No better way back than through The Farm

You can't overstate what a win Saturday for USC would mean to this program, these players . . . a new coach in his first official game as head man.

Win and they're in.

Let that sink in.

Win Saturday against seventh-ranked Stanford (4:45 p.m. ESPN) in a game USC probably has a better shot at than it did before beating the Cardinal in 2013 and 2014, and the Trojans are in the Rose Bowl.

And as Pac-12 champs. Just like the good old days.

Against Ohio State, we'd imagine. Just like the good old days.

In one of those matchups that says for USC football: "We're back . . . Can you believe it?"

Despite Salute to Troy. Despite so-long-to-Sark Sunday Notre Dame week. Despite the Washington and Oregon games.

Despite losing Max Tuerk, Toa Lobendahn, Lamar Dawson and Cameron Smith.

Despite playing Stanford just down the road from Palo Alto with their officials. Just kidding although there are some who would say that when it comes to Pac-12 football, they're all Stanford's officials.

Guess we'll see on that one since a win by a Cardinal team with an outside shot at a spot in the College Football Playoffs could be worth millions more to the league. Time for an integrity check at Levi's Stadium.

It's Game 1 of the official Clay Helton Era, Game 9 unofficially. Call it a new season if you will. But is it a new era?

Is this the moment when we look back and say, "That was it. That Stanford championship game in 2015. That's when it all turned around."

You just never know. That was the big miss, we thought, in ESPN's "Trojan War 30 for 30" special. The focus was on the finish against Texas of that incredible championship run and missed a bit on how USC got there. And all the joy and fun of those early games, those early years.

Winning at Auburn and Oregon, Arkansas and Stanford, Virginia Tech and in the Orange Bowl against Iowa and Oklahoma. And staying in the Big Ten, there were the Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan wins. Every one some kind of fun.

Can this be the moment for a new group of Trojans -- and their new coach -- to get things going? Well, they have a chance. After the way this year and this half-decade have gone, you can't ask for any more than that.

They're alive and kicking and starting to know who they are and coming off a UCLA win with a tough-man finish that not even USC's biggest boosters could have forecast.

There's not a single fifth-year senior -- from Cody Kessler to Kris Albarado, Tre Madden, Soma Vainuku, Anthony Sarao, Greg Townsend Jr., Cody Temple and Antwaun Woods -- who doesn't deserve this opportunity. You can add fifth-year JC transfers Delvon Simmons and Claude Pelon. And fifth-year walkons Erick Jepsen, Cyrus Hobbi and David Mellstrom.

But a favorable outcome isn't owed to any of them. They've got to get that done themselves. It's on them -- and their coaches.

Stanford isn't going to give it to them. Just the way the Cardinal didn't give other Pac-12 teams access to the virtual reality technology from Stanford-birthed STRIVR Labs this season that has done so much for quarterback Kevin Hogan and has been peddled to the NFL and non-Pac-12 teams.

This is a tough business when you face the tough guys from The Farm. Although it has to be a good sign when the smart, physical, well-coached, fundamentally sound Cardinal with skilled athletes like Christian McCaffrey, Austin Hooper and Hogan is the team your Trojans just cannot wait to get a second shot at this season. That has to be a good sign.

No hesitation here. No better test for these Trojans. How physical have they become? Do they really know who they are? And how they win football games? And can they back it up?

Sure, the UCLA game was a nice start. But Stanford kicks the Bruins around like that every time they get the chance.

Stanford's history with USC is much more mixed. Sure, they've won four of six since the NCAA came down on USC in 2010. But two of those -- the three-overtime 2011 loss in the Coliseum with so many questionable calls and the mystery timekeeper game the year before in Palo Alto -- should have asterisks at the very least.

But this game won't have one of those. It's winner take -- if not all, a heck of a lot. If that winner is USC, it could be the beginning of something big with the Rose Bowl the next game and then that Alabama matchup to open next season.

"Should be fun," Clay Helton said Monday.

Could be. We'll see. That's all you can ask. Hold that. USC fans can ask for more than just the chance to make it happen Saturday.

They can ask that these Trojans -- some of whom have hung in there through the last five tumultuous years -- experience the joy of bringing USC back.

How much fun would that be.

You can follow me on Twitter at @dweber3440 or email me at weber@uscfootball.com.


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