USC’s season begins for real

first_imgIt may not have happened exactly how Clay Helton would have liked, but through two games, USC is exactly where everyone anticipated it would be after a deflating loss to top-ranked Alabama to start the year followed by a blowout home win against Utah State in week two.Now, the season can really begin for the Trojans — and not just because Saturday’s tilt at No. 7 Stanford is the first conference game on the docket.This was perhaps the worst possible year that USC could have scheduled Alabama to kick off the season. With a rookie head coach and a new quarterback, the Trojans needed two Utah State-like matchups — instead of just one — to give them enough reps and build chemistry before Pac-12 play without the threat of an early-season loss.Instead, Helton and redshirt junior and first-year starting quarterback Max Browne were thrown into the fire in Arlington, and it was clear that they did not belong on the same field as Alabama head coach Nick Saban’s team. As a result, before the second week of the season, the Trojans were already discouraged and searching for answers, dropping out of the rankings so far that even a convincing win the following week didn’t earn them a single vote in either the AP Top 25 or the Coaches Poll.In fact, no team in the Pac-12 South Division is ranked, but every other team except Arizona received votes in the AP Top 25 this week. Utah, which played Southern Utah its first week and barely scraped by BYU last Saturday, received 62 votes, tied for the most among teams not in the top 25. UCLA has an identical record to USC — the Bruins lost to Texas A&M to open the season before defeating UNLV in week two — but somehow received 47 votes. And just because Colorado and Arizona State took advantage of far inferior opponents to start the campaign, they were each rewarded with at least one vote. If any of those teams had Alabama on its schedule the first week, I’m sure they would not have received a single vote (I’m looking specifically at UCLA, which 47 voters thought was deserving of being one of the top 25 teams in the country, despite losing a game the first week that it should’ve won, while no one felt the same for USC despite the Trojans expectedly falling to a better opponent).To be clear, this is not a pity party for the Trojans. They were ranked No. 20 in the preseason, and they had an opportunity that no other Pac-12 team did — to upset the No. 1-ranked team and probably leapfrog into the top 10 by week two. But they didn’t. They lost, and they lost big, and the voters are making them pay for it.Still, record-wise, with the Trojans exactly where we’d thought they’d be after two games, the real evaluation begins now. Which team shows up in Palo Alto on Saturday — the team that looked lost against Alabama or the one that confidently took care of business against Utah State — may be a harbinger of how the remainder of the season plays out.It will also be smack in the middle of a brutal start to the season for USC, which has a quick turnaround with a Friday night game the following week at Utah. From there, the schedule clears up, with four of the following five games held at the Coliseum. The only road game in that stretch is against Arizona, a beatable opponent. In fact, their next five opponents after Utah — Arizona State, Colorado, Arizona, Cal and Oregon — are all games USC should be favored in (For what it’s worth, ESPN projects that USC has a 60 percent chance or more of winning each of its next six games after Stanford). The “glass half full” view is that the Trojans win one out of two games against Stanford and Utah, live up to expectations for the next month, and head into a tilt against No. 8 Washington on the road on Nov. 12 with a 7-2 record. But that is looking too far ahead, especially for a team that has already taken fans on a roller coaster ride lasting two weeks. And in today’s world of overreactions to everything, a poor performance on Saturday will have people kicking and screaming that USC will never get back to its glory days.So, with the direction of the season still undecided, we’ll wait and see if Helton can notch his first “signature win,” if Browne takes advantage of his second appearance in primetime and whether L.A.’s football team (sorry, Rams. I’ll consider recognizing your existence once you score a point) is on the path back to prominence or still getting run over by Christian McCaffrey.About a year ago, an unranked team came into the Coliseum and shocked a conference opponent ranked in the top 10. That team was Stanford, and on Saturday, USC has a chance to return the favor and jump-start its season. Eric He is a sophomore majoring in print and digital journalism. He is also the sports editor of the Daily Trojan. His column, “Grinding Gears,” runs Wednesdays.last_img