It was not a surprise to see what the Georgia Bulldogs accomplished last season — getting to the College Football Playoff and coming within one Tua Tagovailoa long bomb from winning the national championship.
After all, they were a team on the rise. They had future pros on both sides of the ball. They were powered by a defense that featured one of the most athletic linebacker units in college football, and were led by a three-headed rushing attack and stout line play that brutalized defenses into submission.
As a prominent college football powerhouse that was ascending again after a few down seasons, seeing the giant strides the program made in Year 2 of the Kirby Smart Era just made sense.
As we look at the college football landscape for 2018, there is another looming powerhouse that might just have a similar narrative play out. And that program resides on the Left Coast.
Yes, I’m talking about USC.
I know, I know. We’ve seen this movie before with the Trojans. A team loaded with talent that inevitably falls well short of expectations. But we saw Georgia write the blueprint on how to get a proud program back into the title conversation. And many of those pieces are in place for USC this season.
Georgia excelled against the run, thanks in large part to its 3-4 alignment with massive defensive tackles to clog up the line and allow their ultra-fast linebackers to shoot the gaps and make plays. They were led by Roquan Smith and Lorenzo Carter. Smith, the No. 8 overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, was particularly exceptional with 137 tackles, 14 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks.
USC has similar star potential at linebacker this season. Senior Cam Smith is a projected All-American and the leader of USC’s defense. While not as athletically freakish as Smith (few are), he had 112 tackles and 11 tackles for loss in 2017. He’s paired with John Houston Jr., a speedy backer who is great in coverage and also has a nose for the ball.
But what make the USC linebacker unit particularly special this season is the addition of freshman Palaie Gaoteote. Gaoteote was the top linebacker in the Class of 2018 and the No. 15 player overall. Wanted by nearly every top-notch program in America, he will instantly add a high-level playmaker with his speed, footwork and strength getting off blockers.
USC also brings a different dimension to defense than Georgia. The Trojans led the nation last season with 46 sacks (tied with Clemson). While replacing the 19.5 sacks from Rasheem Green and Uchenna Nwosu will be no cakewalk, USC has a rising star in junior Christian Rector, who had 7.5 sacks despite missing four games with injury.
The Trojans will also get a bigger contribution from outside linebacker Porter Gustin, a pass-rushing savage who played in only four games last season (3 sacks) because of a toe injury, after having 10 sacks in limited action during his first two years.
So while USC may not have the run-stuffing chops of Georgia, it has a chance to create havoc with a superior pass rush.
Established running game
Georgia’s relentless rushing attack, led by Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, ranked ninth in the nation last season with 258 yards per game. While not on that level, the Trojans pounded the rock better than casual observers might think for a team that had No. 3 overall pick Sam Darnold at quarterback. They ranked 39th on the ground with 185 yards per game.
Ronald Jones was taken in the second round of the NFL draft, but the Trojans can throw out Stephen Carr, a game-breaking back who is one of the sport’s rising stars. He was an immediate impact player during his freshman season with 565 yards rushing and 3 TDs on 5.7 yards per carry. Carr also snapped off several explosive plays and showed a great ability to catch the ball out of the backfield.
The Trojans can spell him with capable backups who could likely start on more than half of the teams in the country: Aca’Cedric Ware (5.0 ypc) and Vavae Malepeai (5.3).
With Darnold gone, the Trojans will send out a quarterback with limited collegiate experience, meaning they may adopt a more run-centric approach. That would take the pressure off a green quarterback, similar to the way Georgia designed its offense with freshman Jacob Fromm at the helm last season.
Which leads us to another key comparison…
Freshman QB with moxie for days
Fromm was wildly impressive in his first season behind center for the Bulldogs. He showed a poise well beyond his years and the ability to make throws in pressure situations. He was one of the main reasons for Georgia’s success.
If all goes to plan, the Trojans will lean on their own frosh QB sensation to lead them into battle in 2018. If you don’t know who J.T. Daniels is, you soon will. He was the 2018 Gatorade High School Player of the Year as a junior, and added a state title with Mater Dei (Santa Ana, Calif.). He then surprised some during the December signing period when he announced he was re-classifying and would be committing to the Trojans with the intent to enroll for the upcoming season.
His reclassification added him to the prospect rankings for 2018, where he sat at No. 16 overall (as a junior, remember) and the No. 2 pro-style passer behind only Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence. Playing against some of the toughest competition in high school football, Daniels threw for 4,849 yards and 67 TDs as a sophomore. His junior season, he threw for 4,123 yards and 52 TDs, but added a new dimension to his game, rushing for 561 yards and 9 TDs.
Like Fromm, everything you read about Daniels is about his maturity, poise, accuracy and ability to make plays at any time. He also has the necessary confidence and swagger to be the next great USC quarterback, as evidenced by his trash-talking the best DBs in the country after throwing his first TD of the game at the U.S. Army All-America Bowl in January.
The learning curve will be steep, but Daniels is blessed with a core of immensely talented playmakers, including Tyler Vaughns, Michael Pittman Jr. and his Mater Dei teammate, Amon-Ra St. Brown, largely regarded as the best wide receiver in the Class of 2018. Repeating or exceeding what Fromm did last season is a reasonable expectation for Daniels.
Aided by location within conference
Before last season, Georgia had not won the SEC since 2005, and had not even won the SEC East (easily the weaker of the two divisions) since 2012. USC found itself in a similar situation before last season as well. It had not won the Pac-12 championship since 2008 (when it was still the Pac-10) and had won its division only once since that time (2015).
Getting to avoid the gauntlet of the SEC West that features the likes of Alabama, Auburn, Texas A&M and LSU boosted Georgia to the title game. Similarly with USC, they will face a watered-down Pac-12 South in which its toughest games will be against Arizona, Arizona State and UCLA, all of which have new coaches. Avoiding established power Washington and Oregon, a team that is on the serious come-up and has one of the nation’s best QBs in Justin Herbert, will benefit the Trojans as they seek consecutive conference titles.
The odds are ever in their favor
Despite being an ascending team last season, Georgia’s preseason title odds stood anywhere from 30-40:1 from most bookmakers. USC faces similar long odds this year, opening as a 55:1 favorite on most books. That number is inflated mostly because of the uncertainty at quarterback. But having seen successful freshmen QBs in recent years (Fromm, Jalen Hurts, Johnny Manziel), those odds will quickly plummet if and when Daniels comes in and starts to ball out.
USC has shown a history (at least in recent years) of shrinking when the expectations of greatness are steeped upon them. Maybe coming in as an underdog in the Pac-12 to Washington, and as a virtual afterthought in the College Football Playoff discussion, is exactly what is needed to motivate the Trojans to greatness. It certainly worked for Georgia.
Talent trumps all
All these other factors are certainly important, but to compete for titles you need talent. Period. Just ask Alabama. For both Georgia and USC, the cupboard is well stocked thanks to back-to-back-to-back strong recruiting classes. USC ranked 10th and Georgia ranked 6th in 2016. USC ranked 4th and Georgia 3rd in 2017. And Georgia’s incoming class is tops in the nation, with USC’s sitting at No. 4.
The task is massive. Reigning champ Alabama is going nowhere. Nor is Georgia, with its foundation of being elite for the next decade. Nor is Clemson. Nor is Ohio State.
But as you can see, the pieces are in place for USC. It’s not expected; it’s not even probable. But seeing how a once-storied program pulled itself out of relative mediocrity to shake up the status quo in college football, would it be that much of a surprise to see it happen again?
The sport wants and needs USC to be great. And believe me, that greatness is coming.
It just might come faster than most people think it will.