In a boisterous corridor outside the winning locker room following a classic Rose Bowl game on Monday evening, Lynn Swann, USC’s athletic director, was asked if the win meant the Trojans were back at the top of college football.
"No, if we were back at the top of the national landscape, we'd be playing on Monday, January 9th,” Swann said, referring to the national championship game. “We're not there yet. It's a building process.”
USC’s nine straight wins, its sizable chunk of returning talent and its quarterback, Sam Darnold, will likely thrust the Trojans into the national championship hunt next season. So, how close are they to being capable of winning it?
In short, they’re two offensive tackles, one linebacker, one defensive tackle and a couple receivers away. The return of a couple playmakers — receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and cornerback and return specialist Adoree’ Jackson — wouldn’t hurt either.
Whether USC can effectively plug those holes will determine whether it is a playoff or national championship team next season.
One player has elevated expectations to such levels: Darnold, who as a freshman set Rose Bowl records with five touchdown passes and 473 yards of total offense in a 52-49 victory over Penn State. It seems a foregone conclusion that he will begin next season as a Heisman Trophy front-runner. The hype is already stratospheric.
The morning after USC’s Rose Bowl victory, ESPN was teasing to a commercial with questions such as: "Will Sam Darnold be as good as Vince Young? We'll debate, next."
Darnold deserves to be praised, but no team can win with one player alone. Much attention in the coming days will be given to Jackson and Smith-Schuster, who will decide whether to enter the NFL draft or return for their senior seasons. Both have said that coming back to compete for a national championship is attractive. But both are considered high-round draft prospects.
After the game, Smith-Schuster said he would “take about a few days” to make his decision. Jackson was noncommittal. “I don't know,” he said. “I'm out here living in this moment.”
The focus on Jackson and Smith-Schuster obscures what might be more impactful losses: offensive tackles Chad Wheeler and Zach Banner.
USC Coach Clay Helton said the offensive and defensive lines were his biggest concerns entering next season.
Unlike at cornerback, where there is a replacement, Jack Jones, waiting in the wings, or at receiver, where Darnold prefers to spread the ball around to many options, there are no clear replacements at offensive tackle, where mistakes can be magnified.
Chuma Edoga, Clayton Johnston and Nathan Smith are options, but they are unproven. An intriguing possibility is moving Toa Lobendahn, the starting center before incurring a knee injury in the season opener, to tackle. Lobendahn has made starts at center, guard and tackle, and he has bulked up over the past few months, Helton said.
Helton hinted that Lobendahn “could play several positions” next season. But his health is an unknown. He has undergone two surgeries on his right knee and one on his left.
At receiver, Smith-Schuster’s departure is likely, and senior Darreus Rogers’ is certain. He was an important, reliable target in third-down situations. USC brought in a wealth of receiving talent in its last recruiting class, and several of those players redshirted.
Darnold mentioned former five-star recruit Tyler Vaughns and Josh Imatorbhebhe — whose brother, Daniel Imatorbhebhe, had a strong season at tight end — among those who have impressed him.
Defensively, the Trojans are more set. A young line remains mostly intact, as does a speedy group of linebackers. The secondary could lose two players: safety Leon McQuay III and, potentially, Jackson. But the departing player most difficult to replace is tackle Stevie Tu’ikolovatu, who became USC’s savior when he transferred from Utah.
Among a bounty of dazzling performances in the Rose Bowl game, Pro Football Focus graded no player on either team higher than Tu’ikolovatu. He anchored USC’s defense in the middle. There is no easy replacement, especially now that Noah Jefferson has left the program. The health of Kenny Bigelow Jr., who is returning from a knee injury that knocked him out for the season, will be important.
“That’ll be a major need for us in this recruiting period,” Helton said.
There is a similar dynamic at linebacker, where the loss of Michael Hutchings could expose a lack of depth. USC lost three linebackers this season to off-field incidents. Two, Don Hill and Osa Masina, were investigated for sexual assault. (Masina is currently on trial in Utah on sexual assault charges.) USC said Jabari Ruffin was suspended indefinitely for an unspecified student conduct issue, though Helton said Tuesday that he’d been dismissed from the team.
USC will probably look to Jordan Iosefa and Olajuwon Tucker to fill in.
But as turnover goes in college football, the Trojans’ is not severe. The core of a Rose Bowl winning team remains, and Helton said he does not expect coaching staff changes.
"We're still in the process of building,” Swann said. "I think a couple more years recruiting, we could be there."
Follow Zach Helfand on Twitter @zhelfand