Why USC Football still controls their own destiny in 2017

Jason O. Watson/Getty Images
Jason O. Watson/Getty Images /

Head coach Clay Helton insists USC Football still controls their own destiny after losing to Washington State. He’s right.

Following USC Football’s loss to Washington State last Friday night, it would have been reasonable to assume that each week of the college football season is a single-game elimination scenario, based on the reaction to the Trojans’ disappointing result in Pullman at least.

Addressing the media at multiple points this week, head coach Clay Helton rejected that narrative.

“We’re 4-1 and, for the first time in a long time at the end of September, we control our own destiny,” Helton said.

The head coach is right on that score.

After five games in 2016, Helton’s team was 2-3 and still reeling from losing three of their first four games.

“We’re 4-1 and, for the first time in a long time at the end of September, we control our own destiny.”

This year, the Trojans have not played particularly well through a difficult September stretch, with five games against opponents who are a collective 15-3 when facing teams that aren’t USC this season.

Fans who were hoping to see championship-level play have not seen it, particularly from an offense stacked with top-tier talent. However, this year’s slow start has not sunk the Trojans aspirations. Last year’s did.

Last year, a September road loss to Utah was USC’s second loss in conference. It also set the Trojans back in the Pac-12 South. Despite winning out in the South, including a victory over eventual division winner Colorado, USC missed out on the Pac-12 title game because the Buffaloes did not slip up again.

CHECK OUT: 5 Most Important Seniors for USC in 2017

This time, a September road loss to Washington State is a set back, but it alone cannot keep the Trojans out of the conference title game.

“Are we better from last year to this year? Yes. Do we need to improve from the month of September to the month of October? Yes,” Helton said. “There’s a lot of things to correct, I’m not going to BS you.”

The key in 2016 was a marked improvement from the first month of the season to the next. Many attributed that turnaround to Sam Darnold’s introduction to the lineup, but the win-streak also featured an offensive line which found its stride, particularly in the running game, the emergence of receiving targets like Darreus Rogers, Daniel Imatorbhebhe and Deontay Burnett, and a defense which turned a corner.

USC’s 2017 season now hinges on reproducing that upward trajectory. It will require an elevation in Darnold’s play back to 2016 levels.

Settling on a core group of reliable receivers, like Burnett, Steven Mitchell and Tyler Vaughns while also getting Imatorbhebhe healthy and back in the lineup will be critical.

Sorting out an injury-hit offensive line would go a long way to stabilizing the offensive attack.

SEE MORE: Viane Talamaivao Needs Surgery, Will Miss Rest of Season

On top of that, the Trojan defense will have to maintain their level without the major breakdowns which have occasionally marred Clancy Pendergast’s tenure.

“At the end of the day, you want to look up as a coach and see where you’re at at the end of October, the beginning of November and hopefully you’re playing your best football at that time,” Helton said. “We’re going to need to be.”

There’s reason to be optimistic. Since he took over as USC’s head coach on an interim and permanent basis, Helton’s teams have gone 12-2 in October and November.

Should the Trojans handle business against Oregon State and sweep through the Pac-12 South—six games in which they will be the favored team—they will be in the Pac-12 title game with a chance to win the conference championship for the first time since 2008.

Doing so, while also besting a ranked Notre Dame squad in South Bend, would put USC in range of a College Football Playoff spot.

More from Reign of Troy

They may not literally control their own destiny in that sense, as winning out cannot guarantee the Trojans a place, but they would at least give themselves a shot. A pretty good one at that. In all three years of the College Football Playoff’s existence, three of the four playoff teams each had one loss.

So USC can keep the focus inward, without worrying about external factors until the Pac-12 Championship trophy is or isn’t in hand.

“I told them today they’re going to be a great football team,” Helton said. “It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it.”

The reaction begins this Saturday against Oregon State and will have to continue through the remaining weeks of the schedule.

TRENDING: Grading USC After First Loss of the Season

USC still controls its own destiny, but that control is now one misstep away from vanishing.