There’s blood in the water, and the sharks of the Pac-12 are circling. USC is off to their worst start in 15 years, dead last in the standings with a record of 1-3. Suddenly everyone is asking “what happened to this perennial power?” Schools like Arizona State, Colorado and Utah are already celebrating, believing the demise of the division’s traditional powerhouse has opened the door for someone else.
With that said, it may seem like the wrong time to suggest the Trojans can repeat as Pac-12 South Champions. But there’s still plenty of football to be played, and if we learned anything from last year, the road to the Rose Bowl can be a bumpy, unpredictable ride. It’s something veteran players like JuJu Smith-Schuster seem to understand. He told the LA Times on Tuesday, “It’s still not over. If we still win the South, we have an opportunity to play in the Pac-12 championship.”
There’s no disputing the fact that USC’s loss against Utah was a blow. It was a game they had in their hands and let slip away. But in the aftermath, much of the discussion has centered on the things the Trojans did right, and it’s still seen as a step in the right direction. Clay Helton said afterwards, it was “by far, our best game offensively.”
What changed? USC’s quarterback situation has gone from a question mark to a reason for hope. In his first start, Sam Darnold added an entirely new dimension to the offense, using his athletic ability to extend plays, and his arm to get the ball in the hands of SC’s talented receivers. With that, the running game took off, providing the first sign that Clay Helton might actually come through on his promise to bring back ‘power football.’ If they can build on this new foundation, there’s no doubt USC will be a different team going forward.
What might stand in their way? This conversation always seems to come back to USC’s difficult schedule, and by now, it sounds like a broken record. Tough as it is, the Trojans have finally reached a manageable stretch of games. Let’s not forget, three of the first four contests were on the road. Three brutal match-ups against top-25 opponents. One against the best team in the country, and another against a top ten team.
Now, USC gets two in a row at home, before a trip to Arizona. After that, they have an extra week to prepare for Cal - a team that scores a ton of points, but has yet to play defense against anybody. The Trojans will likely be favored in each of these games, and it’s not a stretch to think that by the end of October, USC could find itself with a record of 5-3. That would put them right back in the mix.
One important note: if USC wins the remainder of its conference games, they still need help. But even here, there’s room for optimism. For Utah, the roughest part of their schedule is yet to come. They travel to the Rose Bowl to face UCLA on Oct. 22nd, then take on number 10 ranked Washington the following week. A subsequent road date against Arizona State also presents a challenging match-up for the Utes.
Colorado, another emerging contender, still has games against UCLA, Stanford and Utah. Arizona State hosts UCLA next week, then squares off against the Buffaloes in Boulder. Meanwhile, the Bruins’ loss to Stanford last week keeps them winless in the Pac-12. In other words, there’s a lot to be decided.
Regardless of how you play it out, any scenario in which USC wins the South depends on one thing: They must beat Arizona State on Saturday night. The loss to inter-division rival Utah was disappointing, but a home defeat to the Sun Devils would be a killer. ASU knows this too, and they’ll be looking to deliver the knock out blow. Pac-12 play has just begun, but for USC, the season is already on the line.