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Column: USC can ponder what might have been, but that loss at Utah made a difference

USC defeated Notre Dame, 45-27, to finish the season 9-3. The Trojans now must wait to see if they can clinch the Pac-12 South by way of a Utah victory over Colorado.

What if …?

JuJu Smith-Schuster often wonders.

“Who doesn’t?” he asked.

USC is unbeaten over the last two months. The Trojans have won their last eight games, the most recent coming Saturday in a 45-27 demolition of Notre Dame.

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They look like a top-five team. They are playing like a top-five team.

So, what if they had won at Utah two months ago?

Smith-Schuster nodded.

“You wish you could have had that game,” the junior receiver said.

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If USC’s spectacular turnaround has brought back excitement to the Coliseum, it’s also offered a reason to reflect on the team’s 1-3 record in September, particularly of that winnable game in Utah.

A victory at Rice-Eccles Stadium on Sept. 23 and the Trojans would have won the Pac-12 South.

They would be headed to the conference’s championship game and would be ranked in the top five nationally.

They would be in prime position to receive an invitation to the College Football Playoff.

And based on how the Trojans are playing now, Smith-Schuster believes they would be national championship contenders.

“I feel like we can compete with the top four teams in the country,” he said.

Alabama is the undisputed No. 1 team in the country. But outside of the Crimson Tide, which thumped the Trojans by 46 points in their season opener, there is no team in the country that is clearly superior to USC.

There aren’t many teams with the talent the Trojans showcased against Notre Dame.

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Their lead was only 10-7 with 1 minute 24 seconds remaining in the opening half. That’s when Adoree’ Jackson returned a punt for a 55-yard touchdown. Two plays later, cornerback Ajene Harris intercepted a pass by Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer and ran 33 yards for another touchdown.

Suddenly, the Trojans were up 24-7.

“It’s awesome to have our athletes come out and play,” quarterback Sam Darnold said. “When these guys come out, they make their plays special. That’s really something we’ve established here.”

Jackson, a junior defensive back, might be the best all-around player in college football. He scored two other times against Notre Dame, once on a kickoff return and another time on a short pass from Darnold.

Darnold is the team’s breakout star of the season, but the Trojans are looking less and less reliant on him, as the emergence of sophomore running back Ronald Jones II has added a new dimension to the offense. Jones rushed for 134 yards and a touchdown.

“There’s an overall chemistry on this offense now,” Coach Clay Helton said.

Ohio State? Clemson? Wisconsin?

USC can play with any of them.

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“We really have something special going,” Smith-Schuster said.

Only they won’t have the chance.

“Three losses doesn’t help,” Darnold acknowledged.

The Trojans were blown out by Alabama. They didn’t have much of a chance against Stanford.

The loss at Utah, however, was completely avoidable.

The game was Darnold’s first as a starter and the redshirt freshman made it clear from the opening quarter that he was the real deal.

The Trojans were in front by two touchdowns in the third quarter. They were ahead by 10 entering the fourth.

Up by three points with less than six minutes remaining, USC had the football at the Utah 37. On fourth and three, Helton called for a punt.

With only 16 seconds remaining, Jackson lost his shoe and slipped, which allowed Utah quarterback Troy Williams to find Tim Patrick open in the end zone.

The touchdown completed the comeback for the Utes, who won, 31-27.

The Trojans dropped to 1-3.

“I wish the September month would have been different,” Helton said. “But it is what it is. Right now, it’s costing us from controlling our own destiny and maybe doing some special things.”

Their destiny was decided by Colorado, which beat Utah to secure the division title and a date with Washington in the conference final.

Helton said he didn’t have any regrets.

“You live and you learn from it,” he said. “It’s not what happens to you. It’s how you recover from it.”

Helton is right. But as well as the Trojans are playing now, it’s hard not to wonder.

dylan.hernandez@latimes.com

Follow Dylan Hernandez on Twitter @dylanohernandez


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