I still have lingering disappointment from the 2006 Rose Bowl. I probably always will, as will any lifelong USC football fan. With maybe the best team ever in college football, USC couldn’t cap its reign of dominance with the national championship it deserved. The loss almost overshadowed the previous two national championships.
But it was OK, I told myself then. The Trojans would be back in the championship game. They would redeem that loss to Texas. Pete Carroll would cap off his USC dynasty with that one extra national title it deserved.
But he didn’t. The Trojans would still be the dominant team in the then-Pac-10 for the next three years. They would convincingly beat three different Big Ten foes at the end of those seasons, winning three more Rose Bowls. But midseason upsets during all three of those years knocked USC out of the national championship game. The Trojans’ 2008 loss at Oregon State on a Thursday night stings almost as much as the Texas loss — Jacquizz Rodgers triggers almost as many nightmares as Vince Young.
Then the dynasty collapsed. Pete Carroll left for the Seattle Seahawks. The NCAA sanctions hit. Oregon earned the next two national championship bids in the conference. Stanford beat the Trojans four times in a row. The Trojans had an exceptional 10-2 season in 2011, but were still ineligible for the postseason. They came into 2012 hyped as the preseason No. 1 team. They ended the season with a loss to Georgia Tech in the Sun Bowl. Then came the airport tarmac firing, the fan favorite quitting before a bowl game, the substance abuse dismissal and a beleaguered athletic director concluding a national search in his final, legacy-defining move by just letting the interim guy keep his job.
And so the Clay Helton era began.
It’s been discussed countless times if USC football could get back to where it once was under Helton. I’ve gone back and forth on it. His promotion felt rushed, the usual USC swagger Trojans had going into big games was nowhere to be seen and the pummeling by the Crimson Tide was more humbling than anyone could have guessed.
My concern was that USC might float just above average for the next several years, but never get back to an elite status. Helton was safe. He wouldn’t have off-the-field issues. He wouldn’t overlook those overmatched Thursday night opponents. There would always be some natural draw for local stars to come play college football in the Coliseum. The Trojans would never be bad.
But there were legitimate doubts that Helton would ever be able to join the ranks of the elites like Alabama’s Nick Saban or Ohio State’s Urban Meyer. Could he excite recruits to play for him as well as former USC interim head coach Ed Orgeron — who, for the record, finally earned a full-time promotion with a big time program at LSU — could? Could he embody the swagger of Carroll? The more existential question, though, was could Helton make up for all the time that was lost and the damage that was done by so much instability?
The answer that we’ve gotten so far in his first full season has been a resounding yes. The Trojans feel invincible again. Kirk Herbstreit called USC the one other team in college football besides Alabama that no one wants to play. The Big Ten could throw Wisconsin, Penn State, Michigan or Ohio State at us in the Rose Bowl, and I would be confident as ever in the Trojans to win.
Meanwhile, for the other strongest programs in the Pac-12, it appears that they’ve missed their shot to take a hold of the conference. My concern going into the season was that the period of instability would have cost USC its chance to ever dominate the conference again, but that does not appear to be the case at all.
Stanford did fairly and squarely beat the Trojans this year, but I have little doubt how that rematch would go if it were the Cardinal playing the redshirt freshman quarterback Sam Darnold-led Trojans for the Pac-12 Championship game. It’s still to be seen if the Ducks’ precipitous fall this year from the top of the pack is just an aberration or the closing of their window of opportunity with former quarterback Marcus Mariota and former head coach Chip Kelly, but Oregon looks years away from really competing with USC. The Bruins had a nice three-year stint with the Victory Bell, and the injury to quarterback Josh Rosen proved to be crippling for the team, but UCLA still hasn’t been to a Rose Bowl since USC’s last appearance in 2009, and won’t make any bowl this year.
Emerging from this wild and crazy 2016 Pac-12 season are Washington in the North Division and Colorado in the South, both teams USC beat. Both have come closer to winless seasons in conference — Colorado was 1-8 in 2012 Pac-12 play, Washington lost all nine conference games in 2008 — than a Rose Bowl in recent memory. USC beat both this season, and I’m highly skeptical as to whether either will ever be favored in a matchup against the Trojans for the foreseeable future.
The adoption of the College Football Playoff before the 2014 season came eight years too late for Trojan fans. I’m still convinced the 2006, 2007 and especially the 2008 teams would have competed for the national championship if a four-team playoff had existed then. The three early losses this year are probably too many to justify putting the Trojans ahead of a two-loss Big Ten or Big 12 team in the CFP if regular season games are supposed to mean anything for leagues going forward.
But USC football is back. The center of attention in the program isn’t the head coach — Helton is perfectly happy with junior cornerback Adoree’ Jackson, who treated fans to three highlight touchdowns against Notre Dame, being the star of the show. Darnold looks and plays more like a bruising linebacker than the prototypical USC quarterback, but he will be on every Heisman shortlist next year if he maintains his strong numbers.
I’ve gotten to cover this team during not its most successful four-year period ever, but arguably its craziest and most interesting. The odds look very good that, after a seven-season hiatus, the team will be right back where it belongs on Jan. 1 — well, the Rose Bowl Game is actually Jan. 2 because New Year’s Day is a Sunday, but same thing. And by next year, the Trojans should be playing in their first ever College Football Playoff.
Luke Holthouse is a senior majoring in policy, planning and development and print and digital journalism. His column, “Holthouse Party,” ran on Wednesday.