Grinding Gears: Pac-12 South win isn’t as big of a deal as it seems

Eric He | Daily Trojan

If you bet on Clay Helton using the phrase “control our own destiny” after USC’s win over Colorado on Saturday, you were wrong.

Maybe it’s because the Trojans have achieved their destiny, in Helton’s eyes.

Ever since Pac-12 Media Days, Helton has stressed playing for a Pac-12 Championship as the goal for this season. Never mind that USC came into the season ranked fourth as a national championship contender, or that redshirt sophomore quarterback Sam Darnold entered the campaign as the Heisman favorite. The Pac-12 Championship was the goal stated by Helton and by Athletic Director Lynn Swann.

So now they’re here. By beating Colorado in front of 49,337 fans in frigid temperatures in Boulder, the Trojans clinched the Pac-12 South, punching their ticket to Santa Clara on Dec. 1.

By all accounts, USC played well. Darnold was incredible, throwing for 329 yards on 21-of-34 passing and two touchdowns and scampering for another. The wide receivers were stellar, from the veteran junior Deontay Burnett hauling in six catches to freshman Tyler Vaughns amassing 90 yards. Redshirt senior wide receiver Steven Mitchell Jr. was a consistent target, and sophomore wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr. recorded his first career touchdown.

On the other side of the ball, the defense pitched a shutout for the first half and redshirt junior cornerback Ajene Harris came up huge with two interceptions, including one late that helped end hopes of a late Colorado comeback.

“I think each year you try to improve,” Helton said after the game. “We weren’t in this position last year, and now we are.”

This statement, while true, comes with a lot of caveats. Sure, USC will likely beat UCLA next week and finish the regular season with two losses, one fewer than last season. And sure, USC may very well win the Pac-12 Championship, a game it wasn’t even invited to last year. The Trojans could also end up in the Fiesta Bowl, a bowl game that may not be as pompous as the Rose Bowl, but would be just as quality a bowl win as they achieved last season.

And honestly, even if all of this comes to fruition, the season would still seem underwhelming.

Regardless of what Helton’s objectives were, let’s be clear here: USC was expected to compete for a national championship this season. Considering the history of the program, the success we saw last season and the preseason hype surrounding Darnold as the best quarterback in college football, we would expect nothing less.

So when USC lost to Washington State, when USC was drubbed by Notre Dame, they were more than just losses. The difference between good and great teams, the difference between being Pac-12 champions and national champions, is that national champions find a way to pull out a win on short rest, and they find a way to not get embarrassed on primetime in South Bend.

USC has not passed the test or lived up to the hype as a national championship contender, assuming its slim chance of sneaking into the College Football Playoff doesn’t occur. This is the conundrum of the Trojans’ season, the reason why a good win over Colorado — which clinched the Pac-12 South and gave USC a chance to win the first conference title since 2008 — doesn’t feel like a big victory.

Perhaps we’ve become numb to success at USC, which is strange considering the Trojans haven’t truly contended for national championship since more than a decade ago, and haven’t even won a conference title in almost a decade. Regardless, there lies an expectation — realistic or not — that casts a shadow over every season where those expectations are not met, and this season is no exception.

Well after the sun had set on Folsom Stadium on Saturday night and the temperature had dropped below 50 degrees, Ronald Jones II stepped outside the USC locker room in a T-shirt and shorts, draped in Beats headphones and carrying a sign that read “RoJo got da Mojo.”

He was in a good mood, and understably so, just having run for 146 yards and passed both Mike Garrett and Reggie Bush on USC’s all-time rushing list.

But even as he gushed about the accomplishment, he was asked about what he thought of the Trojans’ slim chances of making the playoff.

“I think it’s looking pretty good,” Jones said. “I feel like we’re just getting back in there.” 

He said the team was looking at the scores from the day, and he saw that No. 1 Georgia had lost earlier on Saturday to Auburn. But 10th-ranked Auburn winning didn’t help USC. Neither did No. 7 Miami routing No. 3 Notre Dame, or No. 8 Wisconsin beating Iowa.

Regardless of the results, there was no amount of help on Saturday that could have increased USC’s hopes of sneaking into the playoff. Those hopes died in South Bend. And while clinching a Pac-12 South title on Saturday was cool, it really didn’t change much.

Eric He is a junior majoring in journalism. He is also the associate managing editor of the Daily Trojan. His column, “Grinding Gears,” runs Mondays.