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USC mailbag: If the Trojans and Bruins swapped coaches, what would the teams' records be?

USC mailbag: If the Trojans and Bruins swapped coaches, what would the teams' records be?
Are USC coach Clay Helton, left, and UCLA coach Jim Mora interchangeable? (Ralph Freso, Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

Every week*, The Times' USC beat reporter, Zach Helfand, will answer your questions. Tweet yours to @zhelfand or email them to zach.helfand@latimes.com. And after every USC game, you can leave a voice message on the USC Overtime hotline, at 213-357-0984, for a call-in podcast posted the day after every game.

*Hopefully

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When he was USC’s coach, John McKay used to say that there was nothing better than defeating Notre Dame and nothing worse than losing to UCLA.

And he said that before it was even possible to clinch a spot in the Pac-12 championship game before the rivalry game was even played.

And so it is this season: USC doesn't gain much with a win, aside from the immense satisfaction of defeating a rival. And even though USC can't lose anything standings-wise, it loses everything else pride-wise with a loss.

To the questions:

Ooh, interesting question. We haven’t seen enough of Clay Helton as a head coach to say definitively whether he is a better or worse coach than Jim Mora.

But it does appear that Mora has gotten a bit stale at UCLA. That's not the same thing as saying he's a bad coach. It's saying that a new coach could've given UCLA a bit of life. For that reason, I'm giving our (hypothetical) UCLA coach Helton a win at Memphis. All the other games were too overwhelming for Helton to have won any additional games. So UCLA would be 6-4.

We can chalk USC coach Mora down for a loss to Stanford, since he is 0-7 against Stanford at UCLA. Would he swing Texas to a loss too? Probably not. That win was on Darnold late. Utah? USC already played a pretty poor game and still won. So no. Can he swing Washington State to a win? Probably not on that one, either. Chalk that game to injuries. So USC would be 8-3.

That would make the difference between Mora and Helton this season (and this season only) is one game. This ruling is final and indisputable.

Me personally? New Orleans is great, so I'd take the playoff.

Assuming you don't care about that, I still strongly believe you should take the playoff too.

Yes, USC would probably lose to Alabama. Yes, USC might even lose to Alabama big. And yes, USC would feel much better with a Fiesta Bowl win.

But, one, a win in the Fiesta Bowl would by no means be a lock.

And most importantly, you play to win. You don't play to win a consolation. You play to win a championship. So you take the playoff, and it's not even close. This ruling is also final and indisputable.

Rich writes: Except for the performance in South Bend, they appear superior to every team they face, yet each game turns out to be closer than it should be. They have more playmakers than most and perhaps as many as any. Why do they seem to lack the ability to put teams away?

Early on, there was an explanation: turnovers.

Now, to be frank, I really don't know.

We do know USC's offense has an odd aversion to the third quarter. USC ranks 75th in third-quarter points.

We also know USC's defense has a tendency to play its worst at the end of games. USC's defense ranks 87th in fourth-quarter points allowed. Only the fact that USC is the best team in fourth-quarter scoring has saved the Trojans.

Why all of this happens — why the offense suddenly plays bad in the third quarter and the defense suddenly plays bad in the fourth — is a mystery.

No. And that shouldn't diminish what Khalil Tate has done this season and how good he is. But he's better suited for a zone-read offense like Rich Rodriguez's. USC wants more of a pro-style pocket passer. That's what fits the offense that USC runs.

Yes, absolutely. I would go so far to say that USC should even attempt two passes. Both play action. And probably no more than that.

Ian writes: I am wondering about USC's handling of injured players. Is there any concern on whether the coaches bring back players too soon and how quickly, or too slowly, the players return to regular playing time?

There have been only two instances this season when USC has brought back a player and the game appeared to cause a setback. Both of those instances were with the same player: linebacker Porter Gustin. USC played him a few days after surgery to insert two screws into his big toe. The screws shifted, and Gustin was shut down. He returned weeks later but was shut down again.

Cornerback Jack Jones, who had USC's most egregious unsportsmanlike conduct penalty against Colorado, had to walk down the field doing pushups after practice on Tuesday.

No. What didn't make it into this story on Sam Darnold from the preseason, in which the game of Boners was first introduced into the pages of the Los Angeles Times, was that Darnold actually had to leave the game early to get ready for a workout.

So if anything, he didn't play enough Boners.

The question I get most often for mailbags concerns USC's aversion to lining up under center in short-yardage situations. Fair enough. But the question receives more attention than it deserves — USC has been bad in short-yardage situations less because of the formation and more because it has blocked poorly.

The above tweet was tweeted in jest. The amount of comments this tweet received expressing solidarity for running the triple option, a patently ridiculous idea, was a lot.

See, Alex gets it.

Excitement level

8/10.

Enjoy the game, everyone,

Follow Zach Helfand on Twitter @zhelfand

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