As Clay Helton looks back on his first full season as head coach at USC, he asks himself one question: "What could I have done better," he wonders.
One thing he notes, one thing that came into play starting by Game 4 at Utah as the Trojans limped off to a 1-3 start, is that his USC team was not a "smart situational football team" when it came to things "like down and distance, penalties where we stopped ourselves."
August had not prepared them for September, certainly not for the force Alabama and Stanford would come with or the need not to give back points or give up when it mattered most in a supremely winnable game at Utah.
But it's not like changes have to be made in those areas going into this season. Changes have been made. That USC team was a smart, situationally sound and prepared group when it had to be. The win at Washington showed how far they'd come in terms of physicality, Clay says.
And the Rose Bowl, well, "Just look at that game," Clay says. "There was as much situational football in one game as I've seen in my 22 years as a college coach -- "going for the two-point conversion, that's how you teach kids to win football games -- and not lose their poise with things like situational penalties or turnovers. To not take any of those," trailing 42-27 late in the third period was the only way back.
Clay says "the calm and a poise" along USC's sideline was something he had never experienced, certainly not from this team. "One of the things that showed me was the valuable lessons we'd learned," as coaches and players learned their way through the 2017 season together.
"Once we put together that drive to cut it to 42-35, there was no doubt about what was going to happen. We hadn't been down really in two months, not like that since Alabama," Clay said, "and you saw how in the end, it was about the work and the preparation we'd put in, not just that we were SC.
"There were a half-dozen situations" -- on offense and defense -- where if the Trojans had gotten them wrong, no way they beat Penn State in the Rose Bowl, Clay says.
But unlike early in the season, they got them right.
"We were really an immature team" coming out of August, he says. "We needed some life lessons, we needed some time together. We had three new coordinators, a new quarterback and a new head coach. We weren't quite ready to play." And it showed.
That they had learned their lessons well also showed at the end. "When you go into Washington the way we did and then follow that with the two emotional games -- UCLA and Notre Dame, you saw it was not about the hype of the game for this team," but about the "way we prepared."
They hadn't figured things out in the early going, Clay says. Now they have and return nine out of 10 coaches. But the number he's focused on is 24. "There are 24 newcomers who have to understand our coaching, our way of doing things. That's our big focus."
You'll note that includes the five early entry spring guys. And there's a reason why. They've never had to prepare for a game or gone through a game week. But they will.
By Week 2 of summer practice, after alternating full days off and then on the first six days to install the offense, defense and special teams playbooks, they'll also get themselves into four weeks of game-prep routine with Sundays off starting with Day 2.
The plan in place now gives USC four weeks of the kinds of routine and prep work that stood up for them those last nine games in putting together the nation's second-longest win streak (behind only Oklahoma going into 2017). And after 19 practices, turning the schedule for the last two weeks into first, a "mock-game week finishing Aug. 26 and then the real game week the next week for WMU," Clay says as he shows you the day-by-day plan to finish up USC's 29 preseason practices.
"It's all here," he says, admitting that circumstances "like injuries" could change things. But with the final 15 freshmen not arriving until the start of the second summer session June 23, and classes extending 10 days into August, this will be the first summer camp when players -- and their coaches -- have to balance classes and practice.
"We're going to get into a routine exactly like last year," Clay said with a 17-week, bye-less regular season facing them. His two-part goal -- for his players and coaches -- is simple and straightforward: "To get them better as players and young men" . . . "and to win football games,"
One more change in the makeup of the USC coaching staff as offensive graduate assistant Mike Goff finished up his two-year term in the spring. The well-regarded 12-year NFL lineman out of Iowa who played for the Bengals, Chargers and Chiefs while earning All-Pro honors, will become a quality control analyst for USC, the second added in the offseason in addition to former Western Kentucky offensive coordinator Bryan Ellis . . . Replacing Goff as an offensive GA, Clay said, will be former walkon offensive lineman Dane Stevens, who played two seasons for USC before becoming a student assistant coordinating summer and sideline offensive play-calling/signalling. Out of Kennesaw, Ga., Stevens, who famously dropped some 130 pounds off his 311-pound frame after his playing days, graduated in mid-year and will be working on his master's in communications . . . Interesting analysis of the Las Vegas odds for a Final Four in this year's College Football Playoffs by the folks at SB Nation. The top three teams in terms of over/under wins at 10.5 are Alabama, Florida State and Ohio State. Probably no arguing there except from Penn State in the Big Ten. But next in line at 9.5 and ahead of Washington, also at 9.5, on schedule points are Oklahoma and USC. Which is how it just might come down. Although USC could be coming off a Pac-12 title game win over possibly a Top 5/6 Washington while Oklahoma, after an early season game at Ohio State, will be coming off a Big 12 title game, after the game's six-year absence, in a possible re-match against top rival Oklahoma State or maybe a Texas team USC will hope to have beaten.