Commentary: For USC football, what should it mean to be ‘back’?

What does it mean for USC football to be “back”? The definition differs by program and in the eye of the beholder.

In Texas, for example, “back” has become a national punchline among plugged-in, meme-happy fans — to the point that the Longhorns almost lost to Iowa State in Austin on Saturday meant they’re just as “back” as they are they hit Oklahoma the week before.

As the Trojans continue their rise under Lincoln Riley, there will be an ongoing assessment of their stance. For many of the Trojan legions, those of the highest standard and natural aspiration, USC will not have returned to its proper stature until it competes annually for the national championship—and eventually (soon, mind you) wins one.

Saturday night’s loss to Utah, while forgivable, largely ends that pursuit for 2022. In a four-team playoff format, it would take the Trojans absolute anarchy to break the stretch (I’ll get back to those scenarios later). column) for a shot at the ultimate prize.

But let me paint an alternative picture of what the back looks like — if the word connotation were more associated with national relevance than with literal championship hardware won.

USC was back in Salt Lake City on Saturday night because when they lost in thrilling fashion in the last minute, the post-game scene followed the scheme of what happens when a college football powerhouse goes down the street:

The Utah fans stormed the field. Of course, being good Utahns, they were nice, but the joy and validation they felt in beating undefeated USC was palpable in the cool evening air. Defeating the Trojans was again significant in a program-defining way. Utah’s students will remember this forever. Wins over USC haven’t felt like this for opponents in at least five years.

Next, the Trojan devastation was real. Quarterback Caleb Williams, after playing brilliantly for four quarters, fell to the turf when his last pass of the night went incomplete. The sophomore, who hasn’t even worn a cardinal and gold in a year, cried real tears.

“There was a lot of struggle on this team,” Williams said. “We’ve put in a lot of work for so long and I’ll be honest, I hate to lose. It’s really, really… I just hate it. So I had a little emotion. After that, a tough loss to a good team, had a little emotion. But the only thing we can promise you is that we won’t go unbeaten, but that’s not the be-all and end-all for this team.”

That last line of Williams’ quote points to the third requirement for a great program that loses in devastating fashion: In post-game quotes, the coaches and players process their pain by saying that all of their goals are yet to come.

One Trojan after the other did it with faith in their eyes that Saturday evening.

For some, this USC interpretation of “back” may not be enough. But no one can deny that a significant path has been covered in the past seven weeks.

Riley’s remodeling remains well ahead of schedule.

Playoff Pursuit Primer

Tennessee tight end Princeton Fant celebrates with his teammates for a first-half touchdown against Alabama.

Tennessee tight end Princeton Fant (88) celebrates with teammates for a first-half touchdown against Alabama Saturday in Knoxville, Tennessee.

(Wade Payne/Associated Press)

We’re now halfway through the regular season and thankfully Saturday’s slate put a resounding exclamation point into an entertaining first half and heralded more fun.

Tennessee’s late-game heroics saw at least one of Alabama and Georgia suffer defeat. Given the top-heavy nature of the sport today, that’s always a welcome side — especially when it’s ushering in a potential playoff party crasher like the Volunteers.

The Vols may have saved the country from an ever-same playoff with Georgia, Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State winner-Michigan (of course, the Wolverines’ win over the Buckeyes is still a very novel concept, even though it happened last season ).

From the looks of it, the realistic pool of playoff contenders is still shrinking by the week. The Georgia-Tennessee winner now feels like a lock together with the Ohio State-Michigan winner. Clemson continues to survive an improved Atlantic Coast Conference schedule and must be considered a favorite to remain undefeated and make the field. That fourth place is still wide open, and UCLA, the only undefeated Pac-12, heads into Oregon as the West Coast’s top shooter Saturday to claw its way forward for the first time since 2016.

The Bruins have a lot of work ahead of them though, so it’s best not to overtake there.

Alabama stands out as always. If the Crimson Tide win and beat Georgia or Tennessee in the SEC title game, the Crimson Tide is in it and there’s a good chance Georgia or Tennessee will finish fourth with a loss. Even a losing Ohio State or Michigan would be a deserving playoff team.

USC (yes, the Trojans are technically still alive for the playoffs) and UCLA need Clemson to drop a game or have two of the SEC’s top three lose two games. These results are unlikely.

Here are the remaining games for each competitor that could put them at potential risk on the track:

Georgia: Tennessee, Mississippi, Kentucky, possible SEC championship game

State of Ohio: in Penn State, Michigan

Michigan: Illinois, in the state of Ohio

Tennessee: Kentucky, Georgia, South Carolina, possible SEC championship game

Klemson: Syracuse, at Notre Dame, possible ACC championship game

Alabama: Mississippi State, Louisiana State, Mississippi, possible SEC championship game

Ole Miss and Syracuse can add to the conversation by beating Alabama and Clemson, respectively. UCLA and Texas Christian just need to keep winning and fueling the chaos above them.

Pac-12 reset

Utah quarterback Cameron Rising throws a pass at USC.

Utah quarterback Cameron Rising throws a pass against USC in the second half of Saturday in Salt Lake City.

(Rick Bowmer/Associated Press)

The Pac-12 race feels like there are only four teams left. USC could have eliminated Utah on Saturday, but instead the Utes are very much alive for a trip to Las Vegas.

The UCLA-Oregon winner takes the driver’s seat. The loser joins USC and Utah (both teams have byes) in one loss. From there, the two biggest matchups remaining will be UCLA-USC and Oregon-Utah.

It’s way too early to get into the tiebreaker scenarios. The odds of the USC-UCLA winner making it to Vegas to play for the league crown feel pretty good.

Heisman disability

Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker warms up before a game against Alabama.

Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker warms up before a game against Alabama Saturday in Knoxville, Tennessee.

(Wade Payne/Associated Press)

Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker is now a legitimate Heisman Trophy contender after his five-touchdown performance against Alabama.

Ohio State quarterback CJ Stroud is the perceived favorite, but he has a very compelling group of players coming in for the coveted honors in Hooker, UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson and Michigan running back Blake Corum.

Alabama’s Bryce Young, last year’s winner, and USC’s Williams eased somewhat with Saturday’s losses. Commentary: For USC football, what should it mean to be ‘back’?

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