No. 20 USC (0-0) vs. Arizona State (0-0)
Saturday, 9 a.m., Coliseum. TV: Channel 11. Radio: 790.
USC quarterback Kedon Slovis vs. the Arizona State secondary. The Trojans’ season will go as their stellar sophomore quarterback goes, and expectations will be higher than ever in his second year. Offensive coordinator Graham Harrell has raved for the last year about the leap he expected Slovis to take, and early rumblings from practice suggest he’s stronger and more confident as a sophomore. His first test will be a tough one, up against two of the conference’s better defensive backs in safety Aashari Crosswell and cornerback Jack Jones.
USC (454 ypg, 32.5 ppg in 2019): Even after losing Michael Pittman Jr., the Trojans are stacked at wideout, with two preseason All-Pac-12 first-team receivers in Amon-ra St. Brown and Tyler Vaughns and an ascending slot target in Drake London. If the offensive line can withstand the loss of its two starting tackles, the offense should be one of the Pac-12’s best. An improved run game, presumably behind powerful redshirt sophomore Markese Stepp, could make it one of the nation’s best.
A lot is expected from the junior linebacker and new defensive coordinator Todd Orlando isn’t afraid to let Palaie Gaoteote know that.
Arizona State (372 ypg, 24.8 ppg in 2019): While Slovis is probably the best returning quarterback in the conference, Jayden Daniels isn’t far behind. His interception rate (0.6%) as a freshman was the lowest in the nation among qualifying quarterbacks, and a new offense under former Boise State coordinator Zak Hill will hone in on his strengths. Replacing receiver Brandon Aiyuk and running back Eno Benjamin won’t be easy, especially early. But the key to beating the Trojans likely lies in controlling the ball and establishing the run.
USC (408.5 ypg, 22.4 ppg in 2019): With each team breaking in a new defense, it’s impossible to know what to expect. USC has talked a big game about toughening up on defense, and this week should answer a lot of questions about where it stands. Don’t be surprised if edge rusher Drake Jackson thrives in his new hybrid linebacker role. His pressure will be essential in containing Daniels. The question mark is at the other linebacker spots, where USC struggled mightily a season ago and is counting on Palaie Gaoteote to live up to his elite potential.
Trojans sophomore Kedon Slovis earns 17 of 22 votes as the conference’s top quarterback. UCLA has two players selected to the second team.
Arizona State (393.3 ypg, 29.4 ppg in 2019): Arizona State excelled on defense a season ago, and under new coordinators — former Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis and former NFL linebacker Antonio Pierce — it wouldn’t be a surprise to see that unit take another step forward. The secondary is experienced, with two fifth-year cornerbacks. The doubts are up front, where the pass rush struggled in 2019 outside of defensive tackle Jermayne Lole, who had 6.5 sacks.
In their meeting last season, Aiyuk, who’s now with the San Francisco 49ers, had three kick returns for 169 yards, including a 97-yard return in the first quarter. USC kicked away from him the rest of the game, but couldn’t solve its kickoff return woes the rest of the season, finishing last in the nation in yards allowed per kickoff. Special teams coach John Baxter was fired and replaced by Sean Snyder in the offseason.
USC defensive coordinator Todd Orlando has made a habit of starting strong in his first season at a new school. His debut season at Texas saw the Longhorns improve from 80th the year before to 24th in points allowed. His inaugural Utah State defense ranked seventh in points allowed. USC was 78th in points allowed in 2019.
USC has a mostly clean bill of health. Running backs Vavae Malepeai (hamstring) and Stepp (turf toe) are expected to play, as are Jackson (hamstring) and linebacker Kana’i Mauga (hamstring).