September swoon: USC’s loss at Utah loss caps crushing month

1:20 AM ET

The worst-case scenario for USC in 2016 would have been an 0-4 start. Yet somehow, this feels worse.

In the wake of a last-minute 31-27 loss to No. 24 Utah on Friday night in Salt Lake City, the Trojans sit at 1-3 … 0-2 in Pac-12 conference play … with a head coach grasping at straws … a locker room that appears fractured and a fan base screaming for change. And it’s not even October.

When Clay Helton was officially elevated to head coach after last year’s victory over UCLA, he talked about playing the best to be the best. That’s fine. But since taking over, his team has been blown out by Stanford (twice), obliterated by Alabama, dropped the ball against Wisconsin (in last year’s Holiday Bowl) and now fumbled one away in Salt Lake City. It has played the best. And the gap between the best and USC is ample.

It’s not just that the Trojans have lost those games. Most coaches taking over this team under less-than-optimal circumstances would probably have a comparable record. And losing three games where you’re an underdog doesn’t mean the sky is falling.

But it’s the way they have been losing that is most troubling. They weren’t even competitive against Stanford and Alabama. USC was out-schemed and outmuscled. Against Utah, the Trojans couldn’t get out of their own way with penalties and fumbles. All of this is under the veil of arrests, off-the-field issues and reports of dissension in the ranks. By the way, make it five straight losses for USC against ranked opponents.

USC has been prone to knee-jerk reactions of late. Whether it was the tarmac firing of Lane Kiffin, the mishandling of the Ed Orgeron situation or the ascension of Helton without a true, due-diligence coaching search, recent history has shown there are no quick fixes for this program.

The Trojans return home next week for a date with Arizona State. And if you know your history, you’ll know the Sun Devils played a key role in the aforementioned tarmac firing. Billed as having the toughest schedule in America, USC has no easy outs the rest of the way.

Though the Trojans were last year’s Pac-12 South champ with a 6-3 mark in league play, they would need to be nearly perfect the rest of the way to stay in the hunt for a spot in the conference title game. USC’s final three Pac-12 games alone include a home date with Oregon, then trips to Washington and UCLA. Then comes the regular-season finale against Notre Dame.

That doesn’t account for much-improved Colorado or the ASU and Cal teams that can score seemingly at will. The current makeup of this team — including schemes, coaches, player attitudes, etc. — gives USC almost no chance of winning the Pac-12, let alone the division, unless something changes. Because right now, the house is in ruins.

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