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IMHO Sunday: A favorable 2021 USC schedule run for a Pac-12 title game in Las Vegas?

In my humble opinion, cardinal and gold thoughts on what I see, what I hear, and what I think from Los Angeles.

The schedule: The Pac-12 announced its 2021 conference football schedule last week, and most are convinced the Trojans have received a very favorable sequence of games, which could go a long way in determining whether the Men of Troy will represent the Pac-12 South in the conference championship game, a title contest that will be played on Friday, Dec. 3, in Allegiant Stadium (photo above) in Las Vegas, Nev.

However, I don’t know if I’am prepared to go so far, as some say, that this is a favorable slam-dunk schedule, which probably shocks no one who reads this column on a regular basis.

The schedule – Part 2: One thing to keep in mind when getting all giddy over the 2021 Trojans schedule, nothing in the Clay Helton era comes easy or at times consistently. Even John McKay (1967 at Oregon State/0-3), John Robinson – first era (1977 Missouri/10-27), and Pete Carroll (2007 Stanford/23-24) all had their embarrassing upsets, but if any of these three legendary USC football coaches were presented with this 2021 schedule, it really would be an overwhelmingly favorable schedule.

Even though it figures that the Trojans will be in their customary role of favorites in a majority of their 2021 games, placing a win-loss or point-spread bet during the Clay Helton era is a cautionary tale.   

How would former Trojans’ legendary coach Pete Carroll (photo above) fare with the Trojans 2021 schedule?

The schedule – Part 3: The reality under Clay Helton, who is approaching his sixth season as USC’s head football coach with just one Pac-12 title (2017) during his tenure, a “favorable” schedule needs to be taken with some reservation. Does “a favorable schedule” translate into a winning record, a division title, a conference championship?

The Trojans underdog role will likely be road games at Notre Dame (Oct. 23) and ASU (Nov. 6). If USC does manage to win the 2021 Pac-12 title, Clay Helton should unquestionably receive all the accolades as well as his hardworking staff.     

The schedule – Part 4:
A favorable 2021 schedule – something most coaches don’t want their players to read about for fear of overconfidence and/or a letdown – gains momentum with the Men of Troy having seven home games and five road games.

Having more home games than road games is always “favorable”, but in the Clay Helton era, home games aren’t always a guarantee for success (see 2020 Pac-12 championship game against Oregon in the Coliseum) or fan base satisfaction of performance (Western Michigan, UNLV, Fresno State, etc.).

During the Clay Helton era, the Trojans have had their challenges with underdog teams like Fresno State (photo above).

The schedule – Part 5: Speaking of Oregon, which returns dangerous quarterback Anthony Brown, add in the fact that the 2021 Men of Troy don’t have to play the Ducks or Washington during the regular season, and you can see why the word “favorable” does seems applicable.

When reviewing the Trojans’ schedule, I took into account the order of games, when games would be played, where they would be played, and who did the opponent play the week before the Trojans and who the Trojans played the week before and who the Cardinal and Gold would be playing the week after the current week’s opponent. 

The schedule – Part 6: When you talk about the Trojans 2021 schedule, “favorable” works when you consider that there will be no Thursday or Friday night games, and all regular season games will be played on Saturday. Of course, we have no idea if one or more Saturday games will be played at the ridiculous morning hour of 9 a.m. PT or how many late 7:00 to 7:30 p.m. games will be slated.

As you well know, TV calls the kickoff time shots, and it has an impact on all of us. Those networks making the kickoff calls in 2021 include the ESPN channels, ABC, FOX, FOX Sports 1 or Pac-12 Networks.

Last season, the Trojans played Washington State (photo above) on a Sunday when the originally scheduled Friday night game was moved due to COVID. When the 2021 Pac-12 schedule was revealed , it showed no Thursday or Friday night games for the Men of Troy. (Photo by Jose/MarinMedia.org Pool for USC Athletics)

The schedule – Part 7:
If the Trojans have a “trap game” in 2021, IMHO, it’s playing at Cal on Nov. 13. Some would argue the opener at home with San Jose State, but there will be potentially immense pressure on the team and/or Clay Helton in November if the Trojans are still in contention for a divisional title. FYI, the Cal game is sandwiched between playing at ASU (a strong favorite to win the Pac-South) and then improving crosstown rival UCLA in the Coliseum.

The schedule – Part 8: If there’s a turning point game in 2021, IMHO, it’s when the Trojans host Utah on Oct. 9. By this time in the schedule, the Utes will have a talented but new backfield in heralded Baylor quarterback transfer Charlie Brewer and Oklahoma running back transfer T.J. Pledger.

Of course, we all know that Utah is an atrocious 1-9 against the Trojans in games played in Los Angeles. In fact, the lone Utah win in SoCal was 1917 long before the Coliseum hosted a college game (1923). The last time the Trojans hosted Utah (2019), the Utes put a huge early first series hurt on Kedon Slovis, who was knocked out of the game. If you remember, backup Matt Fink came to the rescue and led Troy to a 30-23 victory.

