|No. 4 USC embraces the hype for opener|
LOS ANGELES -- Participants from two of last season's New Year's Six bowl games face off for the first time ever on Saturday, when No. 4 USC hosts Western Michigan at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
Closing the 2016 season on a nine-game winning streak -- capped with a thrilling comeback victory over Penn State in the Rose Bowl -- USC went into the offseason on a greater high than most of its college football counterparts.
That momentum has turned into major hype.
The Trojans' No. 4 preseason ranking is their highest such designation since opening 2012 at No. 1, and they are the league media's preseason pick to win the Pac-12 championship.
"We've always seen it as a great opportunity rather than an obligation. It's a place we want to be in at USC," Trojans coach Clay Helton said of the expectations. "It feels good to be back in that position, where so many people are expecting great things of you."
Meanwhile, quarterback Sam Darnold -- who directed that nine-game winning streak last season -- starts this season as the betting favorite to win the Heisman Trophy. He capped last season with a record-setting, five-touchdown performance in the Rose Bowl.
"You've got to hone in on what you're doing, every single day, to get better," Darnold said of his focus amid the anticipation of a huge season. "I just want to start playing."
USC can turn its full attention to competition this week against 2017 Cotton Bowl participant Western Michigan. This is the first pairing of USC against a current member of the Mid-American Conference.
The Broncos won the MAC championship in 2016 en route to earning the Group of Five conferences' automatic bid into a New Year's Six bowl game. Their league title marked the culmination of a perfect regular season, when they reached as high as No. 12 in the Associated Press poll en route to a 13-1 finish.
Western Michigan's success a season ago earned former head coach P.J. Fleck the same position at Minnesota. Replacing him is Western Michigan alum Tim Lester, the quarterbacks coach at Purdue last season.
The Broncos also lose standout quarterback Zach Terrell and wide receiver Corey Davis, the fifth overall pick in the NFL Draft.
Western Michigan's ground attack should shoulder much of the offensive duty in the opener. The Broncos return three running backs -- Jarvion Franklin, Jamauri Bogan and Davon Tucker -- who combined to rush for 2,486 yards and 24 touchdowns in 2016.
Helton also mentioned the return of Western Michigan running back LeVante Bellamy, limited to three games last season due to injury, but responsible for almost 500 yards in 2015.
"Getting Bellamy back, too, who's one of the fastest players on their team, we know that it is a big-time run threat," Helton said. "You know they're going to try to take pressure off (quarterback Jon Wassink) with a very talented offensive line and three talented backs."
Helton said each Broncos' running back brings something unique to the offense, with 225-pound Franklin a prototypical every-down ball-carrier and either Bogan or Bellamy providing "scatback" options.
Lester credited the depth and diversity of the backfield, as well as that experienced offensive line, for somewhat easing the learning curve on first-time starter Wassink. Terrell was a four-year starter who graduated with 12,100 yards passing and 96 touchdowns.
Lester knows the challenge WMU faces trying to move the ball on a talented USC defense that ranked No. 38 nationally in points allowed.
"Their defense, the team speed is special," Lester said. "They fly around to the ball, they play with their hair on fire. It's going to be a heck of a challenge."
USC's impressive lineup extends to the offensive side, as well -- and it isn't just Darnold.
The Trojans also retain running back Ronald Jones II, a breakthrough performer with 1,082 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns in 2016.
The USC wide receiving corps takes on a different look in Week 1. Rose Bowl standout Deontay Burnett returns, but gone are JuJu Smith-Schuster, Darreus Rogers and De'Quan Hampton. Newcomers and former reserves will jockey for opportunities.
"To see our receiving corps grow in spring and fall training camp, it's provided a high level of competition," Helton said.