The USC football team must have thought Labor Day was Saturday. With the exception of a very solid first quarter, in which they somehow emerged with a 3-point lead, the Trojans essentially took the rest of the day off. When it was all said and done against the defending national champions in the most highly anticipated season opener in recent memory, USC left Dallas with nothing but a huge slice of humble pie — not even a touchdown scored or a minor moral victory included.
At this point in the week, even after digesting the numbers “52-6” for a couple days, there still isn’t anything worth discussing about the Alabama game. It was awful. The Trojans looked terrible. I certainly didn’t go into the game with that much confidence, but this result was worse than anyone could have guessed. Clay Helton could not have failed his first test as the new permanent head coach more epically. In Clancy Pendergast’s first game back as the defensive coordinator, the Trojan defense put up its worst showing since Pendergast’s 2013 unit surrendered 62 points to Arizona State.
That 62-41 debacle at ASU in 2013 is one that the Alabama offensive coordinator remembers all too well. It was 3:14 a.m. — that coming morning when then-head coach Lane Kiffin was relieved of his duties at LAX. Kiffin made sure to note that in a postgame tweet, hashtagging “#3:14AM-LAX” in a picture with the game ball. Luckily for Helton, though, witnessing such a comparable defensive collapse didn’t immediately cost him his job.
Of course, it’s way, way, way too early to draw any conclusions about Helton after this beat down. His sample size is still microscopic. And from looking elsewhere around college football, it’s clear that everything is not lost just yet — not for the mid-term future of Helton’s head coaching tenure at USC and not even for this season.
USC was close, but it probably didn’t even have the worst week out of any team in the AP Top 25. Oklahoma’s loss to Houston was huge, and LSU losing to Wisconsin throws another giant wrench into what we expected from potential playoff contenders.
The Trojan’s performance was maybe the most abysmal, but the trajectory of the Trojan season didn’t really change that much with them coming out of the first week 0-1.
USC’s loss arguably isn’t even the most interesting result out of the conference. With UCLA’s 31-24 loss at Texas A&M, that left the top-ranked team in the Pac-12 South according to the AP Poll — UCLA came in as No. 16 to USC’s No. 20, though both are now unranked — with a significant blemish on its record. The South division of the Pac-12 is now wide open, with none of the six teams cracking the Top 25. Luckily for both L.A. rivals, the non-conference losses don’t actually count for anything in the standings.
What they do significantly affect is the chances that a team out of the Pac-12 South makes the playoffs, and the results are indicative of the fact that it wasn’t that likely of a scenario to begin with.
With all that being said, week 1 shows that anything can happen in college football, especially given the possibilities from conference championship games and a four-team playoff. With the strength of USC’s schedule, the Trojans probably have another loss to spare before seriously discounting the possibility of a playoff appearance. Even with the Trojan’s toughest conference test coming in its first Pac-12 game — two weeks at No. 7 Stanford — they could still build enough momentum throughout the entire Pac-12 slate and find themselves at the conference championship game. Win in a rematch against Stanford and then earn a first-round playoff rematch with…?
Again, after a game like that, even including the word “playoff” when projecting the rest of USC’s season seems a bit off. A team like Alabama will almost certainly be back to defend their national championship in January. The Trojan team we saw Saturday is on a level nowhere near that of Alabama. I seriously doubt that the performance we saw Saturday is anywhere near what we can and should expect from this USC team.
Maybe we are that bad and liable on defense. Maybe we just gave up and checked out once the Tide starting rolling, indicating that we don’t have the mettle to make it through the hardest schedule in the nation. But I’d like to think that there will be significant improvement from all spots throughout the season. Quarterback Max Browne will hopefully find a rhythm, the defensive line will hopefully gel and Helton will hopefully be able to use this loss to create a feeling of humility and motivation rather than discouragement.
While Helton lacks in his pedigree or his big game gusto, he makes up for it in his workman’s mentality. I’m tempted to start speculating at how Helton, Pendergast and the defensive staff will plan for stopping Stanford’s Heisman-favorite running back Christian McCaffrey two weeks from now. The Trojans first need to take care of Utah State, an opponent whom overlooking could prove to be really, really bad news for Helton and the team going forward. USC shouldn’t have a problem, though, and only need to come away with a W. No style points or margin of victory necessary.
The game against Utah State has an 11 a.m. start time to placate the Pac-12 network’s daily programming schedule — and any frat star tailgaters looking for an excuse to take a sunrise shotgun.
The Trojans shouldn’t need an early wakeup call before the game. They already got one last week.
Luke Holthouse is a senior majoring in policy, planning and development and print and digital journalism. His column, “Holthouse Party,” runs on Wednesday.