In 2019, backup quarterback Matt Fink (photo above) came off the bench for an injured Kedon Slovis to lead the Trojans to a 30-23 victory over Utah.

Bottom line: So, are you now ready to predict a 12-0 season? How’bout 11-1? Would you believe, in the immortal words of Maxwell Smart, 10-2? Or are you going to have a wait-and-see attitude having learned from the Clay Helton past?

Secret agent Maxwell Smart (photo above) says, ” Would you believe the Trojans will go 10-2 in 2021?”

From the press box…

Stacking the recruiting department: You all are certainly aware of the ballyhoo over the USC football recruiting department hires within the last couple of weeks. If you’re keeping score, Trojans athletic director Mike Bohn has been a very busy man, hiring the likes of Megan Mueller (Kansas), Jeff Martin (LSU), and Bryan Carrington (Texas).

The continuing hires show a goal of reaching recruits in every possible exhilarating way from social media to personal interactions. Many of you have already seen some of the recruiting video productions.     

Megan Mueller (photo above) is the latest recruiting department hire. She is the new Director of Recruiting Operations.

Stacking the recruiting department – Part 2:
In the hiring of Martin, Carrington, and Mueller, the Trojans expect big things to help in the continued resurrection of football recruiting, which suffered a major blow to perception and ego in 2020 but rebounded impressively in the latest recruiting haul, the Class of 2021.

It’s believed that the recent hiring of the aforementioned will enhance even more the chances of future football recruiting success. No doubt, nothing brings a fuzzier feeling of security and warmth to all concerned than nationally ranked recruiting classes.

Stacking the recruiting department – Part 3:
However, not to sound like the guy with the needle that pops birthday balloons, all the success of these recruiting hires – as Mike Bohn probably also knows – is contingent on how Clay Helton’s football teams perform on the field. If the Trojans don’t show a Pac-12 championship in 2021, Helton’s days may finally be numbered.

Mike Bohn can hire the combined staff of the Alabama Crimson Tide and Clemson Tigers – sans Nick Saban and Dabo Swinney – and it won’t make a major difference. Currently, Bohn is stacking the deck without camouflage around Trojans current head football coach Clay Helton in trying to give his scrutinized coach all the tools he needs to succeed.

Trojans head football coach Clay Helton (photo above) is hoping that next season’s “favorable” schedule allow him to continue as the leader of the football program.

Stacking the recruiting department – Part 4: No doubt, Clay Helton isn’t oblivious to his surroundings and has seemingly kept a low profile as Mike Bohn continues to control and hire what he can within the football program. Yet, at some point – and it can’t be that far away – Bohn will run out of addition options to strengthen the football program that don’t involve a decision on Helton.

The fact that Gentleman Clay has lasted as long as he has as head football coach is a testament to the coach’s good fortune of timing, fortuitous contract extension, and a growing public perception regarding a questionable commitment to the football program by Dr. Carol Folt and the USC Board of Trustees.  

Stacking the recruiting department – Part 5: With the recruiting and social media departments expanded and solidified by AD Mike Bohn, how the rest of the football program eventually all plays out should be answered during or shortly after the 2021 football season.

If the Trojans have to make a head football coaching change after next season, hiring the next head football coach will be athletic director Mike Bohn’s (photo above) biggest professional career decision.

Stacking the recruiting department – Part 6: Mike Bohn’s biggest challenge may not be justification for changing his head coach and getting Dr. Carol Folt to sign off but taking full responsibility for the hiring of the next USC head football coach, which will bring an enormous amount of scrutiny and attention from local and national media – not to mention the worlds of college and high school football.

Based on Bohn’s own professional background, picking a new USC football coach would be Mike’s biggest career decision ever, a determination that will either reflect upon him as a football visionary or an athletic director in over his skis.

The post-game show…

Just wondering: In a recently released USC BLVD tweet video featuring quarterback Kedon Slovis promoting the football program (see below), it was curious the short presentation provided a quick appearance of former head coach Pete Carroll but no Clay Helton. And the message is (fill in the blank). 

The return: According to The Los Angeles Times, the Tournament of Roses is actively planning for the return in 2022 of its world-famous parade and Rose Bowl Game. Both New Year’s Day icons were forced to cancel locally due to COVID. With local controversy, the 2021 Rose Bowl Game was moved to AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.  

By definition: Clay Helton refers to the NCAA Transfer Portal as the “free agent market.”

Former Alabama defensive tackle Ishmael Sopsher (photo above) is one of Clay Helton’s 2021 “free agent market” acquisitions.

Whatever: Mission Hills (Calif.) Alemany HS linebacker Niuafe Tuihalamaka, who was previously committed to USC, released his top 5 early last week and the Trojans didn’t make the latest cut: Notre Dame, Arizona State, Texas, Stanford and Oregon. Once a player decommits, it ain’t easy to get them to recommit, and the latest Tuihalamaka announcement supports that viewpoint. 

