Setting USC football’s win-loss expectations for 2020

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 12: New Athletic Director of USC Trojans Mike Bohn after a game against the South Dakota State Jackrabbits at Galen Center on November 12, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. USC won 84-66. (Photo by John McCoy/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 12: New Athletic Director of USC Trojans Mike Bohn after a game against the South Dakota State Jackrabbits at Galen Center on November 12, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. USC won 84-66. (Photo by John McCoy/Getty Images) /

Three simple rules should govern how Mike Bohn and USC football fans set expectations and judge the Trojans’ 2020 season.

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When athletic director Mike Bohn made an appearance on the Peristyle Podcast from last week, he was asked a simple question: “What are your expectations for Clay Helton and the team in 2020 and what would you say a successful season would look like?”

Bohn’s answer was political and unsurprising.

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“As you can expect with our daunting schedule coming up, we’re not going to assign an arbitrary win total to define success. There’s just too many variables that enter into that,” Bohn said. “But the foundation for our expectations is to win Pac-12 championships and compete for national championships.”

Understandably, Bohn wouldn’t want to paint himself into a corner by setting a win total expectations. It doesn’t serve him to do so.

But nothing is stopping us from doing it for him.

So what would a successful season for USC look like in 2020?

Rule No. 1: Don’t get embarrassed.

Applying that standard to the entire season seems like a fair starting point. When it comes to the Alabama game specifically, it’s a bare minimum.

Should Clay Helton be expected to go to Arlington and beat Nick Saban? Maybe not. The realistic view is to judge performance in the biggest games.

Back in 2016, USC was outclassed by the Tide, suffering a 52-6 spanking. That can’t happen again.

Winning is always the goal, but stepping on a field with an elite opponent and showing you belong there goes a long way towards building belief.

Remember 2011 when USC took Andrew Luck’s Stanford to overtime? Despite the eventual loss, the Trojans rode the momentum of that performance through the rest of the season.

Trips to Utah and Oregon will prove challenging and may ultimately result in losses. If that happens, keeping it close will at least retain a sense of competitiveness.

Rule No. 2: Make the Coliseum a fortress.

USC’s home slate in 2020 includes New Mexico, ASU, Cal, Colorado, Washington, and Notre Dame. The Trojans should expect to win them all.

Good teams protect their home field. Up until 2018, USC did a pretty good job of that under Clay Helton, but the mojo has worn out in recent years.

Arguably the biggest disappointment of 2019 was allowing Oregon to walk into the Coliseum and leave with a 56-24 victory.

Six wins are there for the taking in 2020.

Sure, ASU, Washington, and Notre Dame will challenge the Trojans.

Last year USC beat ASU in Tempe. Washington will have a new head coach and quarterback. Notre Dame’s last two wins over the Trojans were by narrow margins.

Those shouldn’t be seen as insurmountable foes. Not in the shadow of the Peristyle.

Rule No. 3: Win well.

In 2020, the Trojans need to do a better job of dispatching opponents who are well below them.

USC let Fresno State hang around in 2019. They clung to victory over Colorado and ASU when they should have had both on the ropes.

They were similarly lackluster in 2018 wins over UNLV, Arizona, Colorado and Oregon State.

It’s not just about wins. It’s about playing well in order to win well.

Winning well comes with obvious benefits, not the least of which is letting fans bask in stress-free viewing. It also means giving playing time to backups and more rest and protection to starters.

So there are three simple rules on which to build expectations for USC in 2020.

  1. Don’t get embarrassed.
  2. Make the Coliseum a fortress.
  3. Win well.

In terms of wins and losses, the range is pretty clear.

Winning all or most home games would set USC up with a base of five to six wins. A 4-2 record at the Coliseum should always be on the low end of expectations.

Considering Stanford’s offseason disarray and quarterback situation, Arizona’s generally poor state and growing skepticism around Chip Kelly at UCLA, those road trips should be slated for the win column.

When it comes to Alabama, Utah, and Oregon it’s safe to pencil in at least two losses, but they must be competitive. An upset on the road could be the key to changing perception around Helton.

Bohn could talk himself into accepting a 7-5 record, with close losses to Alabama, Utah, Oregon, Washington, and Notre Dame, but that’s a tough pill to swallow for what remains one of the most talented rosters in the Pac-12.

An 8-4 record sits closer to comfort, especially if the Trojans remain undefeated in the Pac-12 South having fallen in close contests to Alabama and Notre Dame out of conference, with narrow defeats at Oregon and to Washington.

But that’s hardly a success. That’s the same regular-season record as 2019.

The sweet spot arrives at 9-3, a record which could account for a loss to Alabama and Oregon at Autzen, plus one more from the remaining pool. Assuming no embarrassments and a handful of well-won games, USC could go to the Pac-12 title game with competitive confidence and real hope of a conference crown.

Bohn’s own “foundation for our expectations” would be met with a Pac-12 championship, even if talk of a playoff berth would be getting far ahead of USC’s current standing.

Would you call 9-3 a success for 2020? In the right context, it would at least be moving in the right direction. For Bohn, progress has got to be key.

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