It’s way too early to have a good sense of how things will play out in the Pac-12 next season, but we're past the point where it’s OK to start trying to figure it out anyway. With some teams in the middle of spring practice, some just getting started and others set to begin in a few weeks, it feels like a good time to try to gauge expectations for next season. Over the next two weeks, we’ll take stock of each team in the Pac-12 to see how things are shaping up for 2017. Next up from the South: USC.
USC's role in the division race: The Trojans finished 2016 on a hard charge, finishing narrowly behind South champion Colorado and 10-3 overall when the dust settled. USC also beat the Buffs during the regular season. With star quarterback Sam Darnold in the driver's seat to begin 2017, the Trojans will be favored to win the division this time around. There is important talent to replace, but the rest of the South faces similar challenges, and the Trojans have their key component in place.
As far as the schedules goes, USC should have an easier time breaking into the season than in 2016. Although Stanford visits in Week 2, it's a home game this time and -- most important -- Christian McCaffrey won't be around to torment the Trojans. Alabama is no longer on the nonconference schedule to bruise USC out of the gate. Western Michigan presents a challenging start instead, and Texas visits the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Week 3. That's the prelude to USC's bid to take back the South.
What constitutes success: This is USC. Rose Bowls and national championships constitute success. The Trojans endured a recent dark period during which both of those goals seemed like pipe dreams, but last season's resurgence under Darnold -- which ended with triumph in Pasadena -- ensured that the program's lofty expectations became reality once again.
But maintaining success is no given. The Trojans must reload crucial pieces throughout the roster. Both tackles, including fixture Zach Banner, are gone. So is top receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and Swiss army knife Adoree' Jackson. That's an exodus of electric talent, and it represents the challenge standing between USC and its expectation of glory in 2017.
Spring priorities: Darnold must develop familiarity with his new-look offensive line. The young quarterback had the benefit of breaking in behind a bevy of sizable veterans last season. Banner manned right tackle effectively, while Chad Wheeler protected Darnold's blind side well. Both are now gone, so this offseason is about developing cohesion with new pieces on the offensive end. That extends to the receiver position, where Deontay Burnett is set to emerge as Darnold's No. 1 target following the departures of Smith-Schuster and Darreus Rogers.
USC must also replace Jackson, nose tackle Stevie Tu'ikolovatu, linebacker Michael Hutchings and strong safety Leon McQuay III on defense. Linebackers Cameron Smith and Porter Gustin give the Trojans a strong core on that side of the ball around which to build this offseason.