Christine Wang

USC's Reputation Hinges on Non-Conference Matchups

Created on Aug. 04, 2014 8:54 PM EST

For USC, purgatory is over. Hopefully.

The upcoming season marks the start of what players and fans hope will be a new era for USC football, one with a new coach and without NCAA sanctions. It’s fair to say that everyone is looking ahead.

USC athletic director Pat Haden said in a LA Times interview that the football turmoil has died down and that he has a “real good relationship” with the NCAA. Chris Dufresne, columnist for the Los Angeles Times, wrote before sanctions had even been lifted that “Probation would take its toll but the Trojans could be a national power again by 2015.” Coach Steve Sarkisian said recently, “There’s tremendous leadership on this team, and there’s a lot of talent. I think we have a chance to do something pretty special this year.”

The Trojans are in the business of restoring their reputation. It wasn’t long ago when it was almost a given they would be at the top of the rankings. The Trojans won the conference title for seven straight seasons beginning in 2002. Oregon didn’t truly start making a case against their dominance until 2009, and even during this current Duck dynasty, USC managed to beat Oregon as recently as 2011. So while USC has fallen from grace, it was not fatal and is most definitely recoverable.

To regain their powerhouse reputation, they must win football games. But they also must consider who they schedule. One reason people believe the SEC is the best conference in the country is because their teams have the toughest schedules. Their conference games are usually laden with heavy hitters. While the PAC-12 generally has fewer top 10 teams, there is still a way to have a tough schedule. The answer: Non-conference games.

The Trojans announced last week they would be opening the 2016 season against Alabama in the Cowboys Classic. This news came at perhaps the perfect time, not only because it adds fuel to the redemption-fire, but because the strength of their non-conference schedule has come under scrutiny. Of the last four season openers, three have been against Hawaii, a team that finished 1-11 last season. Over the last four seasons only one of their 14 non-conference games came against a ranked opponent (Notre Dame, No. 1 at the time).

This weak schedule has caused people like Forbes writer John Tammy to label it “Haden’s schedule vandalism” and “anti-USC football.”

Tammy remembers a time when USC was “very public with its eager willingness to play anyone, anywhere.” He mentions past games against Oklahoma, LSU, Texas, Arkansas, Auburn, Ohio State, and Alabama. Yes, USC vs. Alabama has a history. USC is 2-5 against Alabama, losing both their first game in 1938 and the most recent one in 1985. But they whipped the Crimson Tide 42-21 in 1970.

Whether the 2016 game against Alabama is just a blip on the non-conference scheduling radar or is a harbinger of future scheduling is unclear. But it should provide a test of USC’s stability, talent, and strength. It will give the Trojans the chance to show the nation that they are back, they should not be taken lightly, and they are the real deal both in and out of the conference.

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