*** The Hotline’s rollout of season previews continues with USC and will churn into next week with predictions for each team and the division races, an analysis of quarterback depth, bowl picks, our all-conference selections, a ranking of top newcomers and more.
The Pac-12’s collective path to the College Football Playoff narrowed with the pandemic-related disruption.
USC’s path, on the other hand, got wider.
Here’s how we see it:
The loss of marquee intersectional games stripped the conference of opportunities to display its worthiness — and reverse the longstanding narrative of weakness — for the playoff selection committee.
Meanwhile, the reduced number of games played will limit the data points available for the Pac-12 champion (i.e., wins vs. ranked teams, wins over .500-or-better teams) in a resume showdown with other Power Five winners.
The Trojans would, of course, suffer from the same paucity of data points if they are a 7-0 conference champ.
But that damage is more than offset by the loss of their non-conference games.
Without the bookend behemoths on their schedule (Alabama and Notre Dame), the Trojans have a vastly better chance of an undefeated season that could put them in contention.
Their path would be narrow, but that’s better than no path at all.
Anyone think USC would have completed its original schedule with a 13-0 or 12-1 record?
Didn’t think so.
Obviously, every decision by the Pac-12 during the pandemic has been part of a brilliant master plan to better position the Trojans — and only the Trojans! — for the CFP.
Gotta protect your blue bloods, right?
Now that we have that out of the way, let’s move forward.
2019 record: 8-5/7-2
Head coach: Clay Helton, sixth year (record: 40-22 overall/31-12 Pac-12)
Helton’s seat temperature: Depends when you take it
At times, it’s almost possible to envision Helton’s steady hand guiding the Trojans into the second half of the decade. At other times, you expect Helton to be dismissed yesterday. The decision to retain him for 2020 makes a fascinating experiment: The Trojans kept the man in charge but enhanced numerous support mechanisms, including and especially the coaching staff, to give Helton the best chance for success. (Essentially: Keep the driver but upgrade the engine.) The twin issues, as we see the situation, are accountability and discipline — both have been lacking in recent years. Can those components improve without a change at the top?
Contract status: Helton is reportedly signed through 2023 and earns in excess of $4.5 million per season.
QB clarity level: High
Sophomore Kedon Slovis is ideally suited to direct USC’s offense and posted the numbers to prove it: 30 touchdowns, nine interceptions, 72 percent completion rate. He seemed to experience a Vulcan mind meld with playcaller Graham Harrell, and that should continue in 2020. What’s more, the Trojans are one of the few teams that could seemingly survive a serious injury to the starter, as senior Matt Fink has thrown more than 100 passes and appeared in 15 games.
Roster grade: A-
The skill positions are stocked, as usual — keeping everyone happy will be the biggest challenge — and there are plenty of returning starters at linebacker and in the secondary for first-year coordinator Todd Orlando. Defensive tackle Jay Tufele’s decision to opt out is significant, for the front would have been the Pac-12’s best had he stuck around. As it stands, the Trojans will be far better than average at the line of scrimmage and possess one of the top young edge rushers in the country in Drake Jackson.
Program trajectory: Cyclical
Our position on this matter has been documented previously: The Trojans should compete for playoff berths with the frequency of an Ohio State or Oklahoma — their advantages over the rest of the Pac-12 are greater than the edge any other blue blood has over its conference peers. But Helton has not shown the capacity to consistently elevate the program. Instead, the Trojans seem destined for repeating three- or four-year cycles of average, good and elite seasons.
Our projections …
Nov. 7: vs Arizona StateResult: WinRecord: 1-0Comment: The two Clay Helton vs. Herm Edwards duels have produced riveting theatre, with ASU winning by three in ’18 and the Trojans responding with a five-point victory last year. In both instances, the road team won. In both instances, the losing team was without its No. 1 quarterback. The Pac-12 needs a close, entertaining game for the Big Noon audience. We expect just that.
Nov. 14: at ArizonaResult: WinRecord: 2-0Comment: On the road following the anticipated opener, USC struggles to find focus. Close early, not close late as the Trojans score on every meaningful possession in the second half.
Nov. 21: at UtahResult: LossRecord: 2-1Comment: On the brink of taking full command of the division, the Trojans are flustered from the start and fail to slow a Utah running game that converts repeatedly on third down in the fourth quarter.
Nov. 28: vs ColoradoResult: WinRecord: 3-1Comment: In a must-win situation for the division title, USC dominates early and rests its starters late.
Dec. 4 (Friday): vs. Washington StateResult: WinRecord: 4-1Comment: Nothing funky ever happens when the Trojans and Cougars collide on a Friday night. (“Hello, replay command center. This is the general counsel.”)
Dec. 12: at UCLAResult: WinRecord: 5-1Comment: Spoiler alert: UCLA doesn’t spoil USC’s drive for the division title, although the Bruins come mighty close.
Dec. 18: Pac-12 ChampionshipResult: N/ARecord: N/AComment: And Helton’s critics are silenced … for about five minutes.
*** Next up: UCLA
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