October 8th, 2015. As USC prepared for a Thursday night showcase against Washington, it looked like the biggest challenge of the evening would be rush hour traffic outside the Coliseum. The Huskies were clearly an improved team, but most believed they would be overmatched against the talented Trojans, ranked #17 at the time. USC had stumbled early in the year against Stanford, but then rebounded the following week by clobbering Arizona State. What happened next changed everything.
Washington's 17-12 upset of USC marked the revival of the program under Chris Peterson. The Trojans, meanwhile, descended into chaos. Within a week, Steve Sarkisian was fired, and a season that had started with so much promise was on the brink of collapse. Since that day, USC’s football program has been defined by one word. Recovery.
Saturday’s game in Seattle will be a test of just how far the team has come under the tenure of Clay Helton. And for the players who were here last year, it offers them a shot at redemption. But this is more than a revenge game. That’s just part of the story. This year, there’s much more at stake.
Coaches like to say they don’t pay attention to rankings. But UW fans were clearly riled up when the College Football Playoff Committee brushed aside the Huskies in favor of a one loss Texas A&M team. Their feelings were quickly vindicated when the Aggies lost to Mississippi State last week. Now that they’ve been blessed with a spot at #4, Washington will be desperate to keep it.
USC, on the other hand, has fought just as hard for its place in the CFP rankings, and comes in at #20. Hopes of an actual playoff appearance have long been out the window, but it’s confirmation that the Trojans are playing their best football right now.
When Clay Helton was asked about his team’s position in the latest polls, he pointed to the ‘elite talent’ of the Pac-12, stating, in this league, “we beat up on each other.”
It’s hard to see how the Pac-12 comes out on top in this situation. The loser in this game will likely be punished harshly in the eyes of the voters, and removed from one of two important conversations. One way or another, something’s got to give.
The Race for the Pac-12 South:
The path to the Pac-12 championship is clear. USC must win its remaining conference games, and hope Utah and Colorado each find another loss, somewhere. There are, of course, other scenarios in play, and a tie-breaking scheme more complicated than the tax code, but it all points to one thing - a loss to Washington means it’s pretty much over.
On the flip side, if the Trojans can pull off the upset, things suddenly turn in their favor. UCLA is not who we thought they were, and the Trojans should be heavily favored when they visit the Rose Bowl. And don’t forget, Utah travels to Colorado to close out the season.
The Case for Clay:
Last week’s impressive performance against Oregon, which stretched the Trojan win streak to five, appears to have Clay Helton ‘off the hot seat.’ But if there’s still a knock on Clay, it’s the notion that he can’t win ‘the big game.’
It started in 2015 with Stanford in the Pac-12 Championship. Then it was Wisconsin in the Holiday Bowl. This year, it began with Alabama on opening night. Then it was Stanford again, followed by the game that may prove to haunt Helton the most - Utah.
Will this list of defeats to top-ranked opponents go on to include the Huskies? If it does, it will be a tough pill to swallow, and surely get the Clay-haters back out in force.
Get Up For GameDay:
For all these reasons, Saturday night’s game is a must-win for each team, and a must-watch for everyone. And with ESPN choosing the University of Washington’s Red Square as the site of this week’s College GameDay, Seattle will be rocking. This, however, might actually be a good omen for USC. Washington is 1-4 when hosting GameDay. Who’s head gear are you going to wear this week, Lee Corso?
Can the Trojans pull off the upset in Seattle? Let us know with your comments.