2021 Yahoo rankings: Yahoo sports has the early preseason 2021 Trojans ranked No. 14 in the country. 

Yahoo Sports says the USC Trojans (photo above) will run onto the field as the very early preseason ranked the No. 14 team in the country.

The friendly skies:
As we know, one of the Trojans big sponsors is United Airlines, so maybe when new recruiting department addition Megan Mueller was tweeting out her excitement of being part of the “USC family” – adding the hashtag “Flight On,” – perhaps she was just paying homage to the Trojans’ business partner. 

The call-in show…

Caller No. 1: Greg, on a scale of 1-10, where would you have ranked the USC fan base’s excitement and interest level if the Trojans had defeated Oregon and won the 2020 Pac-12 title?

Caller No. 1, I think if the Trojans had become Pac-12 champs, I would have ranked fan interest at an eight. Many Trojans want to see the Trojans win but are conflicted with the thought of Clay Helton remaining the head coach for the foreseeable future. However, since the Trojans didn’t win the conference, I would say at best, IMHO, I would place the fan meter around a four or a five.

Caller No. 2: Katz, what do you find as the most intriguing aspect of the upcoming spring practice?

Caller No. 2, I may have answered this before, but I think that what intrigues me the most will be watching the competition between the two freshmen quarterbacks, Miller Moss and Jaxson Dart. It should be very interesting to see how they perform in scrimmages, especially if Kedon Slovis is limited during the spring.   

One of the real battles of spring practice will feature freshmen quarterbacks Miller Moss (photo above) and Jaxson Dart.

Caller No. 3: GK, were you surprised when the Pac-12 schedule was released and found out that the Trojans would be playing BYU in the last game of the 2021 regular season?  

Caller No. 3, I have to admit that I was because like many of you, I was conditioned that the end of a USC season is traditionally either UCLA or Notre Dame. It seems strange that the BYU is coming to town on Thanksgiving Weekend.

Taking nothing away from BYU – the last meeting between USC and the Cougars resulted in an overtime win by BYU in Provo, but it also seems odd seeing Stanford hosting Notre Dame in Palo Alto for the final game of the upcoming 2021 season. So much for tradition.

The Trojans will host BYU at the end of the 2021 season and will try and avenge the 2019 overtime loss (photo above) in Provo to the Cougars.

Caller No. 4: Mr. G, it appears that the Trojans will have fans in the stands for home games in the Coliseum in 2021. Do you see a lot of changes?  

Caller No. 4, that’s a good question. I am sure there will be some tweaks here and there, and we don’t know how many fans will be allowed to attend games live and in person. However, the biggest challenge will be not to let it become a public relations nightmare. What happens if demand is bigger than supply? What happens if it isn’t? On the surface, if only 20 percent of the Coliseum is allowed to be filled and the team is doing well, what happens if loyal fans can’t see their beloved team in person? What will the pecking order be for those to attend?

Either it’s going to be one happy ticket department if there is high demand, which will lessen the burden of listening to complaints of fans left out, or a ticket department stressed out because there isn’t a great demand for tickets and there is apathy.

Caller No. 5: G-Kat, the train or the car?

Caller No. 5, Ha, Ha. Well, since I live in Irvine (Calif.), which is about 50 miles south of Los Angeles and had to come into L.A., given a choice, I’d take the Amtrak or Metrolink into L.A. to avoid having to drive the freeways. My personal enjoyment is taking the Amtrak from Irvine to L.A. to watch the Dodgers play at Dodger Stadium.

Sometimes I take the Amtrak to San Diego to watch the Dodgers play the Padres, which features the trains moving parallel to the beach/ocean. I can’t take the train to cover USC football home games due to time constraints.

One of the more relaxing and beach scenic trips is taking the Amtrak “Surfliner” (photo above) down to San Diego to watch the Dodgers play the Padres at Petco Park.

Going to Los Angeles, there’s nothing like being on a comfortable train and looking out the window at bumper-to-bumper freeway traffic. FYI, upon arrival at Union Station in L.A., the Dodgers provide a free shuttle ride to and from the game back to the train station. You do, however, have to go to “train games” that are schedule flexible.

If you take the train into L.A Union Station for a Dodgers game, the Dodgers provide a complimentary shuttle bus (photo above) to and from the stadium.

The last word: So now we know that spring practice will start on Monday, March 29. The big question is whether anybody – media included – will be allowed to attend.  

Greg Katz

Now entering his 59th season of either writing, broadcasting, or just plain watching USC football, WeAreSC columnist Greg Katz began his affiliation with the website back in 2001, introducing his well-received O/NSO (The Obvious/The Not So Obvious) column and later adding his respected IMHO Sunday opinion and tidbits column. Greg, a former ESPN.com college football columnist covering USC, is also a member of the Football Writer's Association of America. He is also known in Southern California as a professional public address announcer, having called the the 1996 Rose Bowl Game between USC and Northwestern. Greg also holds a master's degree in athletic administration and was a former varsity high school coach of 27 years.

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