It’s been a quiet spring for USC football. Tame, relaxed, uneventful, I’d almost go so far as to say, boring.
With spring semester classes wrapping up, and with summer just around the corner, it’s finally time to really start thinking about football. The fact that USC football hasn’t been dominating the headlines the past couple of months might be a sign that hype going into next season isn’t quite at the level where it usually is. And to some degree, maybe this is indicative of the fact that this won’t be the best year of USC football in recent memory.
The relative lack of attention on the program so far is honestly a good sign if you ask me. Finally, the program is moving away from the expectation and pressure that for the last decade has only ended in underachievement and disappointment. This year, we’ll actually just get to see a group of guys playing football, and the rest will take care of itself.
When looking back on last season, it’s important to remember that beyond all the off-the-field, program leadership issues, the 2015 season was a small step forward, not backward for the program. Despite six losses during the campaign, the Trojans nonetheless officially won the Pac-12 South for the first time ever.
For the record, I still count the 2011 season — when the Trojans embarrassed UCLA with a 50-0 thrashing in the regular season finale, and the Trojans finished atop the Pac-12 South standings in the inaugural year of the Pac-12 conference championship game, but UCLA nonetheless got the invitation as the Pac-12 South representative due to USC’s postseason ineligibility — as the first time USC actually won the South division.
But for the following three seasons, USC fell short of a relatively doable expectation. UCLA represented the South the next season, then Arizona took the South crown in 2013 and 2014. It was an obvious sign that there was now competition not just on the North half of the conference with Stanford and Oregon, but also in our own backyard with UCLA and the Arizona schools.
So for USC to finally get back on that pedestal — a small, six-team pedestal, but still an important and competitive one — was an important step forward for the program, and something we Trojan fans should keep in perspective when thinking about the upcoming year.
Of course, there was plenty of drama surrounding the program last year. This year’s team won’t exactly be building off the same foundation that got to that Pac-12 South championship last year. As has been discussed plenty of times throughout this academic year, this will be Clay Helton’s first full season after his promotion from the interim head coach to the long-term program head.
The challenge of keeping a group of players motivated over the course of an entire season is certainly a different challenge than bringing a group of guys together in the middle of the season after some off-the-field drama. In fact, it might have even been easier for Helton to have gotten the team to rally around him through all the turmoil of the coaching uncertainties, especially if some of the players felt like they were playing to win him the job.
Now his task is to keep everyone not just committed, but also focused over an entire season. The hardest part for Helton might not be motivating everyone to get up to play Alabama. Anyone with a pulse will be pumped up going into that game. I’m already pumped up about the chance to bring down the defending national champions, and that game isn’t for another four-and-a-half months.
The true challenge is keeping everyone focused for the grueling conference slate, and making sure that the Trojans bring their A-game every game, not just for the big ones.
And so far, it seems like the Trojans are on the right track. Of course, it’s still way too early to make any real projections. We still don’t know for sure who will be the quarterback, what the rest of the competition will look like or how any of the new recruits will fare in their first year of college ball.
But the fact that we’ve already made it one semester without any real drama is a great sign. No players jumping into pools to rescue drowning family members, no overhyped recruiting class on signing day, no profanity-laced alumni dinner speech that made the headlines on both ESPN and Total Frat Move.
Granted, highly rated prospects aren’t a bad thing, and maybe the Trojans do need to get back on top in the recruiting game. But for now, the pressure is low, and the expectations are manageable.
Does this team have an upset against the Crimson Tide inside of it? Probably not, but looking at the overall season, that game is not that important. What matters is that the Trojans can stay focused, keep their eye on the prize all of the conference slate, try to make it back to the Pac-12 Championship and go from there. There will be plenty of hype to go around if and when Helton can get back there in his first season.
Luke Holthouse is junior majoring in policy, planning and development and print and digital journalism. His column, “Holthouse Party,” ran on every other Wednesday.