Three days from now, the young, talented and completely unproven USC football team will take the field in Honolulu, Hawaii for its first game since the purging that took place earlier this year, which removed coaches, athletic directors and any chance of a BCS bowl (or any bowl, for that matter) appearance.
Only a select few — the enthusiastic recruits, the loyal veterans, the effective assistants — remained to follow coach Lane Kiffin toward a new and promising future as the dirty days of old were washed clean.
With a new face given to USC football, the only thing left for the team to do was move on and grow back into the dynamic, successful football machine that once existed at this university.
But then they ran into a slight problem.
Maturing requires experience, and experience requires time — of which USC has none. Without live tackling in practice, scrimmages at game-speed or a corps of leaders to, well, lead, the Trojans — and Kiffin, who has a mere 12-21 record as head coach — are essentially without a clue as to how they will achieve success this season. And unfortunately, they don’t have any more practice time to figure that out.
But there is a silver lining in every cloud, and this time it can be found in the one place the Trojans have no control over: their schedule.
Gone are the second-week Ohio State games in Columbus, Ohio, the ear-ringing trips to Seattle, Wash., and the death marches to Eugene, Ore., on Halloween night.
In their place sits something much more inviting: a golden month of games to start the season, pitting the Trojans against Hawai’i, Virginia, Minnesota and Washington State teams that finished a combined 16-34 last season, followed by a smattering of critical matchups at home in the Coliseum.
Only one of those first four teams — Minnesota — went to a bowl game last year, and none of them finished in the top half of their respective conferences. Virginia hasn’t won more than five games in three of the past four seasons, and Hawai’i has only had glimpses of success since its undefeated run in 2007 ended with a 41-10 drubbing at the hands of Georgia in the Sugar Bowl. And because I am a fan of brevity, I will refrain from elaborating on Washington State’s laundry list of underachievements over the past decade.
Though I will be the first person to say that the worst thing the Trojans can do this season is not take these first four opponents seriously, I think we can all agree that USC’s opening month of games is not what it was last year, or the year before that (or even the year before that).
This provides the Trojans with some room to grow and some experience to build on — two things they are desperately in need of. They have the opportunity to try new things, to see which players work where and to get a general sense of how this new team will react to in-game situations — all without risking too much in the win-loss column.
It also helps that, after these first four games, the Trojans will play four of their next five games in the Coliseum, where 90,000 screaming supporters make it obvious that home-field advantage still exists. Even the apprehension of the lone road game at Stanford during this stretch will be quelled, as the bevy of Trojan fans making their annual weekender pilgrimage to Northern California will provide additional support for USC.
If Kiffin can play his cards right, the rebuilding year that every critic of Trojan football expected in the wake of the NCAA sanctions might not be necessary.
And if the Trojans can use the beginning of the season as a learning period, it should put them in a position to take on the meat of their schedule — starting with Washington at home, exactly one month after the Hawai’i game.
One month; not much time, but time nonetheless. And for USC’s young-but-hungry squad, this could be all the time it needs.
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