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Southern California players celebrate a touchdown ...
Daily Camera file photo
Southern California players celebrate a touchdown during the second half of the game on Oct. 25, 2019.
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Every year, there are high expectations for the Southern California football team.

This year is no different, as the Trojans figure to once again be the favorite to win the Pac-12 South division.

Division titles aren’t enough to satisfy the fan base of the Pac-12’s marquee team, however. As it has been for several years, the heat is on head coach Clay Helton to return USC to national prominence.

Leading up to preseason camp, BuffZone.com will preview each of Colorado’s 2021 opponents and in this installment, we look at the USC Trojans.

During the COVID-19 pandemic-shortened 2020 season, the Trojans went 5-0, but slipped in their chance to claim a conference title. Oregon — which was only in the title game because North division champ Washington had COVID issues — beat USC, 31-24, for the Pac-12 crown.

“We’re judged on championships here,” Helton said after the loss to the Ducks. “That’s the beauty of this place. That’s the expectation. That’s the standard. That’s what we fight for.”

While that’s the expectation, USC has not won a conference championship in quite a while. In fact, the last time the Trojans did win a conference title, in 2008, it was in the Pac-10 and Pete Carroll was the head coach.

Nationally, USC hasn’t been much of a factor since Carroll’s tenure. The Trojans lost at least three games every year from 2012-19. In their last two full seasons under Helton, they went 5-7 in 2018 and 8-5 in 2019.

As usual, the Trojans have the ability to compete for the Pac-12 title again. There is a load of talent across the board, including at quarterback.

Junior Kedon Slovis is arguably the best quarterback in the Pac-12 as he enters his third season as the Trojans’ starter. Although not as sharp in 2020 as he was in 2019, Slovis is still considered one of the top quarterbacks in the country. He has thrown for 5,423 yards, 47 touchdowns and 16 interceptions to this point in his collegiate career.

At running back, starter Vavae Malepeai is back, but the Trojans went through significant changes in the offseason. Two of their best backs — Stephen Carr and Markese Stepp — transferred out, while two key players — Keaontay Ingram and Darwin Barlow — transferred in.

Despite losing two All-Pac-12 receivers to the NFL, the Trojans aren’t hurting for talent there. Drake London is possibly the best receiver in the Pac-12, while Bru McCoy is a young talent ready to break out. The Trojans also added three transfers, including KD Nixon from CU. Nixon, who caught 104 passes for 1,250 yards in four years at CU, headlines a transfer group that also includes Jake Smith (from Texas) and Tahj Washington (Memphis).

The main question mark on offense is on the line. Four starters are back, but it’s a group that has struggled for a couple of years.

USC lost the Pac-12 defensive player of the year (safety Talanoa Hufanga) to the NFL, but returns a top candidate for the award this year in linebacker Drake Jackson.

There is good talent around Jackson, but it’s a group that has to show some improvement across the board. Cornerback Chris Steele, defensive linemen Nick Figuroea and Tuli Tulipuotu, linebacker Ralen Goforth and safety Isaiah Pola-Mao are all among the best in the Pac-12.

Despite some question marks on both sides of the ball, the Trojans have the talent to compete for and win the Pac-12. They’ve also got a schedule that could be favorable.

A trip to Notre Dame in October for a nonconference game is perhaps the toughest game on the schedule. The Trojans will play seven games at home and won’t have to face Oregon or Washington — widely viewed as the best teams in the North division — during the regular season.

Southern California Trojans

Date with CU: Oct. 2, time TBA, at Folsom Field in Boulder

Head coach: Clay Helton, 6th year (45-23)

Series: USC leads 14-0

Trojans in 2020: 5-1, 5-0 Pac-12

Offensive players to watch (2020 statistics):

  • RB Keaontay Ingram, Sr., 6-feet, 215 pounds (Texas transfer)
  • WR Drake London, Jr., 6-5, 210 (33 rec., 502 yards, 3 TD)
  • RB Vavae Malepeai, Sr., 6-0, 220 (54 att., 238 yards, 3 TD; 16 rec., 64 yards)
  • WR Bru McCoy, So., 6-3, 220 (21 rec., 236 yards, 2 TD)
  • OL Jalen McKenzie, Sr., 6-5, 320 (All-Pac-12 honorable mention)
  • WR KD Nixon, Sr., 5-8, 190 (Colorado transfer)
  • QB Kedon Slovis, Jr., 6-3, 205 (177-of-264, 1,921 yards, 17 TD, 7 INT)

Defensive players to watch:

  • DL Nick Figuroea, Sr., 6-5, 275 (20 tackles, 7 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks)
  • LB Ralen Goforth, Jr., 6-2, 235 (38 tackles, 3 TFL, 2 pass breakups)
  • OLB Drake Jackson, Jr., 6-4, 250 (20 tackles, 5.5 TFL, 2 sacks, 1 INT)
  • LB Kana’i Mauga, Sr., 6-2, 245 (41 tackles, 3 TFL, 1 sack, 1 INT)
  • S Isaiah Pola-Mao, Sr., 6-4, 205 (40 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 1 INT, 5 PBU)
  • CB Chris Steele, Jr., 6-1, 190 (26 tackles, 1 INT, 4 PBU)
  • DL Tuli Tulipuotu, So., 6-4, 290 (22 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 2 sacks)

Notable: USC won the Pac-12 South last season for the third time since 2015. … USC added four transfers from Texas, including Ingram and safety Xavion Alford, who could both challenge for starting roles. Tight end Malcolm Epps and receiver Jake Smith also came over from Texas. … Ingram rushed for 1,811 yards and 11 TDs on 339 carries at Texas, while also catching 67 passes for 515 yards and six scores. … Another transfer running back, Darwin Barlow, ran for 428 yards and four TDs at TCU last season. … The Trojans lost two of their top three running backs from last year, as Stephen Carr transferred to Indiana and Markese Stepp to Nebraska. … Freshman defensive lineman Korey Foreman was rated the No. 1 recruit in the country for the class of 2021 by 247Sports.com. … With the NCAA not counting 2020 towards eligibility, USC has had several players return and will carry 95 players on scholarship. … Punter Ben Griffiths (46.39 average in 2020) and kicker Parker Lewis (9-for-13 on field goals) both return after solid seasons.