Before USC opened training camp, coach Clay Helton was asked about the meat grinder that the Trojans must navigate early in their schedule.
He was asked about Week 2 opponent Stanford and Week 3 opponent Texas. He was not asked about USC’s opener against Western Michigan. But Helton put the Broncos in the same category anyway.
“We know those are going to be three fist fights,” Helton said. “We learned from last year how important it is to start fast. You can do all you want in October and November, and we’ve been really good, but if you don’t start fast, it’s hard to get where you want to be.”
It is a sign of Helton’s concern that USC could overlook Western Michigan.
The Broncos went 13-1 and made it to the Cotton Bowl a season ago. But, by name and conference affiliation, they may seem like a cupcake compared with last season’s opening opponent, Alabama.
A year ago, USC’s start to the season was a mess, and not just because it faced stiff competition. The Trojans were trounced by Alabama, when they looked bewildered. They never competed against Stanford, when then-backup quarterback Sam Darnold called out players for quitting at halftime. And they lost a close contest to Utah, when they lost three fumbles.
Helton has switched USC’s routine this season. He designated last week as a “mock-game week.” The team followed the same schedule it would during the season, down to the time spent in the locker room suiting up.
The team has taken weeks to game plan for Western Michigan. Helton has said he would refuse to rest players returning from injury, such as tight end Daniel Imatorbhebhe, if they are able to play. Helton said he wants the team to treat Western Michigan as if it were a playoff team.
“That’s going to be my approach the entire season,” Helton said.
Appearing on CBS Sports Radio last week, Helton noted that toward the end of last season, “everybody was talking about us at the end of the year, ‘Oh yeah, you’re probably one of the best four teams. Maybe you were a playoff team.’
“Well, the reality is we were a three-loss team, and that’s not going to get you into the playoffs,” Helton said. “What we learned as a team and as a football family is every dang game counts.”
Previewing Western Michigan
The Mid-American Conference becomes popular this time of year, when power-conference teams look for an easy victory in their openers. Usually, the MAC obliges: No MAC team has defeated a ranked opponent in the opening week since 2013.
MAC teams will play the Nos. 4, 5, and 6 teams in the country on Saturday, and one conference coach thinks it is time for an upset.
“Somebody in the MAC will beat a ... power-conference team on Saturday,” said Terry Bowden, whose Akron team will play No. 6 Penn State.
Western Michigan has work to do. The Broncos lost several key pieces from their undefeated regular season last year. Among them: coach P.J. Fleck, four-year starting quarterback Zach Terrell, and All-American receiver Corey Davis, plus his two starting wideout mates.
But more than half of Western Michigan’s starters return, and new coach Tim Lester said his team has now gotten used to a big stage.
“These guys have played in big venues before, and they like that, they’re excited about it,” Lester said Monday.
Western Michigan’s biggest offensive question is at quarterback. Jon Wassink, a redshirt sophomore, has yet to play a snap. Lester compared him to a familiar name: Darnold.
“The biggest thing with Jon is just his demeanor,” Lester said. “A lot like Sam, I mean, he’s a really level-headed kid. He doesn’t get too high. He doesn’t get too low. He’s the same guy every single day.”
Of more concern for USC is Western Michigan’s defense, which returns eight starters, including Darius Phillips, one of the nation’s most explosive cornerbacks.
Helton said Phillips “is an NFL prospect, there’s no question in my mind. He’s kind of that team’s Adoree’ Jackson. He kind of does everything. He’s a defense, offense, kick returner. He’s a very special player.”
Depth chart released
The Trojans released their first depth chart of the season on Sunday. In the only major positional battle remaining, Josh Fatu was named the starter at defensive tackle, though he is likely to share significant time with freshmen Marlon Tuipulotu and Brandon Pili. USC did not name a starter a kicker, punter or either return position.
Helton acknowledged that USC’s five-man receiving class from a year ago is deep but may lack elite talent. “I don’t know if there’s a superstar in the group,” Helton said on the Trojans Live radio show on ESPN Radio on Monday. “We’ll see.”
Follow Zach Helfand on Twitter @zhelfand