Every four years, political partisans of both left and right insist that the next election is the most important one of our lifetimes. Of course, it’s almost never true. Both parties win elections, and the Republic still survives. There’s a good chance that the next election isn’t the most important in our nation’s history or the one that will determine whether truth, justice, and the American way survive; sometimes, it’s just that what’s right in front of us feels more important.
That’s probably why it’s easy to think that the future of USC football depends on the outcome of this season. I don’t think it does. (I sure hope it doesn’t….) Yes, it’s possible for powerhouse football programs to fall into extended mediocrity. The University of Chicago and Yale used to be great. Pittsburgh was a power not too many years ago. UCLA … wait, no, they’ve always been like this. Bad example.
And the more time a program flounders, the harder it can be to resurrect. Bush Push happened when this year’s seniors were in kindergarten; they probably don’t remember it live. Five years from now, high school seniors will not have been alive for that game. At some point, USC’s football tradition becomes something that dads and uncles remember but high school kids don’t. At some point, USC is no longer the dream school for players. At some point, kids no longer believe USC can make them into the first-round draft choices they dream of being.
But we’re not there yet. USC went 21 years without a national title before Pete Carroll came along, and many of those years were downright dreadful. People were talking then, like they’re talking now, about how USC couldn’t be great again. And it’s not just USC. Before Bob Stoops won a national title in his second year at Oklahoma, OU had gone 12 seasons without winning 10 games, and in five of those seasons they had non-winning records. Before Saban, Alabama had four losing seasons in 11 years with an overall winning percentage of 54%. ND won 57% of its games between Holtz and Kelly.
So, no, the outcome of this season does not determine whether USC will ever rise again. And this is good because, while I’ve said multiple times that USC will be better this year, the Trojans will not be elite and will not make the college football playoff. We’re far from that. What we need to see is serious improvement, or we’ll need to see serious change.
So what should we be looking for in the opener? This is a very good opening game for the Trojans. Fresno State will be well-coached and highly motivated. Almost all of their players are from California, and every single one of them wanted a scholarship offer from USC and didn’t get it. They will all have giant chips on their shoulders. They also think they can win. There was a time when most USC opponents came into the Coliseum doubting they could win, and at the first sign of adversity, they would start to quit. Those days are long gone. Fresno think they can win, and they won’t be intimidated.
Thankfully, they are also likely the 12th most talented team on the schedule. Fresno is a test, but one that USC should pass.
So while a loss to Fresno really does mean everybody should be jumping for the lifeboats, a win doesn’t necessarily mean the glory days are back. Instead, we should be looking for improvement in a few key areas.
First, is the team more disciplined? Now because this is the opener, there will be mistakes. People will get lined up wrong. People will forget to run out for their special team. First games tend to be sloppy, even for good teams. We can’t assume that every penalty is a fundamental problem with the program or Clay Helton. But I’ll be looking to see whether USC has gotten rid of the stupid mistakes. The unsportsmanlike conduct penalties that give the other team a new set of downs. Jumping inside and failing to keep contain. Bad eye habits in the secondary where you try to sneak a peak at the quarterback in man coverage. Does USC show discipline in their responsibilities and can they keep their emotions under control? That’s one important test.
Second, does the new offense have any balance to it? USC can throw for 400 yards against Fresno if they want to. Those receivers are so good, and I trust that Graham Harrell’s offense will do a much better job at scheming guys open. But if USC throws for 420 yards and runs for 20, then Houston we have a problem. There are times when you simply have to run the football, and if USC can’t do it against a Fresno team with far less talent, it won’t be doing it at Husky Stadium or in South Bend. We need to see a running game Saturday.
Third, and most importantly, can USC play nasty? A few years ago, an anonymous Pac 12 coach told a college football reporter that USC is the softest team on their schedule. And in the Sark/Helton years, I think you can make a strong argument that USC has become the softest program in the Pac 12. Even a 2-9 UCLA team physically took our guys to the woodshed last year. I think we can all agree that’s bad.
I don’t know how many of you saw the Football Is US documentary after the Miami-Florida game the other night. But there was an extended interview with Urban Meyer where he was talking about the importance of toughness for a football team. A shorter interview with Nick Saban touched on the same point.
Look, those of you who are so frustrated with skeptics like me who are not willing to concede that the off-season changes mean anything, it’s because the fundamental problem with the program was not the (very real) problems with the scheme, O coordinator, or O line coach. Those were real problems but easily solved with pink slips and new hires. The fundamental problem was that USC was mentally and physically soft. That’s the truth. The reason USC got absolutely bludgeoned by a less-talented Utah team last year is because while Kyle Whittingham can’t compete with USC for top recruits, he can teach his guys to play bareknuckle football, and by the end of last year USC was playing pillow-fight football. And we can’t know whether this has changed until the real games start.
So what do I really want to see Saturday? I want to see if USC has a nasty streak. I want to see if they are willing – no, eager – to punch Fresno in the mouth over and over until Fresno quits. Central Michigan and UNLV put up three hundred rushing yards or close to it in the last two openers. USC needs to shut down Fresno’s run game. USC needs to convert some short-yardage plays on the ground. USC needs to hammer it into the end zone in the red zone. USC needs to hit Fresno and win the battle of physicality.
If we see those things, then I’m going to open my mind to the possibility that things have truly changed for the better. If we don’t see those things, if we just see USC out-finesse Fresno by spreading the field with great athletes and out-talenting a lesser crew, then there’s no reason for any of us to get excited. Because until USC solves its toughness problem, this program will remain lost. Saturday won’t tell us everything. But it will begin to answer this most-important question.
You often hear coaches talk late in camp about how the players are ready to start hitting somebody else because they’ve only been hitting each other for so long. I kind of feel the same way about the fans. I’m glad the season is starting so we can stop beating up on each other and at least have some new things to talk about.
I realize that the people who frequent sites like this really love USC football, and when you discuss things you care about, it’s easy to get emotional. And I know that as a society we seem to be getting less and less able to disagree without seeing those who disagree as our enemies.
But isn’t it just a little bit weird that people feel the need to engage in personal attacks because somebody else has a different opinion of the USC football program’s direction or its coach? If you can’t engage in a discussion of USC football without getting emotional and attacking people personally or impugning their integrity, take a deep breath and back away from the keyboard for a little while. It’s just a game. This is just entertainment. We can disagree amicably. And if we can’t, we have a bigger problem than the current state of USC football.