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USC’s favored in Pac-12 South, but Clay Helton knows there’s little room for error

USC coach Clay Helton runs onto the field with his team before a game against Utah.
USC coach Clay Helton, center, runs onto the field with his team before a game against Utah on Sept. 20, 2019, at the Coliseum.
(Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

At the start of a season unlike any other, expectations for USC in 2020 are the same as they were always meant to be.

Win the Pac-12 South Division. Win the conference championship. Earn a spot in the College Football Playoff. Rinse. Repeat.

At least one of those aspirations appears within reach, if credence is placed in the Pac-12 preseason media poll, which shows the Trojans as a heavy favorite to finish atop the South. But the margin for error in meeting those expectations during a seven-game, conference-only season set in the middle of a pandemic has also never been so razor thin.

As USC coach Clay Helton put it, “One slip-up could cost you a championship.”

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That’s a lot of pressure, considering the circumstances. But even an unblemished Pac-12 champion might not be enough to convince the CFP selection committee. Several of the conference’s coaches spent time during their preseason webinar on Wednesday advocating for an expanded field. They know it’ll require a picture-perfect season — or a rash of postponements elsewhere — to get the Pac-12 into the playoff, whether it be at USC, Oregon, or someplace else entirely.

The Pac-12 released its 2020 season for a third time, and USC is set to open the season on the morning of Nov. 7 against Arizona State.

“When you look at this season, everything is heightened so much,” Helton said. “It’s ten-fold.”

USC’s coach has been feeling some heightened degree of heat for quite a while now. The pressure on Helton might be the only thing normal about this pandemic-shortened season in Los Angeles.

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Even the long-awaited start of training camp Friday is sure to feel a bit strange. USC has received clearance from local and state health officials to return to 11-on-11 football for the first time in months — something Stanford and California have yet to fully obtain from their respective counties — but local health guidelines will limit teams to 75 people on a field at one time. That means the Trojans will have to hold simultaneous practices on multiple fields to accommodate all players and staff.

On one of those fields, Helton will finally get to see his new defense together again. A single, full-contact practice in March was all the head coach has seen of new defensive coordinator Todd Orlando’s revamped unit. The next four weeks of camp should go a long way in answering questions on that side of the ball, even if no one but players and staff are there to see it.

“Any time you have a new coordinator that brings in a new system, it’s about finding the right pieces that fit that system,” Helton said. “And so, I think the major battles will be a lot on defense, to be able to see what guys pick up the system fast and produce within that system.”

USC shouldn’t have such questions on offense, especially after All-Pac-12 offensive lineman Alijah Vera-Tucker announced this week that he would opt back in for the season. He’ll shift out to left tackle, leaving the two interior guard spots as the only positions on that side of the ball left uncertain ahead of camp.

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After the Big Ten made its decision to play this year, USC players and athletic administrators did their part to get the Pac-12 back on the field.

“It lets you sleep a little bit easier at night as a head coach to know that you have that type of experience and that type of talent that’s gonna be on that offensive line,” Helton said of Vera-Tucker’s return.

The path to a Pac-12 title is unlikely to be so smooth from here. But with camp finally beginning and an empty Coliseum awaiting on Nov. 7 for the opener with Arizona State, the fact that there’s any path at all is enough for Helton.

“It hurts your soul to be able to watch other teams and we weren’t getting that opportunity,” he said. “So to be able to have this opportunity, one, we’re grateful. So the approach for us is just put the ball down — put the ball down. We don’t care what day it is, what time it is. We just want to be able to play the game we love.”


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