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USC Football Preview: Why The Trojans Can Win The National Title

Editor’s note: This is the seventh in a 15-part series in which we preview college football’s top teams. We’ll be counting down from 15 to one, with the final team, released on Sept. 3 – the day college football starts – serving as our national title pick.

9. USC Trojans
After an incredible run from 2002-2008, during which they won 11 or more games every season and captured a national championship in 2004, USC has fallen off somewhat in the last six years. Don't get us wrong. The Trojans are still a top-tier FBS program. But they've reached double-digit victories just twice in the past six seasons and haven't been heavily involved in the national championship conversation during that time. Two years of NCAA probation in 2010 and 2011 didn't help matters either. 

But that's all in the past. And the immediate future looks very bright for the Men of Troy. In his second season at the helm, USC head coach Steve Sarkisian has a potential Heisman favorite (Cody Kessler) at quarterback, dazzling skill talent including wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, a massive offensive line and a veteran defense. Also, did we mention the Trojans had the No. 2 recruiting class during the 2015 cycle according to 247Sports' Composite Rankings?

All of that adds up to USC being a bona fide College Football Playoff contender. Of course, the team must survive a brutal schedule, including road trips to Arizona State, Notre Dame and Oregon and a season-finale against cross-town rival No. 14 UCLA. An 11-1 regular season, Pac-12 South title and victory in the conference championship game could be enough to earn a berth in the CFP, but anything less and the Rose, Holiday or Alamo Bowls become more likely destinations. 

Fall camp is already in full swing for the Trojans, who are trying to balance out working hard and having some fun. 

">@CoachSark had a Fall Camp surprise for the team after Saturday's practice!

— USC Trojans (@USC_Athletics)

Nothing like a snow cone on a hot day. @CoachSark had a Fall Camp surprise for the team after Saturday's practice!

— USC Trojans (@USC_Athletics) August 16, 2015

">August 16, 2015

Where They’re At In The Rankings

The Schedule

Sept. 5 – vs. Arkansas State 
Sept. 12 – vs. Idaho
Sept. 19 – vs. No. 21 Stanford
Sept. 26 – at No. 16 Arizona State
Oct. 8 – vs. Washington
Oct. 17 – at No. 11 Notre Dame
Oct. 24 – vs. Utah
Oct. 31 – at California
Nov. 7 – vs. No. 22 Arizona
Nov. 13 – at Colorado
Nov. 21 – at No. 5 Oregon
Nov. 28 – vs. No. 14 UCLA

Key Games

Sept. 26 at No. 16 Arizona State

The first road test of the 2015 season, and USC will undoubtedly have revenge on its mind. The Trojans dropped a 38-34 heartbreaker at home against ASU last year, falling on a Hail Mary on the game's final play.

The Sun Devils should remain a viable force in the Pac-12 South. This is their first conference game, and Sun Devil Stadium promises to be a hostile environment for the visitors from Los Angeles. Assuming USC beats Stanford at home on Sept. 19, it will be 3-0 entering this contest. A win in Tempe is a must for the Trojans if they want to compete for a CFP slot. From there, they have just two weeks until they face another stiff road opponent.

Oct. 17 at No. 11 Notre Dame

That road foe would be arch-rival Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish should be smarting from the 49-14 beatdown they suffered at the Coliseum in the 2014 regular season finale. Like USC, Notre Dame has the ingredients to be in the running for a CFP berth. The Irish have tremendous depth on defense and some fantastic skill talent on offense. If Malik Zaire is up to the task at quarterback, ND can post double-digit regular season victories. 

This is a night game, set for a 7:30 PM EST kick-off on NBC. If both teams are undefeated, expect a television ratings bonanza and the loser to see its CFP chances take a major hit.

Nov. 21 at No. 5 Oregon 

Given how rugged its schedule is, it's unlikely USC will be undefeated at 10-0 when it takes on Oregon. But if the Trojans are 9-1, their CFP hopes should still be alive, and that would make this match-up a crucial one. It's never easy to win at Autzen Stadium, and the Ducks could have national title hopes of their own at this juncture of the season.

There's also a very good chance that these two teams will square off again two weeks later in the Pac-12 championship game. Basically, expect this game to mean something to one or both squads. 

Key Players

Cody Kessler, senior quarterback

In his second year as a starter, Kessler was simply brilliant in 2014. He threw for nearly 1,000 more yards than he did in 2013, while nearly doubling his touchdowns (20 in 2013, 39 last year) and cutting his number of interceptions from seven to five. It's no wonder why he is regarded as one of the top contenders for the prestigious Heisman Trophy entering the 2015 campaign.

The Trojans have to replace 1,400-yard rusher Buck Allen, and will probably use multiple players to do so. Even though Sarkisian is insisting his team will still be a run-first outfit, as Kessler goes, so will USC's offense. There's no reason why he won't continue to excel. 

Adoree' Jackson, sophomore cornerback/wide receiver/returner

Jackson is a breathtaking player, capable of impacting a game in all three phases. Last season, he recorded 49 tackles and 10 pass breakups as a cornerback, ran two kickoffs back for touchdowns and caught 10 passes for 138 yards and three more scores. Making it even more impressive was that he did all of this as a true freshman, and he managed to find time in the off-season to excel as a sprinter and long jumper for the USC track team.

The 5-foot-11, 185-pound Jackson could have an even bigger impact this season, and that's a scary thought. In addition to his 2014 duties, he's replaced Nelson Agholor, now with the Philadelphia Eagles, as the team's primary punt returner. Opposing head coaches will have headaches game-planning for Jackson all season long.

Su'a Cravens, junior outside linebacker

Cravens was a tour de force on defense last season. He earned first-team All-Pac-12 status, racking up 68 tackles (17 for loss), nine pass breakups, five sacks and three interceptions. The Trojans will be counting on him to wreak havoc once again in 2015. With Anthony Sarao again providing steady play in the middle, Lamar Dawson and Jabari Ruffin returning from injury and Scott Felix and Michael Hutchings also in the fold, USC's linebacking corps should be a definite team strength.

Why They Can Win The National Title

On paper, there really isn't a glaring weakness that stands out on this USC roster. The Trojans are set at quarterback and along the offensive line, have a bevy of receivers at their disposal and possess enough running back options (Justin Davis, Tre Madden, Ronald Jones, James Toland and others) to ease the loss of Allen. On defense, they have to replace NFL first-round pick Leonard Williams on the defensive line, but there are a number of players to help pick up the slack in the trenches. We've touched on how good the linebackers could be, and with Jackson, Kevon Seymour and Leon McQuay III returning in the secondary, the back end of the Trojan defense is in good hands. 

If USC can do a better job closing out games -- the Trojans were outscored 86-72 in the fourth quarter last season and three of the team's four losses were by single digits -- and, of course, stay healthy, there's no reason why this team can't navigate its way through the tough schedule and be one of the four teams left standing in the CFP. 

Previously: No. 10 Florida State; up next: No. 8 Georgia