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Best quarterbacks in the Pac-12 will duel when USC opens season against Arizona State

USC quarterback Kedon Slovis passes during the first half against UCLA at the Coliseum on Nov. 23, 2019.
(Sean M. Haffey / Getty Images)

Fourteen months ago, the Pac-12’s top returning quarterback in 2020 was a complete unknown. A three-star recruit, Kedon Slovis surprised many people just by becoming the USC Trojans’ top backup.

Graham Harrell wasn’t one of those people. Before Slovis took a meaningful snap, USC’s offensive coordinator declared his talent to be “as good as I’ve ever seen.” When the freshman proved him right, throwing for 3,502 yards and 30 touchdowns, Harrell promised more would be in store for Slovis in Year 2.

That sequel finally will debut Saturday morning at the Coliseum with Slovis, one of just four returning starting quarterbacks in the conference, set to duel with fellow sophomore Jayden Daniels of Arizona State in a matchup of the Pac-12’s consensus top signal callers.

Neither team is likely to face a better quarterback in the shortened seasons — and neither can afford an early slip-up, if they have any hope of contending for the College Football Playoff.

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Players will have tomorrow off to vote on Election Day, but the focus is still on USC’s opener against Arizona State on Saturday.

For USC, those hopes hang largely on Slovis and the promise of his sophomore leap.

He’ll be tasked with outdoing an historic first season at the helm. No freshman quarterback in NCAA history ever registered a higher completion percentage than Slovis did (71.9%) last year. But that precision didn’t preclude him from first-year mistakes. In two of USC’s four regular-season losses, he had three passes intercepted. Against Brigham Young, in Slovis’ first road game, those interceptions proved especially back-breaking.

“You look at the games we lost,” Slovis said, “it was because probably I turned the ball over too much. So cleaning that up and giving our guys the chance to make plays, that’s really the most I can do to help us win.”

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Daniels wasn’t as efficient as Slovis — his 60.7% completion rate ranked eighth in the conference — but the former San Bernardino Cajon High quarterback had only two of his passes intercepted. That interception rate over 338 passes was the lowest in college football.

“I was extremely impressed with Jayden last year and his production as a true freshman,” Trojans coach Clay Helton said. “He protects the football, makes good decisions.”

Arizona State quarterback Jayden Daniels warms up before a game against Oregon.
Arizona State quarterback Jayden Daniels warms up before a game against Oregon on Nov. 23, 2019 in Tempe, Ariz.
(Matt York / Associated Press)

With Slovis and Daniels each making their season debuts after a lengthy layoff, any early missteps could have an outsized impact. Neither had the benefit of a normal offseason. But where Daniels is breaking in a new offense, led by coordinator Zak Hill, Slovis is entering his second season under Harrell, and their rapport only grew over the offseason.

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The quarterback and coordinator spent hours together on Zoom during their quarantined summer, analyzing different film cut-ups from Slovis’ freshman season.

“That’s going to help him,” Harrell said. “So you’ll see improvements just from decision making and being more and more comfortable. If you looked down the stretch last season, he was playing at a really high level. … I think that’s where his biggest advantage is, having a year under his belt. He feels more comfortable checking routes and checking plays than he did last year, and if he sees something, he feels more comfortable attacking it.”

A strong start from Slovis should put USC in a much more comfortable spot. The Trojans won’t face another familiar face at quarterback until the final game of their regular season, when they take on Dorian Thompson-Robinson and UCLA at the Rose Bowl.

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But they’ll have to first get past Daniels, who didn’t play in last year’s USC-ASU game because of a leg injury. Joey Yellen replaced Daniels and had two passes intercepted in USC’s 31-26 win in Tempe. Slovis had 297 yards and four touchdown passes in the first quarter and finished with 432 yards — a personal best until he shattered that two weeks later against the Bruins.

Arizona State will be without Daniels’ top receiving target from last year, Brandon Aiyuk, and leading rusher, Eno Benjamin, both of whom are in the NFL. But as the Trojans hope for a leap from their star sophomore, they’re expecting one from the Sun Devils’ signal caller too.

Regardless, the matchup should make for plenty of early morning fireworks for the Pac-12.

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“You’re going to see two of the best quarterbacks in the country right off the bat on a national stage,” Helton said.


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