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USC football is hurt, more than helped, by canceled Alabama game

USC football head coach Clay Helton. (Ron Jenkins/Getty Images)
USC football head coach Clay Helton. (Ron Jenkins/Getty Images)
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Without Alabama, USC football’s 2020 season lacks a proving ground.

Say all you want about USC football avoiding potential blowouts at the hand of Alabama and Notre Dame with the cancelation of the Pac-12 non-conference slate. (The quips are unavoidable.)

Set aside for a moment, the very real possibility football might not be played this fall at all. (A conference-only slate is a measure to buy time for COVID-19 to come under control enough for games to be played, but there are no guarantees.)

The fact that USC won’t play their two toughest opponents on the schedule is very bad news from a football perspective.

USC football is hurt by the cancellations, not helped.

It’s a question of short-term pain and long-term gain.

Sure, everyone expected USC to get lambasted by Nick Saban’s Alabama to start the 2020 season. It happened in 2016 and it was likely to happen again. But what better way for athletic director Mike Bohn to see first hand what his head coach is and isn’t capable of.

If Helton were to pull off the upset, Bohn could move forward with the knowledge he put his faith in the right place. It would be a sign that the head coach can achieve results with the right kind of investment around him.

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If Helton’s Trojans were to once again prove incapable of competing with the Crimson Tide, then that’s just as well. A blowout loss is the last thing spectators would want to witness, but it might have been the key to moving on. Bohn would have been forced to face what USC fans warned him of last fall: Clay Helton is a nice guy, but he’s not good enough to compete at the national level.

With athletic department financials taking massive hits across the country, it’s going to take extra to convince the powers that be to spend their money on coaching staff buyouts this year.

The Alabama game was supposed to be a reckoning. A necessary loss would have been better than no loss at all.

Even a perspective more generous to Helton’s ability to grow and improve as a head coach shows this to be a hurtful development. Instead of getting a shot to take on relatively vulnerable Alabama (and Notre Dame) with a strong squad including the likes of Tyler Vaughns, Talanao Hufanga, Alijah Vera-Tucker, Jay Tufele and more, Helton will lose his chance at a career-saving campaign.

USC now goes into the 2020 season with few opportunities to prove much of anything. If they win the Pac-12, so what? Helton has won the Pac-12 before. It doesn’t change the larger issue of national championship viability.

If they win the Pac-12 South but lose to Oregon in the process, that’s not much of a surprise. The Ducks were the favorite in the conference anyways.

Now, Helton is likely to return in 2021 with a weaker team, impacted by two low ranked recruiting hauls, and even more riding on the results of that campaign.

The most merciful outcome for the 2020 season is a truly disappointing run through the Pac-12 slate, but just how likely is that? The Trojans have their quarterback. They have an outstanding wide receiver corps. They have too much talent to expect a repeat of 2018. (And who really wants to see USC’s players fall flat on their face like that again?)

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Instead, the most likely scenario is now the most frustrating: USC will manage the most medium record possible. Good enough to win most of their games. Not good enough for it to mean anything.

Welcome to another year of purgatory.

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