By the end of last season, Southern California was playing about as well as any college football team in the country.

A nine-game winning streak and dramatic Rose Bowl victory to end the season vaulted the Trojans to No. 3 in the final national rankings.

This year, the Trojans (10-3, 7-2 Pac-12 last year) are looking for more.

This month, BuffZone.com is previewing each of Colorado's opponents, with this installment focusing on the Trojans, who visit the Buffaloes on Nov. 11 and hope that's just one stop on the road to a national title.

"We know when you come to USC what the expectations are," head coach Clay Helton said in a Pac-12 teleconference in May. "We set the bar very high here. When you come to SC, you want to win Pac-12 championships, you want to win national championships."

USC won at least a share of seven consecutive conference titles from 2002-08, but hasn't been on top of the conference since. The Trojans' last national title came in 2004.

Despite losing five players taken in the NFL draft and several other key pieces from last year's team, the Trojans believe they have the goods to break their title droughts.

"We addressed it with our team right off the bat in the spring that even though last season was extremely rewarding and made some unbelievable memories with that Rose Bowl victory, and I asked the team, 'Are you satisfied?'" Helton said. "Not one hand rose, because we know what we expect here at SC and what our goal is each and every year."


Advertisement

While Alabama will be the odds-on favorite to win the national title, USC is in the conversation, because its talent is still on par with just about any team in the country.

It all starts with quarterback Sam Darnold, who burst on the scene as a redshirt freshman last season.

Darnold was the backup as USC sputtered to a 1-2 start, and then he lost his first start (31-27 at Utah) to drop the Trojans to 1-3. Darnold and the Trojans went 9-0 the rest of the way, with him throwing for over 3,000 yards and accounting for 33 touchdowns.

Now, Darnold will go into the year as a favorite to win the Heisman Trophy, and Helton said he was impressed with his young quarterback's developing leadership and desire to get better. Some believe Darnold could be the first pick in the 2018 NFL draft.

The challenge for Darnold and the Trojans, especially early in the year, getting their receivers and offensive line to jell. There are several new starters in both areas.

Running back Ronald Jones II is one of the top backs in the conference, however, and will help.

Defensively, the Trojans once again have some of the best players in the conference, including defensive end Rasheem Green, outside linebackers Porter Gustin and Uchenna Nwosu, inside linebacker Cameron Smith and cornerback Iman Marshall.

Replacing Jim Thorpe Award winner Adoree Jackson at corner won't be easy, but the Trojans have the athletes to play well in the secondary.

Whether or not the Trojans can make a national title run remains to be seen, but the tools are there to make this a special year.

CU opponent preview: USC Trojans

Date with CU: Nov. 11 at Folsom Field in Boulder, time TBA

Head coach: Clay Helton, 3rd season (16-7)

Series: USC leads 11-0

Trojans in 2016: 10-3, 7-2 in Pac-12; defeated Penn State, 52-49, in Rose Bowl

Returning starters: 12 - 5 on offense, 7 on defense

Offensive players to watch: WR Deontay Burnett, Jr. (56 catches, 622 yards, 7 TD); QB Sam Darnold, So. (246-of-366, 3,086 yards, 31 TD, 9 INT; rushing: 62 att., 250 yards, 2 TD); TE Daniel Imatorbhebhe, So. (17 catches, 250 yards, 4 TD); RB Ronald Jones II, Jr. (177 att., 1,082 yards, 12 TD); WR Michael Pittman Jr., So. (6 catches, 82 yards); RG Viane Talamaivao, Sr. (32 career starts); RB Aca'Cedric Ware, Jr. (78 att., 397 yards, 2 TD).

Defensive players to watch: DE Rasheem Green, Jr. (55 tackles, 6.5 TFL, 6 sacks); OLB Porter Gustin, Jr. (68 tackles, 13 TFL, 5.5 sacks); DB Ajene Harris, Jr. (27 tackles, 2 INT); S Chris Hawkins, Sr. (44 tackles, 4 TFL); CB Iman Marshall, Jr. (51 tackles, 3 INT, 8 PBU); OLB Uchenna Nwosu, Sr. (53 tackles, 7.5 TFL, 3 sacks, 5 PBU); ILB Cameron Smith, Jr. (83 tackles, 7 TFL); S Marvell Tell III, Jr. (43 tackles, 2 TFL, 1 INT).

Notable: USC is 5-0 all-time in Boulder. ... The last two meetings between CU and USC have been decided by a total of seven points, including USC's 21-17 win in Los Angeles last year. ... During the regular season, USC does not have to play North division favorite Washington or Oregon. ... The Trojans will play 12 consecutive games before a bye on the final weekend of the regular season (Nov. 25). ... USC allowed the fewest sacks in the Pac-12, with 12. Only seven of those came in the last 11 games. ... Jones has rushed for 2,069 yards in his career. ... The Trojans averaged 6.9 yards per play after Darnold took over as the starter, compared to 4.6 when Max Browne started the first three games.

Contact staff writer Brian Howell at howellb@prairiemountainmedia.com or twitter.com/BrianHowell33