They were 3-5 combined in September. They've gone 17-0 since.
Is that not a perfect way for USC to reintroduce itself to the world of big-time college football?
And for Penn State.
I learned this as a latecomer who didn't really understand USC football. I'd covered the Trojans in South Bend. And at the Kickoff Classic. And in the Coliseum against Notre Dame in that 1988 national championship showdown.
But until I got to see the Trojans for the first time in a Rose Bowl, in 1996 against Northwestern, I didn't fully pick up on what USC football was all about. Sitting there in the press box that New Year's Day, I got it.
It's more than just football. It's history. It's pageantry. It's a connection to this beautiful place called Southern California -- and USC's 33 trips to Pasadena, soon to be 34th.
It's Howard Jones and John McKay and Pete Carroll. It's all seven of the Heisman Trophy winners.
And now, it's Clay Helton & Co., back from the dead. Back in the Rose Bowl. Where USC teams belong. Maybe this team above all after that 1-3 start.
Has any Trojan team had a tougher road to Pasadena? We're thinking not.
Certainly none were a longer shot to make it than this 2016 team four weeks into its season. Just look at both coaches here. Their fan bases were well into the "Coaches Hot List" process when the story lines gradually started to turn around. Penn State beat Ohio State. USC beat Colorado and Washington.
The losses, as disappointing as they were, turned into wins. Now up to 17 straight.
Best combined story line of all the bowl games. Most exciting matchup of the Big Six January 2nd Bowl Day lineup.
Is the Big Ten college football's best conference? Can the Big Ten champ, the team that beat the Buckeyes, handle the Helton's comeback Trojans?
One thing going here is that, thanks to the NCAA, for completely different reasons and machinations, these two programs are operating pretty much on a level playing field -- of sorts. As Penn State Coach James Franklin noted, two years ago the Nittany Lions were playing with 65 scholarships while USC was just a bit above that.
Then they had 75 scholarships last year, with USC right in that neighborhood after everything shook out and not counting former walkons. Now they're both at 85, although USC is not quite there again as the year has played out.
But that didn't keep either of them from somehow arriving at where they are today. Go on the Penn State boards right now. Even as they note that they're one of the three hottest teams in the country, they seem to agree they're just a bit behind USC in hotness -- and, of course, Alabama.
Not where any of us expected to be late that Friday night in Salt Lake City.
Who knew the way to Pasadena passed through a losing detour in Utah?
Clay Helton said he did. And he convinced his players that he had the all right twists and turns plugged into his cellphone. As it turns out he did. OK, he did after installing Sam Darnold as the driver. James Franklin found a way as well.
And so here they are where they were in 1923, at the first Rose Bowl on the current Arroyo Seco site for each team's first-ever bowl appearance Where the game was delayed for -- what else -- the ultimate Southern California reason -- a traffic jam.
And where the two coaches -- USC's Elmer "Gloomy Gus" Henderson and Penn State's Hugo Bezdek nearly came to blows before the game as a result of what the USC coach said was purposeful stalling by Penn State to keep USC waiting.
The traffic is still here. So is the stadium. And now, as improbable as it would seem, history does repeat itself -- so are USC and Penn State.
It's the Trojans and the Nittany Lions in the Rose Bowl. And two coaches who had to coach with their hair on fire -- if they had any.
And two long-suffering fan bases who will not have much but history to tell them how to act here. It's been a long time since legends Joe Paterno -- coaching from the press box with a broken hip -- and Pete Carroll faced one another in 2009.
How much has gone down for these two programs since that matchup. No need to go into the details here. That's not what this is about.
This is about two teams finding their way back. Back to Pasadena in January. Where the roses will be blooming and the weather will be perfect -- we hope.
And we can all say: "We're back."
And for USC, "back where we belong. Back home at the Rose Bowl."
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