COUNTING ON CODY
The Trojans' hopes begin and end with senior quarterback Cody Kessler, a Heisman candidate. Last year the 6'1" 215-pounder completed a school-record 69.7% of his passes, throwing for 39 touchdowns with only five interceptions.
Kessler's primary target will be sophomore wideout JuJu Smith (54 catches for 724 yards and five touchdowns), while junior Darreus Rogers (21 catches, 245 yards, four TDs) will see a major uptick in opportunites. But the offense's secret weapon could be a defensive player: Adoree' Jackson, a 2014 freshman All-America cornerback who took a one-yard pass from Kessler and turned it into a 71-yard touchdown in USC's 45--42 Holiday Bowl win over Nebraska, will see more snaps at receiver. The Trojans lack their usual bumper crop of running backs, but whoever gets the nod—likely 6'1", 195-pound junior Justin Davis—will work behind an experienced line.
Defensively, there are several holes to fill along the front seven after the departure of All-America end Leonard Williams and linebacker Hayes Pullard. Junior linebacker Su'a Cravens (17 TFLs, three INTs) is back, and in the secondary Jackson (10 pass breakups) will get support from 6'2", 200-pound freshman corner Iman Marshall, USC's top-rated recruit.
The Pac-12 South is brutal, and the Trojans get three tough crossovers with a stiff nonconference game mixed in. First up, on Sept. 19 in L.A., is Stanford, which lost to USC 13--10 last year. Then on Thursday, Oct. 8, Steve Sarkisian's former team, Washington, pays a visit. USC travels to Notre Dame on Oct. 17 and to Oregon on Nov. 21. At least the finale against UCLA is in Memorial Coliseum.
If the Trojans hope to protect Cody Kessler and create some balance with the running game, they'll need a strong year from senior center Max Tuerk (6'6", 285 pounds). A four-year starter who has played four positions on the line, he helped nurture a young unit last season—three freshman starters—that will be even stronger in 2015.
OPPOSING COACH'S TAKE
Kessler is probably one of the most underrated players in college football. He throws deep really well and makes great checkdowns. He's not flashy, but he knows how to manipulate the offense. He might not win the Heisman, but shoot, he'll win games. He's a true quarterback.... Sark [Steve Sarkisian] is one of the better coaches in the country at finding weaknesses and exploiting them. Why attack 11 defenders when you can attack one or two? And it doesn't matter who's running or catching: If that experienced line gives Kessler time, you're in trouble.... Defensively, they've applied a lot of pressure the last couple of years. So when you're on offense, it doesn't matter if you're athletic; you have to play smashmouth. If you drop back every snap and give them time to come at you, they're going to cause a lot of problems.
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (KESSLER)
ROBERT BECK FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (TUERK)