Hey, remember when the season ended three weeks ago?
Members of the media hate being wrong, but I couldn’t be more thrilled to eat crow right now. After USC got humiliated 49-14 at Notre Dame last month, fans and analysts alike dismissed the Trojans as a mirage. No one was spared: Redshirt sophomore quarterback Sam Darnold was dubbed overrated, people called for head coach Clay Helton to get the axe (along with pretty much everyone else on his staff) and the squad as a whole was slammed for a perceived lack of effort. Considering how hapless USC looked against the Fighting Irish, it was difficult to dispute — no matter how stubbornly Helton insisted the team’s season-long goal of winning the Pac-12 Championship remained within reach. The College Football Playoff dream was dead, and with no semblance of momentum on their side, the Trojans looked like they were heading toward a late-season collapse.
“There’s no bright spot to look to anymore,” I wrote the week after Notre Dame. “It’s hard for me to believe that Helton and company will suddenly clean things up to win the Pac-12, which means that after all the fanfare, it’s just another lost season.”
Then USC reeled off back-to-back wins over Arizona State and Arizona. The Trojans made a surprising jump all the way to No. 11 in the most recent CFP rankings, and a win at Colorado on Saturday can clinch the Pac-12 South with one game to spare in the regular season. I suppose I could still ultimately be proven right — the Trojans haven’t been overly consistent on either side of the ball even during their recent wins. Right now, though, I thankfully sound like an idiot.
Despite climbing six spots in the rankings, USC remains outside the serious playoff discussion barring an insane final month across college football. But this isn’t a lost season — not even close. If the Rose Bowl weren’t acting as a playoff game this season, the Trojans would have their sights set on a repeat New Year’s trip to Pasadena, and a conference championship would be the program’s first since 2008, when Pete Carroll roamed the Coliseum sidelines.
In fact, this season has the potential to be USC’s best since the Pete Carroll era. The team has up to three games left in the regular season (assuming it reaches the Pac-12 Championship). If they manage to win out and seize the conference crown, the Trojans will enter their bowl game — likely a marquee New Year’s Six matchup against another top-15 side — with an 11-2 record. One more victory to wrap up the year would put them at 12 wins: the highest total since Carroll’s 12-1 farewell season. Were people really saying “fire everyone” three weeks ago?
Not to say that a Pac-12 title or big bowl game are already a given — we’ve seen too many mistakes this season to assume anything. The Trojan defense has been prone to giving up the occasional big play all season (as illustrated by Arizona’s furious comeback last weekend), and the offense has sometimes tired out the defense with repeated three-and-outs between quick scoring drives. But if the Trojans manage to stay disciplined, Colorado shouldn’t be able to out-play them. The Buffaloes (5-5) sit in the Pac-12 South cellar, and more than half of their wins came in a season-opening homestand against Colorado State, Texas State and Northern Colorado. Colorado does sport a sharp 4-1 record at home thanks to the trio of victories, but it has split its only two conference games so far in Boulder — a loss to Arizona and a win over Cal.
Meanwhile, the Trojans are getting stronger and healthier. This weekend, they look forward to the return of redshirt sophomore defensive lineman Christian Rector, who has broken out as a pass-rushing force for USC this season, and junior running back Ronald Jones II looks to approach the 200-yard rushing mark for the third consecutive game. After scoring 40 or more points just twice in their opening eight weeks, the Trojans have now scored 97 points across their last two tilts. Unsurprisingly, they go into Boulder as close to two-touchdown favorites.
Of course, it would be classic USC to crush fans’ souls just as the team pulls us all back in. It would take a collapse of epic proportions to miss the Pac-12 title game, but you wouldn’t put it past this maddening squad, which has looked dominant at points against Stanford and Arizona but played down to the level of Western Michigan and Oregon State. Nevertheless, the Trojans also have the opportunity to build on last season’s Rose Bowl success in 2017 and put all doubts about Helton’s leadership to rest.
Yes, it’s hard to fathom, but USC can actually finish this season better than last year’s thrilling campaign. There’s still plenty of opportunity for the Trojans to blow it yet and limp to another four-loss campaign. But with four more wins, the Trojans will be conference champions and victors of another New Year’s Six bowl.
This season’s a long way from dead.
Oliver Jung is a senior majoring in print and digital journalism. He is also the sports editor for the Daily Trojan. His column, “Jung Money,” runs Fridays.