Photo: Jae C. Hong (AP Photo)

Welcome to the Deadspin 25, a college football poll that strives to be more democratic and less useless than every other preseason poll. Leading up to the college football season kickoff, we will give you previews of the 25 teams that you, the readers, voted to be most worthy of writing about. Now, No. 17 USC. 

USC is entering the third full year of the Clay Helton Experiement, and so far, it’s been going well! Now let’s see how they do without the Crimson Chin under center.

The Trojans’ combination of money and prestige will always make them an evil empire, but there’s some genuine respect due to a team that can suffer through Lane Kiffin’s bullshit and the Steve Sarkisian saga and come out the other end good as ever.

The Trojans had their best season in a decade in 2017, finishing 11-3 with a PAC-12 title belt to boot. They lost the Cotton Bowl to Ohio State, but the fact is, with a Rose Bowl appearance and a 10-4 record in 2016 to go along with another primetime bowl game last year, USC is right back in the realm it wants to be in.

The next step is fairly obvious, though it’s unclear if USC is prepared to take it. The Trojans were knocking on the door of the playoff last year; I’m not sure they’re ready to barge through just yet, but they’re going to make sure they’re in the conversation. Setting the floor at 10 wins means that Helton will have to prove he can step out on his own, with his staff’s own recruits, and meet that goal consistently

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USC’s 2018 to-do list for making the playoff isn’t very long, but at the top sits the looming question every Trojans fan has been asking themselves since January: Who’s replacing Sam Darnold?

The current New York Jets gun-slinger was a godsend for Helton. In just two seasons of play, he threw for 7,229 yards, 57 touchdowns, and 22 interceptions, all while completing an average 64.9 percent of his passes. For a head coach trying to break through and prove he deserves a long-term deal, Darnold couldn’t have come along at a better time. Now, Helton, offensive coordinator Tee Martin, and quarterbacks coach Bryan Ellis will need to earn their keep and prove in Year 3 that they can oversee a smooth transition of power under center.

The candidates currently engaged in a training camp battle are sophomore Matt Fink, redshirt freshman Jack Sears, and true freshman JT Daniels. Fink is the only one of the three that’s ever thrown a college pass, but that’s not really saying much since he’s only dropped back nine times. The Trojan fanbase seems to be big on Daniels, and why not? The hotshot rookie is riding a wave of deranged fan hype after posting a truly insane senior season at Santa Ana Mater Dei. He’s mobile, got a cannon, and would give Helton and Martin a chance to prove Darnold’s early success as a redshirt freshman can be replicated and improved through their system.

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In the backfield, Ronald Jones II is also gone, as are his 1,550 yards and 19 scores from a year ago, off to dart up and down the field with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Sophomore Stephen Carr seems to have the tail back spot locked up—last year, as a true freshman, he looked more than ready to play the part in limited action. He was good for 5.8 yards a pop and found the end zone three times in 55 carries, though his production slowed after missing a month due to an ankle injury suffered in a Week 5 loss to Washington State.

Adding to the injury list, Carr missed the entire spring and summer rehabbing from surgery he had on a herniated disc in February. Helton announced at Pac-12 Media days that Carr was cleared for August camp and, so far, he has “looked pretty healthy,” per the L.A. Daily News’ Joey Kaufman. If anything does happen, he’s got a veteran back in senior running back Aca’Cedric Ware ready and waiting to relieve him.

The receiving corps is looking stocked and reloaded. Deontay Burnett left for the NFL, but that 1,114-yard hole won’t be there long. Freshman Amon-Ra St. Brown was originally supposed to be the crown jewel of USC’s Class of 2018; then Daniels reclassified and made everyone all the more interested in the quarterback competition. Initially, given the departure of Burnett, fans and reporters thought St. Brown would play exclusively out of the slot. Apparently, he is also going to be featured out wide in the USC offense, which means Velus Jones Jr. and Trevon Sidney will have more opportunities to be the inside guys for the Trojans.

