Is USC a playoff team? Saturday’s opener and Trojans’ newcomers will provide a clue

USC offensive tackle Chuma Edoga (70) gets ready to block Oluwole Betiku (99) during a spring practice. Edoga is replacing multiyear starter Zach Banner at right tackle this season.
(Shotgun Spratling / Los Angeles Times)

Playing in high school or watching from the bench, a new player can forget one unchangeable fact about college football: The dominant emotion of the game is not excitement. It is not school pride. There are big men on the field trying to make you mess up. Trying to hurt you. The dominant emotion is fear.

Above all else, that is what USC safety Chris Hawkins remembers about his first start four seasons ago against Fresno State.

“I was scared,” Hawkins said after one of USC’s final practices before Saturday’s opener against Western Michigan at the Coliseum. “I was super scared. I mean, I was nervous. I was 178 pounds at the time, and I was 19 years old, and that feeling was crazy being in front of all those fans. And I was shaking in my boots a little bit.”

Hawkins, a fifth-year senior now looked to by teammates for advice, offered one piece of wisdom for the eight Trojans who will be stepping into full-time roles for the first time Saturday: If you’re not a little scared before a game, something is wrong.

USC will march into its opener more battle-hardened than a year ago, when it was trampled by Alabama. Eight Trojan starters played extensively last season on offense; nine did so on defense.


But USC has designs on much more than merely another bowl win. In the moments after the Trojans’ wild Rose Bowl victory in January, a time usually reserved for unabashed celebration, athletic director Lynn Swann delivered a sober assessment outside USC’s locker room.

“We’re not there yet,” he said. The victory was nice; but it was not among USC’s best.

“Other teams have been playing for national championships,” Swann said.

USC begins this season hyped as a strong contender for the four-team playoff, ranked No. 4 in the Associated Press preseason poll. Whether the Trojans can finish at least that high in the final College Football Playoff ranking depends in part on what coach Clay Helton calls “the unknown” — the newcomers.

The questions are biggest on offense, where there are three new starters — guard Chris Brown, tackle Chuma Edoga and receiver Jalen Greene. However, there is experience even among that trio; all have started for the Trojans before.

Edoga played significant minutes last season, including two starts, and he said his confidence grew “immensely.” Greene said his three starts, all in 2015, helped calm the nerves.

“It’s definitely a different environment when you’re on the field as opposed to scrimmaging in the Coliseum,” Greene said. “It can rattle you a bit. But if you’ve been out there before, you know how to handle the pressure and just play your game.”

For Greene to contribute is crucial. USC lost players who accounted for 56% of last season’s receiving yardage. In training camp, Greene and Steven Mitchell Jr., who moved from the slot to outside, were not consistent.

The defense looks stable, but Josh Fatu, along with a battery of freshmen Marlon Tuipulotu and Brandon Pili, must replace the steady, powerful Stevie Tu’ikolovatu at tackle. John Houston Jr. must step in for team captain Michael Hutchings at linebacker. And Jack Jones takes the position vacated by Jim Thorpe Award winner Adoree’ Jackson at cornerback.

Jones, never shy, said he has envisioned Saturday’s start for years.

“Every game I just see myself taking a pick to the house, taking a punt return to the house, making tackles,” Jones said. “I see the team turning up. I mean, it’s a lot. You have to visualize it and speak it into existence.”

During the preseason, Helton steeled himself by reviewing his returning players, and rehashing their experiences. “That’s something that makes you sleep at night,” Helton said.

He said he enters his second season much more comfortable with this team. “There’s a lot more answers that we have going into this year,” he said.

Helton awaits one more answer in one key area: kicker. On Thursday, the coach announced that a walk-on freshman, Chase McGrath, would be the placekicker. USC will also use a walk-on, Reid Budrovich, at punter.

Redshirt freshman Mike Brown, who lost out to McGrath, will handle kickoff duties.

Western Michigan should provide a more forgiving start than Alabama did before USC heads into crucial games against Stanford and Texas. But the Broncos galloped through the regular season undefeated last year and finished 13-1 — one of three teams, including Alabama, to win that many games.

They lost their coach, quarterback and receivers, but they return a formidable defense and a stable of runners that form “a three-headed monster,” Helton said.

He added, “They’ve got the things that scare you as an opponent.”

Follow Zach Helfand on Twitter @zhelfand