A sense of relief swept over Trojan Nation on Jan. 2, 2017. Placekicker Matt Boermeester's 46-yard field goal as time expired lifted USC to its first Rose Bowl title since 2009 and completed an improbable rally from a 14-point fourth-quarter deficit to a 52-49 victory over Penn State.

But after the relief comes expectations. And they are lofty.

Clay Helton's squad will be shifting their attention to the national scene with hopes of claiming their first-ever berth in the College Football Playoff. After finishing No. 3 in the nation in the Associated Press rankings, USC is expected to be ranked at about No. 4 and therefore a serious threat to reach the CFP semifinals.

USC is picked to win the Pac-12 and the Trojans have embraced national title talk despite the departure of some key players. Gone are cornerback Adoree' Jackson, wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, running back Justin Davis, offensive lineman Zach Banner, safety Leon McQuay and defensive lineman Stevie Tu'ikolovatu, among others. Also absent from the roster is Boermeester, who left USC after a Title IX investigation, while center Khaliel Rodgers and defensive lineman Kevin Scott transferred. 

But USC also returns seven returning starters on defense and six returning starters on offense, including Heisman Trophy candidate Sam Darnold. Wide receiver Deontay Burnett is expected to be the sophomore quarterback's top target and running back Ronald Jones II has another strong shot at rushing for over 1,000 yards. The defense boasts two top linebackers in Cameron Smith and Porter Gustin, as well as defensive back Iman Marshall.

In Clay They Trust

After what was perceived as an overly relaxed atmosphere under Pete Carroll, USC dealt with exhausting and embarrassing storylines under Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian. Those days are long gone with Helton in charge, as the former longtime assistant has brought much-needed stability and normality to the famed program.

Helton, 45, will be looking to prove that last season wasn't a fluke. Many praised his play-calling in 2016 after so many aggravating seasons of bubble screens and short passes that seemed to undermine top playmakers.

Optimistic and even-tempered, Helton has done wonders for morale.

Darnold, Darnold, Darnold

Though the Heisman hype surrounding USC's star quarterback might be overblown, there is no denying his immense talent. Darnold is arguably the Trojans' most athletic quarterback since Rodney Peete, and he's blessed with a precise arm to go along with a hard-nosed attitude.

Opposing defenses will be more prepared to defend against Darnold and he will no doubt miss Smith-Schuster and Darreus Rogers. But the 20-year-old is more than capable of making adjustments after quickly learning Tee Martin's system last season. Aside from Burnett, freshmen Tyler Vaughns and Michael Pittman have a good shot at emerging as top targets in what will likely be an effective passing attack. Steven Mitchell might be a real weapon after recovering from a knee injury. Meanwhile, Darnold may get some added protection from offensive lineman Chuma Edoga, who looks poised for a big season.

Darnold will have plenty of opportunities to thrive, even with a rather young offensive line. It wouldn't be surprising if he throws for 3,800 yards and rushes for over 300. 

Defense Under The Microscope

Darnold's passing should be a big storyline, but the defense might be particularly crucial for USC's title hopes. After a full season learning Clancy Pendergast's 5-2 system, the Trojans will have several experienced players returning from a unit that denied 10 opponents from scoring 28 points or more in 2016.

The Trojans are loaded at linebacker, with Smith and Guston teaming up with talented young players. The defensive line may have a future star in freshman Connor Murphy. 

The secondary has been the subject of questions, but this group is actually packed with both talent and experience. Marshall is on the Thorpe Award watch list and seems guaranteed to be a first-round pick. He will have plenty of experience surrounding him, including Chris Hawkins, Marvell Tell, Isaiah Langley and Jack Jones. Safety Ykili Ross isn't expected to start, yet he's received ample praise for his efforts in practice.

Freshman Marlon Tuipulotu will battle senior Josh Fatu for the starting nose tackle spot, but the starting 11 is mostly in place.  

Keeping Up With The Joneses

The roster includes five players with the surname Jones, but one will likely stand out from the rest: Ronald. With so much attention paid to Darnold's Heisman hopes, and with Davis moving on to the NFL, the Texas native should have plenty of opportunities to prove he's one of the best rushers in the nation.

In the second half of the season, Ronald Jones gave opposing defenses fits, rushing for 797 yards on 115 carries (6.9 yards a carry) and 10 touchdowns over six games. It wouldn't be surprising if the speedy junior builds on his strong season, as he looks to impress pro scouts. 

Running back coach Deland McCullough described him as "the whole package."

Weak Road Schedule

While the Coliseum will host some tough opponents, the five-game away schedule won't be too grueling. USC first hits the road in Week 4 against Cal in a Saturday game, and then heads to Pullman to face Washington State in a Friday night game. 

In late October, USC will have back-to-back road games against Notre Dame and Arizona State. Before ending the season against UCLA at the Coliseum, the Trojans will be in Boulder to face Colorado. The five road opponents combined for a record of 32-31 in 2016 and none are expected to have a preseason ranking.

On another bright note, USC won't play Washington in the regular season, which softens the blow of not having a bye week.

A Drop Off After Alabama

There will be a scramble to get into the top four of the CFP, but only Alabama seems like a lock at that this point. College football is consistently unpredictable, with many underdogs somehow finding themselves in the title picture, yet certain teams seem like they will make a strong run at a semifinals berth. 

After Alabama, teams like Florida State, Michigan, Ohio State and Oklahoma are expected to battle with USC for top rankings. However, all four teams have challenges ahead of them.

Ohio State and Oklahoma meet in Week 2, which means one of them will have an early blemish on their record. Michigan, which has lost most of their starters from last year, faces Florida in the season opener and then ends the season with Ohio State.  

Florida State has a weak non-conference schedule but they face defending champion Clemson on the road. 

The chances of any of those schools running the table seems a bit far-fetched, which means USC still has a window to get into the CFP if they lose a game. Should USC get past a pesky Western Michigan squad, as well as nemesis Stanford, the schedule eases up and a 13-1 record after the Pac-12 Championship remains plausible.