Weekly Musings from the Biggest College Football Lover of All Time

The weekend before this last weekend I was out at my desert house with my 9-year old enjoying a little father/son getaway, determined to decompress a bit, excited about a long book I had been waiting to tackle. I explained to Graham that football season was a week away, the time of the year where life was most enjoyable. Just then a commercial popped up for Miami-Florida playing that day. He said, “there’s football today???” I was as surprised as he was. And then I was taken over by joy.

“Daddy, you like Miami or Florida?”

“No, son. Actually I pretty much hate both teams.”

“Well then why are you so excited?”

“Because it’s college football come early, GG. It’s college football come early.”

We ended up even watching Arizona-Hawaii that night, because college football. Yes, actual opening day this last weekend was even better (particularly because my real love was playing, and it doesn’t ever quite feel real until USC is on the field at the Coliseum), but my point is that while the traditionalist in me finds these mid-August games an affront to humanity, the selfish impatient kid in me would take Jackson State vs. Azusa Pacific if it meant the greatest sport of all time coming to my TV.

This opening weekend didn’t have a ton of marquee match-ups, but it didn’t lack for drama. The truth is that the essence of college football is barely ever lacking, even in silly match-ups, corporate malfeasance, NCAA corruption, transfer portal nonsense, and mortifying referee ineptness. That essence seems to constantly transcend the elements that weigh on the sport. The essence is, of course, young men who actually give a damn. No contract holdouts. No politics. No bullsh–. Just 18-21 year old men, 94% of whom will never touch an NFL field, playing their asses off, blowing each other up, running, hitting, throwing, and catching, all for the love of the game.

It is the greatest sport of all time. And I missed it.

Last year was the most difficult year for USC in the post-Carroll era. It was likely not the worst team from a talent standpoint, but it was the most under-achieving, worst-coached, and demonstrated the worst delta between potential and performance. That it followed a team that won the Pac-12 championship, and a team before that who won the Rose Bowl in dramatic fashion, added to the drama of the fall. Why expectations were as high as they were when a 3rd pick NFL starter QB had left the team and his replacement was the age of a high school senior is not totally clear to me, but why their performance was as low as it was will never be clear to me either. Most rational SC’ fans know the reason they lost to Notre Dame on the road and Stanford on the road and Texas on the road is because, well, those teams were a lot better than us last year. But how we lost to Arizona State, Cal, and UCLA is simply unforgivable. It was a brutal year with a talented team (in the skill positions), and the assistant coach shake-up of the off-season was the least they could do.

I am not going to focus the early season Musings on whether or not I want Clay Helton to be our coach. It isn’t in my character to actively root against the coach of the team I love with my whole being. Clay is our coach, and until he isn’t, I root for him. That said, I offer the following paradigm to frame my views on Coach Clay Helton:

(1) He was vastly under-qualified and under-resumed when he got the permanent job
(2) That said, the performance the next two years was perfectly adequate to keep one’s job, and then some (a Rose Bowl win for the ages and a Pac-12 championship)
(3) But in 2016, let’s be clear – he left a future NFL starter on the bench until the third game. That kid dramatically distorted the early Clay Helton performance. I’m not being negative or cynical; it’s just a fact. He was an outlier of a specimen of a talent, and so we won.
(4) Oh, and Clay’s coaching performance in the Holiday Bowl against Wisconsin as interim head coach was mortifying, but not as mortifying as what we did against Ohio State in the Cotton Bowl two years later …
(5) So first year with Sam gone, Clay delivered perhaps the worst USC season since the end of the Larry Smith era (don’t forget, even Hackett beat UCLA in his last year at USC)
(6) And here we are. A team with loads of talent, a tough schedule but more home than away (unlike last year), and a re-vamped coaching staff (mostly).

What does Clay have to do this year?

10-2 or better he stays.
8-4 or worse he is gone.
9-3 it depends if he beat one or two rivals. That’s the purgatory spot.

