Nobody knows who will win the 2020 Pac-12 Football Championship Game, but we know it will not be the USC Trojans.
The University of Southern California administrators made sure of that by retaining head football coach Clay Helton. It’s not that Helton is some awful coach, as he has led No. 23 USC to an 8-4 record this season, but it is clear that he is not who the program needs to get back to competing for national championships.
While Trojan fans have lost their collective minds in anger over this decision, fans of Oregon and UW (and Utah for that matter) should be thrilled with Helton’s retention. With him leading the charge at USC, Oregon and Washington have the chance to be on top of the Pac-12 for the near future.
When USC football is at full strength, it is unquestionably the top program in the conference. The Trojans have everything it takes to frequently compete for national championships and when the coaching and talent meld perfectly together USC is akin to a fully operational Death Star of the Pac-12.
But the USC Death Star has been under construction ever since Sam Darnold left to the NFL, and at least one more year of Helton gives the two Northwest big dogs more time to get stronger because it is only a matter of time before USC nails the coaching hire and once again runs roughshod over the conference.
Both schools have done their part on the field while USC has been down in the Post-Darnold era. Each school has had a 10-win season in that time, Oregon this season and Washington last year when the Huskies went 10-4 and won the Pac-12.
And while no UW or Oregon fan will ever thumb their nose at a 10-win season, both fanbases want more. Washington won a national title in 1991 and reemerged into contention with a College Football Playoff birth in 2016 while Oregon has lost in the championship game this decade, so it is not crazy for each fanbase to have somewhat realistic aspirations of winning it all in this era of college football.
But it can only happen if the stars align.
Luckily for them, a dominant USC football program does not exist at the moment, so that is just one less hurdle to jump through.
It is also going to take an excellent coach, an NFL-level quarterback and years of top-10 recruiting classes for each program to get to the point where they can go toe-to-toe against Clemson, Alabama and Ohio State.
Both programs have had the first two elements, and while they haven’t been able to stack together top-10 classes, both programs are gaining steam on the recruiting trail.
According to the 247 Sports recruiting rankings, Oregon’s 2018 class was No. 13 and jumped to No. 7 in 2019 and Washington went from No. 16 in 2018 to No. 15 in 2019.
USC, on the other hand, has plummetted. The Trojans had the fourth-best class in 2018 but dropped to twentieth in 2019, and currently sit at No. 71 (!) overall for 2020.
And yes, recruiting rankings are an inexact science, but all the winning programs are at the top of the rankings.
As we enter a new decade, Oregon and Washington are sniffing elite territory in recruiting and have achieved tangible success on the football field. USC now ranks behind Troy (the university, not your friend named Troy) in recruiting and is nowhere near the dominance it once displayed, and that trend will continue as long as Clay Helton is the head coach.