It's Stewart Mandel's fault. The Fox Sports national college football pundit is everything that's wrong with what's happening to USC football right now.
No sooner had USC's 52-49 Sam Darnold-led come-from-behind Rose Bowl win over Penn State made its way into the record books, there was Pundit Stew saying USC had cinched a spot no worse than No. 2 going into next season. Thanks, Stew. Now you've done it.
Stewart wrote: "Now that the [Rose Bowl] game actually happened and it was such a classic, and Sam Darnold was so ridiculously impressive, I’m going to follow through right here with that prediction [that USC would open as No. 2 next season with a win over Penn State]. In 2012, Lane Kiffin-led USC actually entered the season No. 1 in the AP poll ahead of a Nick Saban-led reigning national champ. Voters have just been lying in wait for USC to regain its mojo, and now that it has, the Trojans will return to their rightful spot as annual preseason darling . . . And I fully admit I’ll probably contribute to it. Darnold is the Second Coming."
And sure enough, the first doom-and-gloom columns about USC's football future have already been written. They're the lead in a three-pronged prediction that none of this can continue, don't you know.
We'll summarize them this way:
*** 1) USC had it easy in 2016, sneaking up on everyone with no expectations whatsoever. Now Stew has ruined that opportunity.
*** 2) Players are leaving. Yep, no lifetime achievement awards for these guys after five years, or maybe even four. Some after just one or two. Sure, some are graduating. Or they're transferring. Or just plain going elsewhere. Or headed to the NFL. But for whatever reason, they won't be here next year. How will USC ever survive, the doomsayers wonder. Has that ever happened to a team before?
*** 3) And then there's this: Some of them are really big, really heavy guys. The meat-wagon is rolling out of town with a bunch of awfully large Trojan alums hanging on and waving goodbye. What will USC ever do to replace them? Is that even possible? Are there any more big people anywhere to fill in for them? Or is it over once the meat is on the hoof and headed down the highway?
Let's take these in order. "USC had it easy in 2016, sneaking up on everyone and played with no pressure." Sorry but that's just counter-factual.
Sure, the expectations had been lowered significantly with USC's 1-3 start but the pressure could not have been more ratcheted up. After the Utah loss, USC had to win every single game to stay alive and get to the Rose Bowl. It was one-and-out through ranked teams -- at the time -- Arizona State, Colorado, Washington and rivals UCLA and Notre Dame. One slip and it was over and out. A single-loss playoff elimination run, if you will.
And on top of that, Clay Helton was coaching for his job in his first year as a head man. With a first-time staff. There was no room for saying "Wait unti next year, we'll show you what we can do." Had Helton failed to get this thing re-set, there was going to be no next year.
Most new coaches will get three years or so to show what they can do. Helton had three months. Now that's pressure. That's playing under the severest kind of expectations: Get it right or get out of here.
Helton & Co. got it right. Got it turned around. Figured out from September what they had to do in October and November. Now they have to get the whole January-through-September thing right. But after having done what they did this past fall, we like their chances the next three seasons.
One reason we like their chances is how, if you can get players to buy in when things are going badly as they were in September, you have a decent shot at getting them to pick it up there when they can see a return to a Pac-12 title and a spot in the College Football Playoffs within their reach.
We see mostly positives from those kinds of heightened expectations over the winter, spring and summer. It's what the guys moving on specifically said they were leaving to the next group of Trojans succeeding them. Now the coaches and support staff have to get it right. There are places to improve, for certain. But it's there for them.
And they know it. We're talking about guys like the Florida kids, safety Jamel Cook and corner Pie Young, who were on the fringes watching Adoree' and Co. do their thing this season. Now it could be their secondary next fall and the process of going from uncertain, home-sick freshmen from SEC country to players with the talent to take this team to another level, along with so many others as they learn what Clancy Pendergast expects of them, is exciting. This is why they came 3,000 miles across the country. To have a chance to be part of something like this.
Are there higher expectations for all of these Trojans? You bet. There better be. That's how it works. It's called competition. You don't get anywhere if you're not willing to compete -- mostly against yourself. The challenge is there. And it's a very good thing. If you're USC, you should never even think of sneaking up on someone because no one expects you to be any good. That's the thinking of losers.
And for a team with the third-longest win streak in the nation at nine (after Alabama's 25 and Oklahoma's 10 going into Monday's championship game), that's exactly the way you want it to be.
Now for the "players are leaving" meme. USC survived the departure of Carson Palmer and Troy Polamalu the first year I covered the team. A pretty big one-two punch. Has any program, after one good season for a pair of seniors ever lost more when they said goodbye. And how did that work out?
This can work out as well. Look at the numbers behind Zach Banner and Chad Wheeler, Damien Mama and JuJu Smith-Schuster -- and probably Adoree' Jackson as well. Not to mention Michael Hutchings and Leon McQuay. And Zach Smith and Taylor McNamara. We'll miss them all.
And USC will be fine.
That's because the pipeline is -- in most places -- pretty much full. We listed them the other day. Here they are again, the mostly new guys or the ones who didn't exactly have a front-line place in 2016 who will be getting the chance to step up and make this their team too: Chuma Edoga, Jack Jones, Chris Brown, Cary Angeline, Jalen Greene, Christian Rector, Jacob Daniel, Jordan Iosefa, John Houston, Connor Murphy, Oluwole Betiku, Vavae Malepeai, Michael Pittman, Josh Imatorbhebhe, Tyler Vaughns, Trevon Sidney, Velus Jones, Roy Hemsley, Cole Smith, Nathan Smith, Clayton Johnston, Matt Fink, Ykili Ross, Liam Jimmons, along with Jamel and Pie.
No mention here of the guys coming back from injuries or academic issues. That's three or four more one-time former starters there. And there are 34 Trojans on the Rose Bowl two-deep who look like they'll be back including some of the above. That's a pretty good nucleus.
And a better place than Clemson was in a year ago when none of their front seven returned. But the Tigers did. Because this is about the program. And the "next man up."
Finally, there's the "meat wagon has left town" meme. And no doubt, the big guys are moving on. But as well as they pass blocked, with Sam's elusiveness in and out of the pocket, there really was no ability against the better defenses to use that size to power the football when an athletic opponent like Alabama or Penn State was determined to stop the run game.
Our take is that the USC O-line will be quicker, more athletic and more in tune with the quick-footed quarterback and running backs like Ronald Jones, Aca'Cedric Ware, Dominic Davis and Vavae. And more in tune with the way Neil Callaway wants to coach them and more in tune more with the scheme.
We'll admit that we have no answer for nose tackle Stevie Tu'ikolovatu moving on just yet. Kenny Bigelow is a lot bigger than the last time we saw him although coming off a second major knee injury. Clearly more of a nose than the slimmed-down version we remember. And the numbers are there -- Josh Fatu, Christian Rector, Malik Dorton and Daniel.
But when you realize that Rasheem Green, Porter Gustin and Uchenna Nwosu should be back, that's three-fourths of a front line that improved throughout. We'll attribute some of their Rose Bowl issues to the five-week layoff and the slippery turf as well as trying to contain the nation's best running back in Saquon Barkley.
But it's a solid foundation to build on. Not a reason for despair. And leaves this team in a far better place than where it was at the end of September.
Is there plenty to do? You bet. If USC's coaches, players and football staff, not to mention the administration, don't get it done, you can forget all the above. Although we won't.
But we'll say it again: USC is finally in a good place in the off-season. No reason to say it isn't.
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