So how do we get 10 wins? The answer is that we probably don’t, and I would have said that before JT’s devastating injury Saturday night. BUT I do think it is possible with the skill position talent we have. Between Stanford, Utah, Notre Dame, and Oregon, can we win two of those games? Yes, we can. Will we? I can only say that two or three wins against those teams, and winning all the other games you must win, will mean one of the most surprisingly over-achieving USC seasons since 2011.

I actually believe we can do it. And no one who calls themselves a Trojan wants anything other than for us to do just that.

But now we are going to need a reserve quarterback to pull a Sam Darnold. To be so darn good that the coaches didn’t know it, and he comes in and changes the trajectory of the team, the season, and the program. Lightning rarely strikes twice in college football. But it may happen.

The game Saturday night was devastating for JT Daniels, and I can only hope and pray along with all of the Trojan family worldwide that he heals, and comes back ready to take over the universe. Heart of courage stuff. Spirit of Troy stuff. You know this.

But as for what I saw on the field, the comments are pretty obvious. We had moments in the first half where the play-calling, offensive rhythm, and general flow were just stellar. Both running backs were excellent. The kick return game felt like #5 was back. JT was crisp. And yet tell me if any of this sounded familiar a la 2018?

• Big play after big play taken back by penalties (and not bad calls, conspiracy nuts; BAD PENALTIES)
• A defense giving up huge yards to a mobile quarterback
• Dropped passes by really good receivers
• More turnovers we committed than we caused

Bottom line: It felt like 2018 for way too many moments of the game. The penalties that move the sticks the wrong way – that negate big plays – Must. End. Now. The giveaway/takeaway ratio must be in our favor every single game, and overwhelmingly so for the aggregate season. Those two things are pretty much all I care about. Besides this one other thing …

We either start playing tackle football in practice, or we will lose 5-8 games. The déjà vu of watching linebackers and especially defensive tackles get a quarterback or a running back in their hands and not bringing their body to the ground is unbearable. Everyone who attends the practices now knows the practices are at 40-60% of the Carroll-era practice intensity. Correlation is not always causation, but not hitting in practice is always the reason one doesn’t hit and tackle in games. Always. Total scientific causation. Take it to the bank.

I am heartbroken for JT and his family, but I will also say – I do not think it necessarily changes the trajectory of the season. I don’t know if Jack comes back or not and I don’t know if the team wants him back or not. But I do know that JT is a promising, young talent, meaning young, and not yet at full potential. So now we have another young and promising kid to throw the rock around. I hope this week they let him do it. You cannot throw away your offensive playbook and win with a new QB. Keep the playbook, and build his confidence by showing him you have confidence. Period. If he throws a pick or two, big deal. Open it up and go to war. The two tailbacks will thank you. They need space. When they get it, we can do damage.

Kedon Slovis is the man for now. Throw in the towel if you wish. I think those who do will be coming back around slobbering for forgiveness.

Around the country …

The Auburn comeback was exciting and the final play to do it was memorable. But time will tell if that was a 7-5 SEC team that beat Oregon or an 11-1 team. There actually wasn’t much domination or surprise to note in the opening weekend. Florida refused to put Miami away the week prior. Alabama was so-so with Duke until the inevitable happened. Ohio State got out big on Kiffin’s FAU but then couldn’t execute. Oklahoma looked unbelievable but we for now have every right to assume Houston just sucks. It’s just the reality of opening weekend – we don’t know much, yet.

Other than that Chip Kelly has a very, very good agent.

The surprise was Florida State’s loss to Boise State. But both teams looked good at times, and it may just be that Boise is better than we thought. Nebraska looks poised for another disappointing year. Michigan’s season is irrelevant until the final game Thanksgiving weekend. And Clemson staying healthy means Clemson stays on top until the playoffs.

So we are back, and it is going to be a fun season. The consensus views that Alabama, Clemson, and Oklahoma are all among the top teams again are likely correct views. But college football is such that you just never know, and betting against consensus with one or two teams is the smart play.

Fight on, and Beat the Cardinal.