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Soft slate could benefit Clay Helton: a primer on USC’s 2021 football schedule

 USC coach Clay Helton sits and speaks into a microphone during Pac-12 media day.
Embattled USC coach Clay Helton could benefit from a seemingly soft schedule for the Trojans this fall.
(Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)
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When faced with a potential make-or-break season that could determine the path of your football program for years to come, it doesn’t hurt to be handed the softest schedule of your tenure.

Those are the fortunate circumstances embattled coach Clay Helton faces on the cusp of his seventh season at USC. His Trojans have seven home games and a nicely placed bye, just before their trip to Notre Dame. His fate might be decided sometime around that October flight to South Bend, Ind., with games against Utah two weeks before and Arizona State two weeks after.

Will a favorable schedule be enough to win a Pac-12 title and save Helton’s job? Here’s a closer look at how each of those matchups might play out:

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San Jose State, Saturday at the Coliseum

Reasons to pick USC: Because an opening-weekend loss would be disastrous. USC has lost a season opener just once in the last 23 years. And that defeat, in 2016, came against No. 1 Alabama, which stayed undefeated until the national title game. USC has never lost to San Jose State, and the talent disparity between them suggests that streak should continue through this season. Quarterback Kedon Slovis will likely look immediately to star-in-the-making Drake London, who should provide some serious fireworks right away at wide receiver.

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Reasons to pick San Jose State: When USC scheduled San Jose State to replace Football Championship Subdivision school UC Davis in February 2020, the Spartans had won 12 games over the previous four years combined. Those fortunes quickly changed as San Jose State won seven straight and the Mountain West Conference in 2020. All-conference quarterback and well-traveled transfer Nick Starkel returns with a fully intact offensive line, a fifth-year starting running back who averaged better than seven yards per carry, and a top-notch defense that returns 10 starters. That continuity could go a long way if USC’s offense struggles out of the gate against a defense that gave up fewer than 20 points per game last season. The Spartans opened the 2021 season with a 45-14 victory over Southern Utah on Saturday, with Starkel throwing four touchdown passes.

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Stanford, Sept. 11 at the Coliseum

Reasons to pick USC: Pressuring the quarterback shouldn’t be a problem for USC this season. Whoever Stanford settles on under center could be in for a long night in that regard. Senior Jack West is expected to win the job, but his experience boils down to two uninspiring starts. USC defensive coordinator Todd Orlando could have a field day with his blitz-heavy approach. If USC is ever going to get its running game going this season, this is the week. The Cardinal ranked 11th in rushing yards given up per game in the Pac-12 in 2020.

Reasons to pick Stanford: Stanford finished last season on a four-game winning streak as it returned to its power running roots. Running backs Austin Jones and Nathaniel Peat return and could make for one of the Pac-12’s best rushing pairs. Stanford coach David Shaw has given USC trouble before, and in its first game of the Pac-12 slate, it’s hard to know how USC will come out.

In the two years as USC athletic director, Mike Bohn has faced adversity, which includes deciding football coach Clay Helton’s fate.

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Washington State, Sept. 18 at Martin Stadium

Reasons to pick USC: It’s difficult to imagine a more poorly handled preseason than the one Nick Rolovich has had as Washington State’s coach. He made news when he said he would not get vaccinated for COVID-19, then would not clarify his position when a mandate was issued that all state workers be vaccinated. Slovis picked apart the Cougars last season, passing for five first-half touchdowns in what was his most explosive game of 2020. Expect him to go off again.

Reasons to pick Washington State: Weird things happen in the Palouse. And on the first road trip of the season. Maybe Washington State finds a quarterback who can keep up with Slovis, whether it be with a sophomore leap from returning starter Jayden de Laura or a new look with Tennessee transfer Jarrett Guarantano.

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Oregon State, Sept. 25 at the Coliseum

Reasons to pick USC: The Pac-12’s top back last season, Oregon State’s Jermar Jefferson, is off to the NFL, and there aren’t many other weapons to speak of on this offense. The favorite to start at quarterback, Tristan Gebbia, threw three touchdown passes to three interceptions last season.

Reasons to pick Oregon State: Oregon State has shown some steady improvement on defense, even if finishing 10th in the conference in scoring defense doesn’t exactly scream progress. The offensive line has a combined 82 career starts, so the Beavers will have that on USC. Oregon State coach Jonathan Smith could really use a marquee win after losing 22 of his first 31 games.

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Colorado, Oct. 2 at Folsom Field

USC quarterback Kedon Slovis throws a pass over Colorado defensive tackle Janaz Jordan on Oct. 25, 2019, in Boulder, Colo.
(David Zalubowski / Associated Press)

Reasons to pick USC: USC rolls into Boulder at the end of a murderer’s row month to start Colorado’s season. The Buffaloes, who have never beaten the Trojans, could enter this game 1-3 after matchups with Texas A&M, Minnesota and Arizona State. Colorado could be breaking in a freshman quarterback during that stretch, while Slovis has already led USC to a fourth-quarter comeback win in Boulder.

Reasons to pick Colorado: It took serious heroics by Slovis the last time these teams met, and last season, Colorado might have won the Pac-12 South if its matchup with USC hadn’t been declared a no-contest because of a COVID-19 outbreak at USC. Running back Jarek Broussard dominated the Pac-12 last season and could be the best back USC faces all season.

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Utah, Oct. 9 at the Coliseum

Reasons to pick USC: USC’s defense turned in its most dominant performance of 2020 in Salt Lake City, holding Utah’s offense to 10 points in all and none after halftime. That defense should be better in 2021, especially up front, where Drake Jackson, Tuli Tuipulotu and Nick Figueroa will make it hard on Baylor transfer quarterback Charlie Brewer. By this point in the season, USC might also have fully deployed freshman defensive end Korey Foreman, who already looks like one of the defense’s best athletes.

