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What Pressure? USC Prepares for Hyped 2017 Season

Clay Helton

Clay Helton

Hollywood loves producing blockbuster sequels, and all the elements needed for one such repeat exist nearby with USC football.

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A Southern California-raised quarterback with Heisman Trophy buzz? A bevy of returning talent from a 10-win team? Preseason expectations set at a standard USC hasn't reached since 2008?

The subplots shaping the Trojans' 2017 season look awfully familiar to 2012, in some ways the most tumultuous of USC's roller-coaster last decade. This year's team has differences – it's unlikely to open No. 1 in the initial Associated Press poll, thanks to the program that supplanted USC as college football's preeminent power, Alabama – but otherwise, the background's similar.

Sam Darnold is generating the most Heisman talk of any USC player since Matt Barkley ahead of that ill-fated 2012 campaign, when a top-ranked team at the beginning of the season finished 7-6. A late-season road win over the eventual Pac-12 champion –Oregon in 2011 and Washington last November – set the groundwork for offseason chatter.

Here we go; another Hollywood retread. Perhaps not with a new director overseeing this project.

"With [head] coach [Clay] Helton, he's been preaching since he walked in to fight every day, to get better every day, and that's where we've lived," linebacker Cameron Smith said. "That's what builds us as a team."

Helton provides a unique perspective leading USC into this season of lofty expectations – in part because he's intimately familiar with such expectations going awry.

Helton was an assistant under Lane Kiffin in the 2012 season. Amid all the unrest over the last seven years, Helton's been a constant. He filled in as an interim when Ed Orgeron refused to coach the 2013 Las Vegas Bowl after Steve Sarkisian was named Kiffin's full-time replacement.

The Helton-coached Trojans smashed nationally ranked Fresno State, 45-20.

He stepped in again under much more difficult circumstances less than two years later, replacing Sarkisian following a midseason firing the last time the Trojans opened a season ranked in the top 10.

After a 3-2 start, USC made its first Pac-12 Championship Game appearance and Helton successfully shed the interim label.

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Then, in his first full season as head coach, Helton and his staff guided a 1-3 team on a nine-game winning streak that closed 2016, capped with a two-touchdown rally in the fourth quarter of January's Rose Bowl.

"Part of being a head coach is having the trust and relationship with your players that when you are in adverse times, that they trust the process," Helton said. "They trust when you tell them they're getting better each and every week; that they trust you're saying the right things to them and being brutally honest with them.

Trusting in Helton and his staff's process last season resulted in a huge turnaround. The Rose Bowl win over Penn State marked the program's first victory in the Granddaddy of 'Em All since 2008 – USC's last conference championship season – and the nine-game winning streak responsible for much of the offseason hype is the longest in the nation.

The next challenge is continuing to hear those words amid the growing din, which will only get louder in the season's first month – win or lose.

The Trojans face Pac-12 rival Stanford in Week 2, Texas the following Saturday for the first matchup since the 2006 Rose Bowl Game, and close out September with a Friday night road trip to face a dangerous Washington State squad. Survive that unscathed, and the buzz surrounding USC football gains considerable volume. Lose a few, and that here-we-go-again feeling of a bad sequel sets in.

Darnold knows this reality. He called the offseason chatter "annoying," and conceded completely tuning out the chatter isn't a realistic option.

He's instead focused on embracing them.

"You're definitely going to feel those nerves. It's how you control them," Darnold said. "You might feel really nervous on the inside, but as a quarterback I really do feel obligated to stay poised. If I'm going to show emotion, it's going to be positive.

"We have a bigger target on our back, for sure," he added, in regard to the offseason hype. "But that makes it a little bit more fun."

And fun has indeed been the theme for this offseason.

"This offseason is the best ever," said Smith, who has been around for two offseasons previously in his USC tenure. "As a team, the culture's by far so different than it's ever been. Relationships start to create in the locker room, the camaraderie was like a high school football team."

Smith analogizing the atmosphere to a high school team fits the tagline Helton's had plastered all over USC since assuming the reins: It's All About Ball.

With rare exceptions, prep football has a carefree spirit that can be difficult to replicate amid the high stakes atmosphere of the college game. For USC to adopt such an attitude might be the plot point that keeps this sequel from being just a retread.

— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Kensing is publisher of Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.