LOS ANGELES – USC will play its first game in the renovated Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on Saturday night when it hosts defending Mountain West champion Fresno State. The question is how many games will fourth-year head coach Clay Helton be around to enjoy the $315 million worth of renovations.
TV: 10:30 p.m. ET, ESPN LINE: USC -13.5
Helton, who is 32-17 in his three-plus years as head coach, finds himself squarely on the hot seat following a disappointing 5-7 season that had losses in five of the last six games including back-to-back defeats to rivals UCLA (34-27) and Notre Dame (24-17) to end the 2018 campaign. That quickly squashed any nice memories of his wild 52-49 Rose Bowl victory over Penn State or his 31-28 win over Stanford in the 2017 Pac-12 Championship Game. Helton hit the reset button in the off-season and briefly hired Kliff Kingsbury as offensive coordinator before he headed off to the NFL to become head coach of the Arizona Cardinals and then brought in another Mike Leach protege, Graham Harrell, to run the "Air Raid" offense. Helton also has turned up the intensity in practice following criticism he was too lax on and off the field with his players. "The most important thing as a leader is that when you have good seasons like a Rose Bowl year and a Pac-12 championship year that you give the accolades to the people around you that got you there," Helton said. "And when you have a 5-7 season, that you own it and you look at yourself truthfully. You can either hide your head in the sand or you can address the issues. And that was the biggest thing."
ABOUT FRESNO STATE (2018: 12-2)
The Bulldogs, who went 12-2 and defeated Arizona State, 31-20, in the Las Vegas Bowl were picked to repeat as the Mountain West's West Division champions in the preseason media poll despite returning just nine starters. Senior Jorge Reyna will take over at quarterback for Marcus McMaryion and will lead an offense that returns just two starters, Al-Mountain West tight end Jared Rice and right tackle Syrus Tuitele. The defense is led by a pair of preseason Al-Mountain West performers, senior linebacker Mykal Walker and senior strong safety Juju Hughes.
ABOUT USC (2018: 5-7)
Sophomore JT Daniels, who threw for 2,672 yards, 14 touchdowns and 10 interceptions last season, regained his starting quarterback spot following open competition in the spring and early fall camp. "We came into the process saying it's not going to be about age or who's been on the field," Helton said. "It's going to be about how people play and how people compete on a day-to-day basis, and how they execute the offense. JT did that." Daniels will have arguably the conference's deepest group of wide receivers in the Pac-12 to throw to led by sophomore Amon-Ra St. Brown (60 catches, 750 yards, 3 TDs), junior Tyler Vaughns (58 catches, 674 yards, 6 TDs) and senior Michael Pittman Jr. (41 catches, 758 yards, 6 TDs).
1. USC is 31-1-1 against current Mountain West opponents, not including two wins vacated because of NCAA penalty, with the lone loss coming to Trent Dilfer-led Fresno State, 24-7, in the 1992 Freedom Bowl, a loss that eventually cost head coach Larry Smith his job.
2. The Trojans have won 11 consecutive home season openers with the last loss coming in 1997, 14-7, to Florida State.
3. USC is unranked to open a season for the first time in 18 years.
PREDICTION: USC 31, Fresno State 20