Reasons to pick Utah: Utah will be rested for this one after its bye and quite possibly 4-0 if all breaks right. Brewer has the experience, having started the last four seasons and thrown for nearly 10,000 yards with the Bears. If Brewer and Utah’s fleet of transfer backs, including Oklahoma transfer T.J. Pledger, can find their footing early, the Utes could give USC serious trouble.

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Notre Dame, Oct. 23 at Notre Dame Stadium

Reasons to pick USC: This is not the Notre Dame team that made it to last year’s College Football Playoff. The Irish must replace nine starters on offense and break in a new quarterback, as Wisconsin transfer Jack Coan takes over for Ian Book. USC, which arrives in South Bend after a bye, came close to beating Notre Dame the last time the teams met in 2019 in South Bend, falling 30-27.

Reasons to pick Notre Dame: Only one of these rivals has been to two of the last three College Football Playoffs, and it’s not USC. The Irish defense is still loaded with talent, including one of the nation’s best safeties, Kyle Hamilton. Running back Kyren Williams is on the verge of establishing himself as one of the nation’s top runners, and Coan, while not exactly dynamic, has experience. No team presents a steeper challenge to USC this season.

USC quarterback Kedon Slovis found his rhythm Saturday during the Trojans’ final scrimmage of fall practice. Here’s what we learned during training camp.

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Arizona, Oct. 30 at the Coliseum

Reasons to pick USC: Arizona couldn’t win a game last season. Its quarterback, Grant Gunnell, transferred to Memphis, which is never a good sign. USC is the superior team by nearly every measure, and a loss here, with a crucial four-game stretch upcoming, would be a nightmare scenario. This should be a layup.

Reasons to pick Arizona: Last season, USC needed a touchdown in the final seconds to beat a bad Arizona team. Kevin Sumlin was ousted and replaced by Jedd Fisch, who has earned positive reviews early on in his tenure. New defensive coordinator Don Brown is a big fan of blitzing and could pepper Slovis with pressure throughout. A letdown could be in the cards with the Notre Dame trip behind USC and Arizona State ahead.

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Arizona State, Nov. 6 at Sun Devil Stadium

Reasons to pick USC: If USC plans to win the Pac-12 South, it must presumably win this game. The Trojans have won five of the last six in this series and each of the last three in Tempe. That’s not to say it’s been easy, but Slovis has risen to the occasion in each of his two victories over Arizona State. A dark cloud — a reported NCAA investigation into potential recruiting violations — continues to loom over the Sun Devils program heading into the season and it could distract throughout.

Reasons to pick Arizona State: It took an insane set of circumstances, including an onside kick, for USC to come away with a victory last season, and these Sun Devils should be even better. Dual-threat quarterback Jayden Daniels will push Slovis for All-Pac-12 honors, while the running game is far more consistent than USC’s. The defense is loaded too. Arizona State needs this game as badly, if not more, than USC.

USC and UCLA look to build on the promise they showed during their coronavirus-shortened 2020 campaigns, but which team is the safer bet this season?

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California, Nov. 13 at California Memorial Stadium

Reasons to pick USC: USC has lost to Cal just once in their last 16 meetings and won by 24 in its last trip to Berkeley. Slovis had one of his best performances of his college career in that outing, completing 29 of 35 passes for 406 yards and four touchdowns against one of the Pac-12’s best pass defenses.

Reasons to pick California: This trip has the makings of a textbook letdown. A week after a tough visit to Tempe, USC is on the road again, with its rival awaiting the next week. Cal should be better in general, but especially on offense, with quarterback Chase Garbers and four of five linemen returning. The defense has ranked in the top four in points allowed each of the last three seasons under head coach Justin Wilcox. It could give Slovis trouble.

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UCLA, Nov. 20 at the Coliseum

UCS's Max Williams (4) and Tuli Tuipulotu tackle UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson on Dec. 12 at the Rose Bowl.
UCS’s Max Williams, left, and Tuli Tuipulotu tackle UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson on Dec. 12 at the Rose Bowl.
(Sean M. Haffey / Getty Images)

Reasons to pick USC: For all of USC’s inconsistencies over the last six years of Helton’s tenure, the Trojans have lost to their crosstown rivals just once. They’ve averaged at least 38 points per game against UCLA over that stretch. UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson has been a mixed bag — and a potential turnover magnet — over the course of his career, and USC’s stout defensive front will be primed and ready to come after him.

Reasons to pick UCLA: No Pac-12 team had more sacks last season than UCLA, and that pressure is paramount in slowing Slovis and USC’s passing offense. Nearly the entire defense from 2020 returns. Thompson-Robinson can be one of the Pac-12’s best quarterbacks, if he puts it all together, while Michigan transfer Zach Charbonnet could be one of the conference’s best backs, assuming he lives up to preseason hype. He rushed for 106 yards and three touchdowns in six carries in the Bruins’ 44-10 victory over Hawaii on Saturday.

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Brigham Young, Nov. 27 at the Coliseum

Reasons to pick USC: This is not the BYU team that beat USC in Provo in 2019. Quarterback Zach Wilson is now under center for the New York Jets, and whoever replaces him will be a notable step down. USC is the more talented team, and with potential postseason positioning — and perhaps coaching futures — at stake, it could be the more motivated of the two as well. Throw in the fact that it’s likely the last game for Slovis, London and others at the Coliseum.

Reasons to pick BYU: Could USC already have the Pac-12 South locked down by Thanksgiving weekend? Perhaps. Might the Trojans not want to show anything ahead of the Pac-12 title game? Maybe. The last time these teams met, albeit early on in his career, Slovis threw three interceptions and USC lost in overtime.

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