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Friday August 18th, 2017 6:08PM

Darnold's Trojans appear ready to handle lofty expectations

By The Associated Press
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LOS ANGELES (AP) — Sky-high preseason expectations are an annual tradition at Southern California, right up there with the Salute to Troy kickoff event and the weekly lighting of the Coliseum torch before the fourth quarter.

Actually meeting those expectations has fallen out of favor since Pete Carroll left town eight seasons ago.

But after a nine-game unbeaten run culminated in a Rose Bowl victory last fall, coach Clay Helton and his calmer, gentler USC program finally appear ready to fulfill their bountiful promise for an entire season.

"When you come to USC, you welcome those expectations," Helton said. "We've created a lot of momentum and a lot of confidence with what we did last season."

Much of what the Trojans did last season was credited to quarterback Sam Darnold, who established himself as a star during that late-season run. Now a junior and a probable high pick in the next NFL draft, Darnold looks thoroughly comfortable with the pressure and expectations piled on his shoulders.

And he'll have plenty of help. The Trojans are the preseason favorite to win the Pac-12 because of their quarterback, but also because of the bountiful talent surrounding him.

Ronald Jones, Aca'Cedric Ware and touted freshman Stephen Carr are in the latest overflowing backfield group at Tailback U. Receiver Deontay Burnett could pick up the mantle from JuJu Smith-Schuster as Darnold's top target, but he has competition.

"Probably the biggest (concern in training camp) is the chemistry between Sam and our new receivers," Helton said. "I think they're beyond talented, the kids that we redshirted, but they haven't been in real live games yet."

The defense that was quietly sensational throughout that regular-season run to the Rose Bowl has up to seven returning starters, including shutdown cornerback Iman Marshall and linebackers Porter Gustin and Uchenna Nwosu.

Here are more things to watch with the Trojans:

LINE TASK: USC has to replace the starting center and both starting tackles from last season's team, but Helton has options. Chuma Edoga appears to be settling in at right tackle, but Nico Falah has worked out at the position when he isn't playing center with the first-team offense. Toa Lobendahn, who started at center in the 2016 season opener before tearing ligaments in his right knee and missing the season, has been working at center and at left tackle, where he started eight games as a freshman in 2014.

NEW FOOT: Matt Boermeester won the Rose Bowl for USC with a 46-yard field goal as time expired, but he was dropped from the team during the offseason after a school investigation into an incident in which Boermeester's girlfriend claims he was falsely accused of shoving her. Redshirt freshman Michael Brown and walk-on Chase McGrath are the only current options, but special teams coordinator John Baxter hasn't publicly acknowledged any worries.

QUICK START: The Trojans rarely play an easy early schedule, and this season is tough. They open at home with Western Michigan, the MAC powerhouse that went 13-1 and played in the Cotton Bowl last season under departed coach P.J. Fleck. Perennial power Stanford arrives the following week for their annual early-season showdown, and Texas will visit the Coliseum on Sept. 16 for its first road game under new coach Tom Herman.

KEY GAMES: After that September gauntlet concludes with a dangerous trip to Washington State, the Trojans will settle in. The annual Notre Dame game is in South Bend this year, but the Trojans don't have to play Pac-12 North favorite Washington or rebuilding Oregon in the regular season. A road game at chilly Colorado (Nov. 11) could be dangerous.

PREDICTION: As usual, the Trojans have nowhere to go but down after their preseason hype. Two big factors suggest they can live up to it this time: Darnold is the real deal, and every other school in the Pac-12 South has much more serious questions. Helton has handled the usual USC tumult much better than his recent predecessors, and there's currently no reason to believe the Trojans won't fulfill their preseason promise with 10-11 regular-season wins, a Pac-12 South title, a trip to the conference title game and a strong shot at the College Football Playoff. The good times appear to be back in downtown LA.

___

More AP college football: www.collegefootball.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP_Top25

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