USC Trojans 2016 season preview

We continue our team-by-team preview in the Pac-12. Up next: the USC Trojans.

2015 record: 8-6 (6-3 Pac-12)

2016 FPI preseason rank: 9

2016 FPI win-loss projection: 8.5-3.9

FPI chance to win the Pac-12: 23.8 percent

FPI chance to win the Pac-12 South: 37.9 percent

Key losses: QB Cody Kessler, LB Su'a Cravens, FB Soma Vainuku, C Max Tuerk, DL Antwaun Woods, DL Delvon Simmons, DL Claude Pelon, LB Anthony Sarao

Key returnees: WR JuJu Smith-Schuster, CB Adoree' Jackson, RT Zach Banner, LT Chad Wheeler, C Toa Lobendahn, LB Cam Smith, CB Iman Marshall

Most important player: Quarterback Max Browne. The Trojans return almost completely intact on offense, save quarterback. That’s why Browne, who was named the starter Saturday, is so important. With an experienced offensive line, two running backs who could run for 1,000 yards and a deep stable of receivers, Browne is the only question mark on this side of the ball. If he’s good, the Trojans could be among the best offenses in the country.

Impact newcomer: Jack Jones. The true freshman cornerback appears on track to work his way into the rotation and could see some use as a returner. The quickest way to the field for him might depend on how Jackson’s snaps are divvied up. If Jackson, who is focusing mainly on defense this season, is forced into a bigger offensive role in a game or two, the staff could turn to Jones to pick up the slack on defense or in the return game.

Breakout player: Marshall. Marshall had a strong start to his career -- he started the final 12 games of last season as a true freshman -- and has the potential to grow into one of the best corners in the country. Don’t be surprised if, come the end of the season, Marshall is viewed as the Trojans’ best cover corner. At 6-foot-1, 200 pounds, he has the stature to match up against more physical receivers and will benefit from the team playing more man-to-man defense in 2016.

Position unit of strength: Offensive line. Damien Mama has been viewed as one of the nation’s best guards coming into the season, but if the Trojans opened the season today, he likely would be coming off the bench (in favor of Chris Brown). That’s not meant as a knock against Mama, only to illustrate what kind of depth this unit has. Banner might be the best right tackle in the country, left tackle Wheeler -- who is questionable to open the year as a result of plantar fasciitis -- was a second-team All-Pac-12 pick last season, and juniors Lobendahn and Viane Talamaivao have both started games since their freshman years.

Position unit of weakness: Defensive line. The Trojans lost every key piece off their defensive line from 2015 and are breaking in coordinator Clancy Pendergast’s new 5-2 scheme. The good news is that despite featuring all new personnel, the unit regularly held its own throughout training camp.

Most important game: At Stanford, Sept. 17. Like UCLA, the Trojans have a big game against an SEC opponent to open the year, but the more important test will be the Pac-12 opener against the defending conference champion. A loss Sept. 3 to Alabama would sting, even if it’s expected, but a loss to the Cardinal, which beat USC twice last season, would be more impactful.

Upset watch: At Utah, Sept. 23. With two extremely physical games against Alabama and Stanford expected over the first three weeks of the season -- both away from home -- USC then has to travel to Salt Lake City for a Friday night meeting with the Utes.

Best-case scenario in 2016: 11-1. The Trojans have six teams in the Associated Press preseason Top 25 on the schedule and get only two of them -- No. 24 Oregon and No. 10 Notre Dame -- at home. Let’s say USC pulls off the upset and beats Bama. It still doesn’t seem realistic the Trojans can go the rest of the way without a loss.

Worst-case scenario in 2016: 5-7. If USC loses to all the ranked teams on the schedule and is upset somewhere else, it won’t be in the postseason. Hey, it’s a worst-case scenario.

Prediction: 9-3. After a 1-2 start, the Trojans will run off five consecutive victories to enter the final stretch of the season atop the Pac-12 South. They do just enough to hold off rival UCLA to win the division before falling, again, to Stanford in the Pac-12 title game.