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On the other side of the field, the Trojans will be trying to do more than just enough; at least, the defense will have to if it wants the team to make any national noise. USC was fine last year, bending but not breaking for much of the year while posting middle-of-the-pack numbers across the board. They were adept at taking advantage of the mistakes of PAC-12 quarterbacks, snagging 16 total interceptions.

That said, the secondary was also known to constantly allow those same quarterback carve them up for 20-plus yard plays. This season, they’ll have experience among their ranks with safeties Marvell Tell III and Ajene Harris, who is featured heavily in the nickel. At corner, seniors Isaiah Langley and Iman Marshall are back, which is good, because apparently supposed returning starter Jack Jones is ineligible this season due to bad grades.

Senior outside linebacker Porter Gustin was lost on Wednesday for at least 2-5 weeks when he tore his meniscus in training camp. This is after he missed 10 games last year with toe and bicep injuries. Losing Uchenna Nwosu to graduation and Gustin for the opening stretch is a big blow, considering Gustin and fellow Butkus Award watchlist member Cam Smith were supposed to be the veteran core of the defense this season. Still, since the tear was “minor” with no ligament damage, Gustin should be good to go by the midpoint of the season, so all is not lost. It’ll also help to have the best incoming linebacker recruiting class in the nation, spearheaded by Palaie Gaoteote.

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A Guy To Know

JT Daniels is yet another big-time USC quarterback prospect. So many of them have worked out for the Trojans at this point that I’m loathe to doubt that Daniels will set the skies of Los Angeles ablaze. The above highlight tape quite clearly the displays an elite college quarterback playing in a high school league. He can make every kind of throw imaginable, and at 6-foot-3 is the ideal size for a professional quarterback.

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Like a great many college quarterbacks, I don’t think he’s going to be as much of a scrambler in college as what he appears to have been in high school, not that he’ll need to be. Daniels has been stealing the show at camp so far. If he doesn’t end up starting by Week 3, I will be shocked. All of L.A. is bending over backwards to love this dude. Helton clearly loves him, the fans are going apeshit for him, and the fucking L.A. Times is ready to crown this dude the King Of Los Angeles and he hasn’t even thrown an official pass. Look at this shit:

Screenshot: L.A. Times

Savior?? Of an 11-3 program? Gahh! They act like they didn’t just have a quarterback taken with the No. 3 overall draft pick! This is not a new phenomenon! Los Angeles, USC, you’re insufferable, but goddammit if you don’t crank out some great white-bread quarterbacks.

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The Assistant Coach Tweet Of The Day

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I, for one, appreciate and enjoy Ron Bradford’s ongoing take on the MCU.

Can They Make They Playoff?

USC can make the playoff, as the talent is very clearly there. The biggest question for the Trojans, past whether Daniels is the star he’s being sold as, is whether the timing is right in the PAC-12. Stanford and Oregon are both looking to reclaim their time atop the conference with a great mix of returning and young talent, while Washington is prepped to make a playoff run of its own with Jake Browning and Myles Gaskin back in action.

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The Trojans also have a lot of very important players nursing or coming off of debilitating injuries. Don’t get me wrong, USC has depth, but having to rely on it somuch isn’t a path to the playoff. Helton’s squad won’t have it easy, but if they just stay somewhat healthy, knock off Stanford in Week 2, and use every following week to prepare Daniels for the Pac-12 title game against the Huskies’ defense, the Trojans could very well be among the final four come January.

Schedule

Sept. 1: UNLV

Sept. 8: @ Stanford

Sept 15: @ Texas

Sept. 21: Washington State

Sept. 29: @ Arizona

Oct. 13: Colorado

Oct. 20: @ Utah

Oct. 27: Arizona State

Nov. 3: @ Oregon State

Nov. 10: Cal

Nov. 17: @ UCLA

Nov. 24: Notre Dame