A sub-.500 start. Inconsistencies and questions on offense. A dud of a performance in the state of Texas. If the first few weeks of the 2018 season feel familiar for those following USC football, it's because 2016 opened in much the same fashion.
The Trojans concluded that season winning nine straight games, the last of which was an epic Rose Bowl defeat of Penn State. Winning the Granddaddy of 'Em All for the first time since the 2008 season carried over last year into USC claiming its first conference championship in almost a decade. Hitting such major milestones in his first two full seasons as head coach might earn Clay Helton breathing room in a 1-2 start to his third, but comments USC athletic director Lynn Swann made in the moments following the 2017 Rose Bowl Game set a clear expectation for the program.
"We're not there yet [among college football's elite]," Swann said in January 2017. "It's a building process."
The project of rebuilding USC to the national championship level it maintained in the 1970s when Swann played wide receiver for the Trojans, and last decade when the program claimed two titles, has reached something of an impasse. It's not so much that USC lost two games that invokes a deluge of scrutiny, but rather the manner in which the Trojans lost that casts a pall over the outlook for the remainder of the season.
Last week's 37-14 blowout loss at Texas marked the second consecutive game in which the USC offense sputtered badly. The Trojans scored just three points Sept. 8 against Pac-12 rival Stanford, then after managing two touchdowns in the first quarter at Texas, went scoreless the rest of the way. A negative-five-yard rushing performance vs. Texas marks the current nadir for an offense struggling badly to find the balance that Helton champions as the hallmark of the program.
The coach said, in reference to the inconsistent offense, that he takes "ownership in that alone."
After losses of 35 and 17 points to Notre Dame and Ohio State last season, each of USC's last four defeats have been by at least 14 points.
In 2016, losses to Stanford and Wisconsin to close out the prior campaign set the scene for blowout losses to Alabama and Stanford, in which USC scored one point fewer (16) than its output in the two defeats so far this year.
Up next is undefeated Washington State, the last team to which USC lost by single digits. The Cougars' 30-27 victory in Pullman a season ago ostensibly kept the Trojans out of the College Football Playoff. The circumstances of their visit to Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum this year, meanwhile, emulate 2016 in a few key ways: Friday night game. Offense struggling coming in. Helton under media scrutiny.
That matchup two years ago was against Utah, and USC lost, 31-27. But in dropping to 1-3, the Trojans saw the first glimmer for the turnaround that was about to ensue: It marked the first start of quarterback Sam Darnold.
Remedying the struggles of the 2018 USC offense isn't quite the same as replicating the switch from Week 1 starter Max Browne to Darnold. Though he could still be playing high school football, true freshman quarterback JT Daniels adjusted about as well as could be expected without support from the run game against Texas, completing 30 of his 48 pass attempts for 322 yards.
If there's a solution from 2016 to apply to '18, it's in those who experienced the turnaround of two years ago now serving as the leaders this season.
"These guys [who] are the seniors, if you remember, they've been in some hard times," Helton said. "They know how to get out of it. And that's what I told the younger kids [on Sunday]. Look to a Toa Lobendahn, look to a Chuma Edoga and Chris Brown. Look to a Cam Smith, a Marvell Tell, a Biggie [Iman] Marshall."
Many of USC's current upperclassmen helped rewrite the narrative of an era, transforming the eulogy of an era into the first chapter of a possible return to greatness. They'll have to do it again.