All along, no matter how unlikely, the conference title game remained a possibility for USC.
With just one upset of Utah, USC would be in. With just a single loss, the Trojans would stay a part of the Pac-12 picture.
It was a longshot, especially as Utah emerged as a conference juggernaut, dominating its opponents down the stretch. As the season drew to a close, even USC coach Clay Helton seemed to understand that. But for weeks, USC held onto the hope that some other team would defeat the near-unstoppable Utes.
On Saturday, those hopes flatlined in Salt Lake City. Utah handily beat Colorado and earned an expected trip to the title game with a 8-1 record in the Pac-12, ending USC’s chances of conference supremacy, while rendering its hard-earned, South Division tiebreaker unnecessary.
The victory set Utah on a potential path for the College Football Playoff, provided it beats Oregon on Friday. For the Trojans, the only team to beat the Utes this season, it officially ended any hopes of advancing further, while also reiterating long-raging questions about Helton’s future.
The Trojans’ regular season ends at 8-4, with a likely berth in the Alamo Bowl or the Holiday Bowl ahead, but one far more pressing issue to face before then.
Questions about Helton’s status are expected to be answered in the coming days, as new athletic director Mike Bohn assesses his options. Last week, in an interview with The Times, Bohn said that the department wasn’t on “a specific timeline that would do anything to jeopardize momentum or opportunities that exist.”
But now that some of those opportunities have faded with Utah’s win, a decision could come sooner rather than later.
Never had hopes for the Trojans been higher this season than when they met the Utes in an instant Pac-12 classic in mid-September. Down its top two quarterbacks, USC turned to third-stringer Matt Fink, who proceeded to torch the conference’s top defense for 351 yards and three scores in an unlikely upset at the Coliseum.
But USC never quite matched that performance again. The Trojans lost three of their next five after that.
When Bohn first took the job, he challenged his embattled coach, noting that “good programs finish strong.” USC responded by winning three consecutive games, leaving Helton’s future uncertain heading into bowl season.
But after Saturday night, with its coach’s status in limbo, at least one aspect of USC’s future was clear.
There would be no trip to the Pac-12 title game.