USC Football’s Tough Schedule Is Chance To Build Resume

Jul 14, 2016; Hollywood, CA, USA; Southern California Trojans coach Clay Helton during Pac-12 media day at Hollywood & Highland. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Jul 14, 2016; Hollywood, CA, USA; Southern California Trojans coach Clay Helton during Pac-12 media day at Hollywood & Highland. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports /

Ambition and fight are not lacking for USC football, as the Trojans’ contingent at Pac-12 Media Days in Hollywood stressed their excitement for arguably the nation’s toughest schedule.

For offensive lineman Zach Banner, USC football’s out-of-conference slate is yet another proving-ground for the Trojans, who have always lived under a microscope.

“At SC, when we have non-conference games we want to schedule the best,” Banner said. “We are one of the best programs in America. We have a great staff. We have a great team and we want to represent well by playing high-class teams.”

High-class opposition will not be hard to find on USC’s schedule this season. After the opener, the Trojans will take on Stanford and Utah on the road, before finishing the season with a Murderer’s Row of contests versus Oregon, Washington, UCLA and Notre Dame.

All told, USC will face 11 teams that played in bowls last year. including three who were a part of the New Year’s Six games. Five opponents finished ranked in the AP Top 25 to end last season.

USC will face 11 teams that played in bowls last year. including three who were a part of the New Year’s Six games.

First and foremost, the Trojans will have to get past the team that lifted the national championship trophy in January.

A team coached by Nick Saban, who Helton described as being “one of the greatest head coaches in the history of the game…maybe the best in our generation.”

A team with players who have won things.

The way Banner sees it though, Alabama has good players just like USC has good players.

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They were all top-level recruits. They’re all talented. They’re going in on even footing, regardless of what the Tide have won.

“I respect their team very much and they had good recruits coming out of high school just like we did, so it’s going to be a great battle,” Banner said.

Jackson echoed that sentiment.

“I’m just excited to play them because they’re going to bring their best and we’re going to bring our best,” said Jackson.

For the cornerback, there’s another element. It’s the opportunity to prove USC’s fighting spirit, even though most observers see the Trojans as outmatched by the Tide.

Fight is something you could never accuse recent USC teams of lacking.

When Lane Kiffin was fired in 2013, they fought on to a ten win season and a bowl victory under their third head coach of the season.

When Steve Sarkisian was fired in 2015, they fought on to a Pac-12 South division championship.

To end last season and start Clay Helton’s full-time USC coaching career, they took two punches in the mouth — a tough loss to Stanford in the Pac-12 Championship Game and a disastrous outing against Wisconsin in the Holiday Bowl with half of a coaching staff.

Those were deflating losses, but the Trojans are always willing to puff air back into their own sails.

It’s that unique combination of fight and ambition which makes USC so intriguing in 2016.

Ambition in the face of adversity is what got USC to the Pac-12 title game. Fight is what had them within five points of Stanford in the fourth quarter of that game.

This offseason, the focus has been on finding the missing ingredient to get the Trojans up the next wrung on the ladder– quality.

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The quest for quality, Helton noted, has been apparent in the way his team have prepared this offseason, knowing that what USC achieved in 2015 was impressive but still lacking. To get through 2016, they’ll need to be better.

“I think [the players are] doing a tremendous job running their own practices during this summer and doing the things that it takes, not only to come together as a team but also to produce a caliber and level of football that we’re going to need for this season,” Helton said.

The Trojans know they need to reach a higher level to beat Alabama. They’re ambitious enough to believe they can get there. And they possess enough fight to keep it interesting even if they aren’t quite there yet.

That’s why Helton believes Alabama and the schedule as a whole will reveal the true USC.

“You’re talking about an unbelievable opportunity to show who you are,” said Helton.  “That’s why you come to ‘SC. You come here to compete and to play the best of the best. If you want to be the best, play the best.”

While the Pac-12 media narrowly voted USC to finish second in the south behind UCLA, in part because the Bruins face an easier schedule, the Trojans are intent on seeing the silver lining in such a difficult slate.

Helton and his players don’t talk about just surviving the schedule. They talk of mastering it.

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It’s a welcome challenge, one they say they’re ready to face and come out the other side better for it.

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“When you have the chance to play Alabama, Notre Dame, that Pac-12 schedule, you’re building your résumé,” Helton said. “But you know what you’re also doing? You’re preparing yourself for a playoff game.

“You’re preparing yourself for a National Championship game, because the quality of talent that you’re playing throughout the season prepares you when it matters the most, and that’s those playoff and championship games.”

USC will get their first opportunity to build their resume on September 3 when they face Alabama at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. And there will be many more after that whether the payoff comes this season or the next.