After spending the postseason at home a year ago, USC is headed just down the freeway to San Diego for its bowl game on Dec. 27, where it’ll finish out an up-and-down season against No. 16 Iowa in the Holiday Bowl.
The nearby bowl destination is all too familiar for the Trojans, who finished 22nd in the final College Football Playoff rankings.
USC played in the Holiday in 2014 and 2015, the latter of which was Clay Helton’s second game since he was elevated to head coach. Helton and the Trojans lost to Wisconsin in that matchup before going on a run to the Rose Bowl the following season.
This bowl will be Helton’s first time on the sideline since receiving an unexpected vote of confidence from USC’s new leadership. After that decision, the bowl will serve as a litmus test for how a frustrated USC fan base moves forward from here.
In a statement, Helton called it “almost a home game for our fans.”
For the Trojans, a bowl victory over Iowa (9-3) would cap an impressive stretch to end the season, in which it won six of its last seven games. For Helton, it would send at least a flimsy message that USC could turn the corner next season.
But the Hawkeyes also won five of their last six to finish out the year, following consecutive losses to Michigan and Penn State, which all but ended their hopes in the Big Ten. As it caught fire late, Iowa lost only to Wisconsin after that mid-October stretch. It followed the game with an upset of then-No. 8 Minnesota.
USC (8-4) has lost just twice to Iowa in nine meetings all-time, beating the Hawkeyes in each of their past six meetings. The teams last met at the Orange Bowl in 2003, a 38-17 USC win.
“The game is a terrific matchup between teams that finished very strong down the stretch,” Helton said. “To have the opportunity to compete against a team coached by Kirk Ferentz, who is so respected in our profession, is an honor.”
It was a near-dominant defense — holding opponents to just 13 points per game — that saw Iowa push near the top of the Big Ten this season. Offensively, the Hawkeyes have struggled throughout, averaging just 24 points per game, which ranks among the worst in its conference.
If the Trojans continue their late-season offensive renaissance, the Hawkeyes will be hard-pressed to keep up. It’ll likely fall to freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis to move the ball effectively against an Iowa pass defense that ranks 10th in the nation in yards allowed and yards per attempt.
Slovis, however, has proved himself worthy of serious praise over the season’s final stretch, as he threw for at least 400 yards and four touchdowns in four of his final five games.
The lingering question now is whether USC’s offense will have its rising-star coordinator moving forward. USC offered Graham Harrell a contract on Friday, in hopes of convincing him not to leave for the same job at Texas, where he interviewed.
A decision from Harrell should come shortly, as USC prepares to start bowl practice this week. The statuses of defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast and special teams coordinator John Baxter also remain uncertain. Both could remain as coaches through the bowl game before a decision is made on their futures.