I have many times walked into a stadium doubting our Trojans could win. Alabama in 2016. Notre Dame in 2017. UCLA in 1998. Florida State in 1997. Paul Hackett’s entire third season. And others.
But never – not once – did I think to myself, “Gee, I wish we were playing San Jose State today instead of Bama/ND/UCLA/FSU/Fill in the Blank so we could win.”
I’ve seen quite a few Trojans – smart Trojans, people I respect – talking about how the move to a conference-only schedule is a good thing because USC can avoid Alabama and Notre Dame.
I can’t say I was looking forward to the Alabama opener. I also can’t say I look forward to stepping on a Lego in the middle of the night. Is Bama beatable? Sure. They lose once a year or so. Twice last year. But the likelihood that Clay Helton, maybe the worst coach of underdog teams in USC history – I guess practice doesn’t always make perfect – would beat Nick Saban in a big game is a little hard to take seriously. Yes, he might win.
Black Swan events happen all the time. Buster Douglas beat Mike Tyson. Rosie O’Donnell became a movie star. Jeffrey Epstein died before he could testify. Someone always wins the lottery.
But if we’re being honest with ourselves, we know what would happen in that Bama-USC rematch. Clay Helton was as likely to win that game as Ike Clanton was to win that spelling contest against Doc Holliday.
And I’m okay with that. How does it benefit USC to have a smoke-and-mirrors season where the Trojans go 7-3 or 8-2 against a watered-down schedule? That might benefit Clay Helton. The man is a master survivor. Give him a game ball and an excuse and he’ll escape the noose. He always does. He has (at least) $4.6 million reasons to keep it up.
But is that what we want?
I want Clay Helton to field a team worthy of the uniform or I want him to find a cardboard box and a Greyhound ticket on his desk. It’s one or the other. I don’t want him to avoid the heavy hitters on the schedule and claim victory. Play Alabama close, beat the Irish, and win the Pac-12. Do that and you’ve earned another year. Don’t do that and it’s off to Conference USA for you, amigo.
Now we may not get the clarity we need.
For those arguing this is good for recruiting, I’m skeptical. Don’t think for a second that high school recruits will be fooled. If USC rolls through the Pac-12, recruits will have reason to believe this program is on the upswing, Alabama or no Alabama. But if the Trojans win seven or eight games in a Pac 12-only schedule, suffer an embarrassing blowout or two, win a bunch of sloppy games – you know, play like they have for the last few years – the recruits won’t be fooled by that final record. Ever single one of them will know that’s a 7-5 or 8-4 team if COVID didn’t interfere. And they will make their decisions accordingly.
Look, I don’t think the season is going to happen at all, and I’ll be pleasantly surprised if it does. But I’m not going to cheer that USC gets to miss the teams on the schedule that still play at the level where USC used to play. I’m certainly not going to cheer the cancellation of my favorite day of the year, USC-Notre Dame Day, for the first time in 75 years. Maybe ducking the big boys is all we have to hang onto now.
Maybe that’s what we’ve become. Maybe that’s even the type of program USC’s current brain trust wants. But if so, I just need to find a new hobby, not cheer that we can more effectively cloak the death of the old one.
In this week’s roundtable, we were asked to give some thoughts on the ideal Pac 12 schedule. This is my ideal schedule, with some expert predictions thrown in. If you saw the roundtable already, you can ignore this. (I suppose you can ignore it even if you haven’t seen the roundtable.)
Oregon State – away.
It’s nice to start with a bad team, and this is the safest W on the schedule. Yes, I know UCLA is on the schedule, and they might have something to say about that since Chip has turned the Bruins into arguably the worst program on the west coast. But we can’t open with a rivalry game. Save that cupcake for last. Bookend beatdowns.
Arizona – home.
It’s the “I owe my whole career to Johnny Football” v. “I owe my whole career to Sam Darnold” bowl. Clay gets the nod, of course, because he didn’t turn the most dangerous running QB since Tommie Frazier into a crappy pocket passer. Nice work, Kevin.
Oregon – away.
This is the hinge game on the schedule. No, not because Mario Cristobal steals California blue chips from Clay Helton the way an elementary school bully steals other kids’ lunch money. We don’t care about that. Talent doesn’t matter to us. We’ll just continue to out-discipline and out-scheme them.
No, this is the hinge game because I don’t know how many of our guys will survive it. Ordinarily playing at Oregon without the crowd would be an advantage. But not this year. By the time this game rolls around, all of the elected officials in Portland will have ceded the state to massive gangs of anarchists, who will have re-named Oregon: STOOP – State of Oregon Organized Protest. Federal law enforcement officials will be gassing every person who crosses state lines. The local airport will be nothing more than a fog of tear gas. My only consolation is that the prevalence of weed might make the anarchists of Oregon relatively chill for anarchists. I expect 93% of the team to return home safely and 7% to defect to STOOP.
Cal – home.
You know Justin Wilcox hates Clay Helton. He may not say it, but he does. Helton essentially fired him before that first bowl game and decided he’d rather play without a defensive coordinator – or practices – than play with Justin Wilcox. No way Wilcox let’s that slide. The problem is, Wilcox might just be the worst offensive coach in Pac 12 history. One field goal by the Trojans should be good enough. I think we’ll get it. Late.
ASU – away.
The Movie Bowl. Nobody turns out more film talent than USC and ASU. Different types of films, sure, but that doesn’t make the statement any less true.
Stanford – away.
Stanford has more money than the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Didn’t stop Stanford from cutting half of their sports programs. Though, in fairness, I didn’t realize that squash and lightweight rowing were varsity sports at the college level. (Yep, those were two of the sports cut. Look it up.) This is why Stanford wins so many national titles. It literally fields teams that no other team in the country fields and then claims national titles in those sports. And, yes, in case you were wondering, Stanford’s Tic-Tac-Toe team has won the last 18 national championships. All by forfeit.
Colorado – away.
Are Kordell Stewart and Rashaan Salaam playing for Colorado this year? No? Then I’m not going to bother talking about Colorado. Nobody would read it anyway.
Utah – home.
Kyle Whittingham is everything that Clay Helton was supposed to be when Clay was hired. Except for one really inconvenient fact for Kyle: Clay beats him like a rented mule every time he walks into the Coliseum. It’s time to take your medicine, Kyle. Somebody make sure the medics are ready.
Washington – away.
That Chris Petersen resignation was weird. Something is going on we don’t understand. I think Hannibal Lecter is sending threatening letters to Washington football coaches. Expect Jimmy Lake to resign after week two. By this point in the season, Washington’s head coach will be a guy who started the season as a graduate assistant. That should make for a dead-even and thrilling coaching matchup, of course, but I’m going with the guy with more experience.
UCLA – home.
I have been wrong about a great many things in my life. But thinking Chip Kelly would do big things at UCLA may be my all-time biggest miss. I have a theory, because there’s absolutely no way he can be this bad. I think Chip hates UCLA. I think he has always hated UCLA. I think he took the job for one reason: to destroy the program he hates more than anything. You know, the way Pat Haden did at USC.
So there you have it. I see this as a 10-0 season. Clay Helton signs a 10-year extension at halftime of the UCLA game. He gets that Alabama game after all, but in the college football playoff. Alabama wins that game 78-2. “Fire Clay” planes are in the air over LA immediately.
Just kidding. If even three of these games get played, I’ll be shocked.
Carthago delenda est.