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2021 Preview: Will This Be No. 9 USC's Breakthrough Year?

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Seven months after the confetti fell on national champion Alabama, a new college football season is nearly here. As part of Sports Illustrated's 2021 preview content, we're rolling out scouting reports for all of SI's preseason top 25 teams, featuring all the names, storylines and big games you need to know. Starting with No. 25 Nevada and running through No. 1 Alabama, we'll be featuring five teams per day from Monday through Friday.

The Big Story: USC

For what seems like the fourth year in a row, 2021 has the air of a make-or-break season for Clay Helton, who’s guided the Trojans to an 18–13 record over the past three years. USC has top-end talent yet couldn’t find consistency last season against a middling schedule, needing late comebacks to beat inferior teams. Can the Trojans put it all together in a competitive Pac-12 South?

Can't Miss: Kedon Slovis

The junior quarterback shined as a true freshman but slogged through a bit of a sophomore slump. He still ranked near the top of the Pac-12 in most passing stats, but was less efficient across the board than he was in 2019. USC has turned the wheel hard into the Air Raid offense under third-year offensive coordinator Graham Harrell, and opposing defenses had an easier time adjusting in 2020. Despite the losses of Amon-Ra St. Brown and Tyler Vaughns, this is still likely to be the league’s deepest and most talented wide receiver corps. For everything to come together, Slovis must be sharper.

USC QB Kedon Slovis

Key Question: Can the defense take a step forward?

Defensive coordinator Todd Orlando oversaw an improvement in his first season with the program. The Trojans allowed 26.0 points per game in 2020 compared with 29.4 in 2019, though they must replace key playmakers Talanoa Hufanga, Marlon Tuipulotu and Olaijah Griffin. USC has a good foundation up front, where outside linebacker Drake Jackson has first-round NFL talent. He and five-star freshman defensive end Korey Foreman should form one of the nation’s best pass-rushing duos and provide cover for a deep yet relatively untested secondary.

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X-Factor: Can the offensive line keep Slovis upright?

The group lost 2021 first-round draft pick Alijah Vera-Tucker but returns everybody else. There’s ample reason for concern, as Slovis was sacked 15 times last season—tied with Cal’s Chase Garbers for the most in the Pac-12. USC showed little interest or ability in trying to develop a consistent running game in 2020, ranking last in rushing yards per game (97.3) and yards per attempt (3.2). The additions of running back transfers Keaontay Ingram (Texas) and Darwin Barlow (TCU) should help, but the success or failure of the Trojans’s offense will likely hinge on Slovis’s availability. That makes the O-line USC’s most important position group.

Date to Circle: Oct. 23 at Notre Dame

The Pac-12 did USC a solid with the schedule this season: The Trojans play no games on Thursday or Friday, have only one set of back-to-back road games and get a bye before playing the Irish. Combine that with missing Oregon and Washington from the North, and the path to 10 wins has never been easier. USC hasn’t won in South Bend since 2011, so a win this year would take considerable heat off Helton’s seat—and signal the Trojans as a potential playoff contender.

The Bottom Line

USC’s position in our preseason poll reflects the elite level of talent it's collected on its roster, but the team hasn’t sniffed a top-10 finish since 2017. With the return of key pieces and a favorable schedule, there’s enough here to envision that changing in 2021. Fall short again, though, and the bell might finally toll on Clay Helton’s Trojan tenure.

More College Football Coverage:

No. 25 Nevada
No. 17 Oregon
No. 12 Washington