't won a major bowl game or claimed a Pac-12 title in 7 years now. Perhaps more frustrating is the fact that only one season in the last 7 has seen USC lose fewer than 4 games.

The Steve Sarkisian era came to a grinding halt last season after a 3-2 start and wild rumors about the coach's reckless drinking around the football program. Sarkisian finished his career 12-6 and in stepped Helton for his second interim stint--this one extended--and he completed 2015 going 5-2.

Evidently, that was enough to impress AD Pat Haden (now no longer in power) who signed Helton up this off-season for the full-time gig.

Low Moment

It would have to be Sarkisian's messy firing mixed later in the year with the health concerns of Pat Haden. In reality, nothing on the field was overly disappointing for the Trojans. Sure they lost 6 games but they played 6 ranked team and at least broke the losing streak to UCLA.

The year 2015 will always go down as more of one concerning with off-field problems and USC's continuing quest to find their mojo again.

High Moment

USC lost 8 straight games to UCLA from 1992 to 1998 before ripping off streaks of 7 wins and 5 wins in a row to take 12 out of the 13 matchups from 1999 until 2011.

Ever since Jim Mora Jr. showed up in Los Angeles the tables turned back towards the Bruins as UCLA won 3 straight in the cross-town rivalry from 2012 until 2014.

Last year, USC came storming back to break the losing streak with an impressive 40-21 to clinch the Pac-12 South division. The Trojans caused 2 interceptions from Josh Rosen and held the ball for an insane 40 minutes while rushing for 235 yards.

2016 Schedule:

Home: Utah State, Arizona State, Colorado, California, Oregon, Notre Dame

Away: Stanford, Utah, Arizona, Washington, UCLA

Neutral: Alabama

Well, this is certainly in the conversation as the most difficult schedule in the country. The Pac-12 might be wide open which could allow USC to win the conference for the first time in 7 years but a playoff run or any National Championship aspirations seem foolish.

Another campaign with 5 or 6 ranked teams in the final AP Poll looks likely.

Projected S&P Ranking: 9

By a decent margin (Stanford is 2nd at 16th) the Trojans are projected to be the toughest game on the Notre Dame schedule.

Predicted Kickoff Spread: Notre Dame (+1.5)

This is the only game from these summer previews in which I predicted Notre Dame will be an underdog at kickoff time. I think that bodes well for the Irish and let's the world know I'm a little more bullish on Notre Dame than usual.

I can understand if people think this won't be a particularly threatening USC team and that Notre Dame should be favored right now, at least. My thinking is that with their schedule they will be favored if they are 8-3 or better coming into the regular season finale. Unless, the Irish are a dominant 11-0 or 10-1.

USC is now entering their third season since end of scholarship reductions and NCAA sanctions. Those chains are now fully gone now. Like most teams they are under the 85-man limit (I have them at 81 scholarships before handing out aid to walk-ons) and even if they are a little light in the numbers on defense (37 scholarships) there's as much talent packed into that group as any place outside of Tuscaloosa.

Still, this team could go any number of different directions. I'm not a huge believer in Clay Helton being a difference maker and while Pendergast offers some hope on defense this staff doesn't appear to be lining things up perfectly for a major run.

Struggles at quarterback, a couple bad injuries, and 5 or 6 losses against a brutal schedule seems entirely in play for 2016. Conversely, you could argue Helton brings a lot more stability (especially emotionally) from his two predecessors and he's able to just let the Trojans play and they win 10 games.

Either way, barring a complete collapse with Helton fighting for his job by mid-October or earlier this should be a very difficult game for Notre Dame. One of the USC quarterbacks will have enough experience in the offense by the finale and if that production is paired with Pendergast-led improvement on defense it would make sense if the Trojans are favored.

***

For those of you who are not aware this will be my last post on One Foot Down as I step down as manager and move on with life. If you'd like to stay abreast with my future you can follow me @EMMurtaugh or email me at murtaugheric@gmail.com for more info. Thanks for a great ride!