No. 14: USC

Clay Helton said his first day of camp as USC’s permanent coach felt like waking up on Christmas morning.

He may have a different feeling Sept. 4, the day after USC plays Alabama at AT&T Stadium. That might feel more like Dec. 26 after too much Ebenezer Booze.

He may feel worse knowing USC's bookstore is selling "Roll Tears Roll" t-shirts, which isn't even that clever and about as smart as poking your finger in a bee hive.

USC fans would be better served with a shirt goofing on Lane Kiffin, its former coach, who won a national title last year as Alabama's offensive coordinator, but maybe "You Showed Us" is not really that funny.

That said, there is much to like about this year’s Trojans, who have finally clawed back from those ridiculous, in retrospect, NCAA sanctions. USC is nearly back to 85 scholarships and has as many skill-position stars as any team in America.[membership level="0"] The rest of this article is available to subscribers only - to become a subscriber click here.[/membership] [membership]

Helton is no Jim Harbaugh when it comes to charisma, but maybe a steady hand is what USC needs after Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian.

Rankman has said this before but it bears repeating--he'd like USC more if it had Washington’s schedule and Washington less if it had USC’s schedule.

The Trojans could end up the best 8-4 of all time. Expectations are always high at Heritage Hall, so Helton has to hope the sane wing of USC’s pigskin base understand what he’s up against. Yeah, right.

Not only is USC playing Alabama and Notre Dame in non-conference. The Trojans must also navigate the Pac South and cross over to the North to play top seeds Stanford, Oregon and Washington.

Helton inherited this schedule along with a VIP parking space.

"At USC, the bar is set high," Helton said. "It's about championships. And if you don't like that bar, don't take the job."

Maybe Helton should bring in Bob Seagren, the former Olympian, to speak to the team about getting over that bar. The former Trojan won gold in the pole vault at the 1968 Mexico City Games.

Mark this down, though: if USC goes 12-1, so long as the one isn’t Colorado, the Trojans will be in the college football playoff.

The chances of that happening are not that good, because USC is opening the Helton era, against Alabama, with weaknesses in the two areas likely to get you killed: quarterback and defensive line.

The good news about USC’s pedigree is that it has a long history of not being afraid of challenging the SEC.

In 2003, the Trojans went to Auburn with Matt Leinart, a quarterback who had never taken a starting snap. USC left with a shutout win on its way to the Associated Press national championship.

We don’t know yet who will take the starting snap against Alabama. The Trojans have solid options in third-year junior Max Browne and second-year freshman Sam Darnold. It will be interesting to see how this delicate situation plays out. Browne is the veteran who has waited his turn and might transfer if he isn’t this year’s chosen one.

Darnold is more athletic and might be the better answer, at least against Alabama, in a game that could define USC’s season.

USC has an impressive array of game breakers in JuJu Smith-Schuster, Adoree Jackson, Justin Davis and Ronald Jones.

The huge concern is on the defensive line, so young and thin Khaliel Rodgers has shuffled over from offensive center to help out.

The worst-case real fear is Alabama running backs brutalizing USC’s interior behind waves of future NFL draft picks on the offensive line.

If USC can somehow hold the line, and play Alabama relatively even, it would do wonders for the Trojans psyche as they try to tackle America's toughest schedule.

Rankman's countdown so far: No. 16 Boise State, No. 15 Washington [/membership]