Parity is abundant in the Pac-12, as evidenced by the latest Bovada playoff odds. Five teams – Stanford, USC, Oregon, Washington and UCLA – were all within 8.5 to 1, with the Cardinal and USC leading the way at 4 to 1 each.
Now, to someone who is 20 years old and up, that might seem fairly accurate. Those in that generation were raised during the USC Golden Era and have since become accustomed to Stanford A.H. – After Harbaugh.
But to the relatively newly initiated, USC may jump out as a name that doesn’t belong in that conversation. For the past seven years, the Trojans have resembled very little of the Golden Era program that Pete Carroll built. In the seven years preceding 2009 – Carroll’s last season – USC never lost more than two games. In the seven after, there were six seasons of two losses or more, one of which, 2015, featured six tallies on the right side of the ledger.
And yet, it’s still USC, with Southern California-sized expectations. No other school – not Stanford or UCLA, not Utah or even Oregon or Washington – expects to win as much as the Trojan faithful. So when it comes to the Pac-12, there is still no program, and coach, with more pressure on it than USC and coach Clay Helton.
“The fact of the matter is the expectations at USC, the bar is set high,” said Helton, who was hired after his second stint as the interim head coach at the end of the 2015 season, at Pac-12 media days. “They expect championships.”
Shockingly, the Trojans nearly grabbed one last year. Despite their struggles throughout, they snuck into the Pac-12 championship game, thanks in large part to an awful collapse at the end of the year by UCLA. Stanford, of course, made quick work of the Trojans, winning 41-22, but the fact that USC was contending for a championship at all, through the turmoil of Steve Sarkisian’s firing and the volatility that followed, was an accomplishment in itself.
This, however, is USC, and lucking into a championship berth is not a standard of success.
“We have the mentality of leave Hollywood behind,” USC defensive back Adoree’ Jackson said at media days. “A lot of people at ‘SC think about the glory days, when we had Snoop Dogg on the sidelines, a lot of different celebrities. We haven’t earned that yet.”
And yet, there’s the Trojans, bestowed with the best odds in the conference to make the playoffs. Perhaps nostalgia has affected even the odds makers – and opposing players.
Arizona wide receiver Nate Phillips said that “playing at USC is always fun. That has been the crown jewel of playing college football. Being in the Coliseum, that was an amazing experience just to play there.”
There is no doubt that USC will be one of the most talented teams in the Pac-12 this year. As it has been virtually every year since 2002, when the Trojans won the Orange Bowl. But winning a championship requires much more than talent. Just don’t tell that to anyone in Los Angeles.
They’ll be expecting a championship regardless.