LOS ANGELES — Picturesque California skies have inspired lyrics for everything from the Beach Boys' "California Girls," to Kendrick Lamar's "The Recipe." On Saturday, such a scene provided the background both for USC football's spring game, and the forecast for the Trojans' 2017 season.
"Great way to finish the spring, right here in the Coliseum. Beautiful, California day," said Trojans head coach Clay Helton.
The end of spring practice moves USC one step closer to an autumn likely to be defined by high expectations. A positive outlook isn't necessarily anything new for the Trojans, even in leaner, recent years. They opened 2015 ranked No. 8; ‘14 ranked No. 15; and ‘12 ranked No. 1.
In the last half-decade, however, USC has finished ranked higher than its preseason designation just twice: 2013 and ‘16. Of those two, only last season produced a final top-10 ranking — and a No. 3 ranking at that.
Yes, of every program in college football, only national title game participants Clemson and Alabama were positioned ahead of USC by season's end. The reversal of fortunes from late September — when the Trojans sat at 1-3 and Helton's tenure seemed destined for an abortive end — to January's climax provided the 2016 season's greatest comeback. USC ended its 2016 campaign winning nine consecutive games, among them matchups with Pac-12 Championship Game participants Colorado and Washington.
However, the crown jewel of the Trojans' remarkable turnaround from 1-3 to 10-3 was the capper: a 52-49, come-from-behind victory over Penn State in the Rose Bowl. The scene in Pasadena was much different than the spring game backdrop four months later, with rain clouds threatening and fog settling around the San Gabriel Mountains.
But it was in the cold and gray that USC football shined the brightest it has in several years.
Wide receiver Deontay Burnett — who caught the game-tying touchdown in last January's epic — described the win as "surreal," at the time, adding: "Words can't describe it."
Indeed, USC's Rose Bowl rally earned lofty standing in the illustrious history of the Granddaddy of 'Em All. The instant classic did not mark a culmination for USC football in the Helton era, as athletic director Lynn Swann made as clear as a spring sky in southern California.
In the moments following the Rose Bowl victory, Swann said an appearance in the College Football Playoff championship would be the ultimate benchmark for the state of the program. A victory in Pasadena is a milestone, not a destination. A host of returning talent from last season's squad gives reason to anticipate the bar has been raised. The Trojans won't enter the season ranked No. 20 as they did a season ago; a spot in the magic top four likely awaits.
USC has sought to recapture greatness for almost a decade now, dating to 2008 when it won its last conference championship. If the Rose Bowl signified a major step toward recapturing greatness, the 2017 season is about embracing it. That starts from the top, with players like quarterback Sam Darnold, whose MVP performance in the Rose Bowl sets the tone for an impending Heisman Trophy campaign.
It spreads on down to new players taking over key roles for departed stars. Such is the lot cornerback Jack Jones faces, taking on a vital role in the USC defense once occupied by Thorpe Award winner Adoree' Jackson.
Jones set a lofty individual goal following the spring game, saying he wants to lead the nation in interceptions.
"I'm the greatest to ever touch the field. I believe that in my heart," he said. "Nobody else can believe it, nobody else gotta believe it, but I believe it, and that's all that matters to me."
Performing starts with believing, and that holds true individually, as Jones laid out. It's also the case for building a successful team dynamic.
Last offseason, the newly minted full-time head coach Helton preached a simple philosophy: All about ball. The motto was meant to reflect focus on the game over outside distractions. A flood of praise and raised expectations beget another philosophy for 2017.
"Ball is the team, team is the ball," running back Dominic Davis said while autographing his Nike gloves for a young fan after the spring game. "You should treat the ball as if it's another life. Basically, it's essential to our success."
As Davis handed the glove over the Coliseum to his youthful admirer, the boy's face shined like a California sky. The 2017 Trojans are going to have plenty more opportunities to brighten days for USC faithful, no matter if it's under another perfect blue sky, or in cold haze like at January's Rose Bowl.
— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.