The USC Hype Train has left the station and is heading to Atlanta full speed ahead.
That isn't likely to change after week one, when the Trojans take on a Western Michigan team who is a 28-point underdog. Yes, the Broncos finished the 2016 regular season undefeated, but they're a shell of the team that got the country behind them with the now-famous "row the boat" chants.
Gone is the overly-exuberant head coach, P.J. Fleck. Gone is the NCAA's career leader in receiving yards, Corey Davis. Gone is college football's 2016 leader in touchdown-to-interception ratio, Zach Terrell.
From a pure talent perspective, USC should run away with its season opener. It's a perfect opportunity to ease into the season while simultaneously playing a team that won't just roll over and play dead.
Despite losing three of their most important pieces from last year, the Broncos have a clear identity. Run the ball and stop the run.
Senior running back Jarvion Franklin had over 1,600 yards from scrimmage and 14 touchdowns last year. Franklin is one of the most accomplished backs in the country, ranking second across all college football with 41 rushing touchdowns and third with 3,639 rushing yards. On the flip side, the Broncos return their top-5 tacklers, including their three senior linebackers.
Senior running back, three senior linebackers, oh and senior left tackle Chukwuma "Chukes" Okorafor, who is ranked as the number four left tackle by Mel Kiper Jr. heading into the 2017 season. Along with those five seniors, the Broncos aren't starting a single true freshman.
Western Michigan has some talented players and a lot of experience, but it's hard to peg this game as a loss for USC. The Trojans will still need to go out and play their game, but this is a perfect way to ease into the season.
While Sam Darnold has gotten all of the hype for USC this summer, and rightfully so, the Trojan running game could be even better than the passing game. Led by Ronald "Texas Tesla" Jones II and Stephen "Start the" Carr, there is as much raw talent in this backfield as there's been since the Pete Carroll era. Oh and that's without mentioning the ever-sturdy and versatile Aca'Cedric Ware, who can do a little bit of everything out of the USC backfield.
You can be sure media members (myself included) and fans alike will exhaust the full chest of vehicle puns when Jones and Carr put together their first great game this year. With USC likely running away with this game, it will be interesting to see whether or not the Trojan ground game can get going early against a relatively stout run defense. Jones got off to a slow start last year, and while USC might not need him to carry the team in week one, this could provide a jumping-off point heading into the Stanford game in week two.
2. USC's Front Seven
Losing Stevie Tu'ikolovatu and Michael Hutchings as anchors in the middle of the defense is tough. There's no way to sugarcoat the losses. But this year's front seven still has a chance to be one of USC's best ever.
Back in May, ESPN's Todd McShay had Cameron Smith as a first rounder in one of his early mock drafts. Add in Porter Gustin who came in at number 10 on Bruce Feldman's "Freaks" list. How about defensive end Rasheem Green? USC's Head Student Manager Marshall Cherrington called him, "one of the biggest physical freaks I've ever seen."
Throw in Uchenna Nwosu, one of the team's captains, who was third in tackles for loss last year and John Houston Jr., a sophomore linebacker who is the perfect, rangy complement to Smith, and USC is cooking.
While Western Michigan doesn't have the physical dominance that Stanford does, their offensive line was ranked fourth in the country by Pro Football Focus last year, and they will provide a great chance for the Trojan front seven to show how good they can be.
3. Protect the Franchise
While Sam Darnold is obviously not a "franchise player" because USC Football is not a franchise, keeping him off the turf is still priority number one. The USC offensive line suffered a bevy of injuries throughout the summer, but it looks like they're healthy heading into week one.
But health aside, USC lost Zach Banner, Damien Mama and Chad Wheeler to the NFL this spring.
Toa Lobendahn and Chuma Edoga both have starting experience and will play the left and right tackles, respectively, while Chris Brown slides in as left guard. The issue here is not with talent, but with chemistry; a successful offensive line needs to work as a unit. With Lobendahn working back from his ACL tear and both Nico Falah and Viane Talamaivo having minor injuries this summer, this starting five hasn't had a ton of practice time together.
Darnold's ability to move around in and out of the pocket will help cover up some issues, but how the offensive line performs together could be one of the deciding factors of this season.
Kickoff: Saturday, September 2 at 2:15 p.m. PST
TV: Pac-12 Networks
Spread: USC -27.5
Prediction: Western Michigan has some talented players but USC rolls to an easy victory in week one. USC 41, Western Michigan 10.