The USC Trojans head into the 2019 college football season in a similar spot. Three years ago, for this same exercise, I wrote about the Trojans hanging around without really competing for a national title but still playing highly challenging schedules. And that's how things appear to be shaping up for the 2019 Men of Troy, who are faced with the third-toughest schedule in the nation.
USC's lack of significant progress while still achieving major goals in three years under Clay Helton is unsurprising and pretty emblematic of the Trojans' larger issues. Maybe success in Los Angeles feels fleeting because the coaching hires don't last terribly long.
Should Helton find a way to come out of 2019 with an impressive season, last year becomes an outlier. But it doesn't feel like last year is going to be an outlier because of the task facing the Trojans and the limited leash Helton will have guiding the Trojans through that narrative.
The good news for Helton and, ultimately, for USC fans, is that it shouldn't take too long to get a sense of how the 2019 season will go. With the way the schedule is structured, the Trojans and Helton face the make-or-break portion fairly early on. Three of their first six opponents won 10 or more games last year. So if Helton is still in charge by mid-October that should mean USC is hanging around.
12. Oct. 25 at Colorado
It came down to Arizona and Colorado for "easiest" game on USC's schedule with the Buffaloes winning due to the simple fact they finished behind the Wildcats in the Pac-12 South standings last season. This game shouldn't be considered a "gimme," however. New CU head coach Mel Tucker comes over from Georgia, where he was the defensive coordinator during the Kirby Smart era and that era is still speaking for itself. We'll see what Tucker accomplishes in his first stint as a head coach outside of a five-game stretch as the interim for the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2011.
11. Oct. 19 vs. Arizona
The Wildcats enter the year coming off a 5-7 season in which they had a robust number of their losses (four) decided by five or fewer points, including their game against the Trojans. Win half of those games and Kevin Sumlin's first season in Tucson looks better and probably produces a little more momentum in recruiting. Instead, Arizona State's turnaround under Herm Edwards got most of the attention, which makes the 'Cats a potentially more dangerous opponent because of the respect (lack of in this case) factor.
10. Sept. 14 at BYU
Kalani Sitake enters his third year with the Cougars and gave his guys a taste of a signature victory last year when the Cougars took down No. 6 Wisconsin at Camp Randall. BYU gets the Trojans at home in between conference clashes with Stanford and Utah. This matchup has all the potential of being a trap game even though it's the so early in the season. Regardless of where it falls, this is a game that USC should win handily and won't help Clay Helton's job security should the Trojans fall in Provo.
9. Nov. 23 vs. UCLA
The Bruins aren't exactly a program on the rise, depending on your perspective. In fact, some sources paint this as a program showing signs of cracking and breaking under head coach Chip Kelly. Either way, UCLA is a program that is in the middle of its own rebuild, which puts the pressure on USC to find a way to win this one. If Clay Helton is still around by this game can he survive a second straight loss to Kelly?
8. Nov 9 at Arizona State
Head coach Herm Edwards began his tenure at Arizona State amid chuckles and laughs at the perceived "out-of-touch" hire, but it's Edwards who had the last laugh as the Sun Devils finished with a winning record and picked up marquee victories over Utah, USC, Arizona, and Michigan State. Edwards has an uncanny ability to relate to his players and get the most out of them. If he's able to build off last year, this could be one of the teams to watch in Pac-12 play.
7. Nov. 16 at Cal
Head coach Justin Wilcox ended Cal's 15-year drought against the Trojans with a signature victory in the Coliseum. While the Bears feature a top-flight defense their offense leaves much to be desired. Should the Bears figure things out on that side of the ball under second-year OC Beau Baldwin, Cal could emerge as a legitimate threat in the Pac-12. Either way, the Bears would love nothing more than to start a winning streak against a USC team that wants to regain control in this series.
6. Aug 31 vs. Fresno State
Head coach Jeff Tedford has rejuvenated the Bulldogs program, turning them into a consistent contender in the Mountain West after bottoming out at the end of the Tim DeRuyter era. Fresno State's 12-win 2018 campaign included victories over UCLA and Arizona State. USC dominated the Bulldogs in their previous two meetings, winning by a combined 64 points in 2013 and '14 but Fresno State will look to pull off the upset in the season opener.
5. Sept. 7 vs. Stanford
The Cardinal have been one of the most consistent teams in the Pac-12 since the Jim Harbaugh era. Now well into the David Shaw era, Stanford has built a reputation for being one of the tougher foes in the league. Known for their physical style of play, the Cardinal are one of the teams associated with the body-blow theory. So for USC, this means that win or lose, their clash with Stanford could carry over into the following week on the road against BYU, if not beyond. This could be the game that defines the Trojans' 2019 season.
4. Sept. 20 vs. Utah
The Utes have been a thorn in the side of the Trojans since they joined the Pac-12 in 2011. Head coach Kyle Whittingham brings with him an aggressive and physical defense that doesn't give an inch. The Utes mollywhopped the Trojans 41-28 last year and this game follows the road date with BYU and precedes a trip to Seattle to face defending conference champ Washington. The good news for this one is that USC is 4-0 vs. Utah at home in Pac-12 play, compared to 1-3 on the road.
3. Nov. 2 vs. Oregon
It's been a few years since the Ducks and Trojans have faced each other (2016). Oregon head coach Mario Cristobal has quietly put together one of the top recruiting classes in the nation and the Ducks will be looking to challenge Washington for supremacy in the Pac-12. Quarterback Justin Herbert returned to school for that reason and many pundits have pegged Oregon as the conference favorite. USC would love to play the role of spoiler in that respect.
2. Sept. 28 at Washington
The Huskies have consistently been one of the best programs in the Pac-12 since Chris Petersen took over. That said, they've also been one of the few top programs that the Trojans have been able to beat with any consistency. A win over the Huskies in late September would give USC a ton of confidence headed into their bye week with Notre Dame looming. These are the types of games that keep a coach gainfully employed if he can find a way to muster a win.
1. Oct. 12 at Notre Dame
The Irish are coming off an undefeated regular season and an appearance in the College Football Playoff. USC played Notre Dame tough last season and this year's meeting will take place even earlier. A win over the Irish and Helton can buy a lot of goodwill toward finishing out the season and remaining in charge of the Men of Troy.
— Written by Josh Webb, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @FightOnTwist.