Each week we take a deeper dive into Cal's opponent by asking five questions of a beat writer who covers that program.
Today, we thank Ryan Kartje of the Los Angeles Times for sharing his insights on the USC Trojans.
1. On the heels of last year’s 5-7 season, what has been the level of heat on coach Clay Helton this fall and how much hotter did things get after the Trojans’ 56-24 home loss to Oregon?
It's fair to say the heat index on Clay Helton has reached scorching levels. USC fans have been profoundly unhappy for a while, and I'm not sure even a win over Oregon would've soothed those concerns. But by losing to the Ducks and falling out of the Pac-12 South lead, it seems Helton's fate was finally sealed. There's still a chance that Utah loses down the stretch, and USC wins out, which would send Helton and Co. to the Pac-12 title game. But even then, it would probably require a win over Oregon and a Rose Bowl appearance to make it a conversation. If you watched their first meeting, you probably have some trepidation about his chances there.
2. New athletic director Mike Bohn has been reserved in his comments so far about Helton, but what do you think will happen when the season is over? Is there any way for Helton to retain his job? And what names do you expect to seriously emerge as his potential replacement?
Mike Bohn has said all the right things, and I do believe he'll wait until the end of the season to make a decision. But the handwriting has been on the wall for quite a while now. If USC somehow makes it to the Rose Bowl, then it would make for a very interesting discussion on what to do with Helton. How do you fire a coach that just made the Rose Bowl? If Bohn opts to bid adieu to Helton, Urban Meyer immediately becomes the most-talked about candidate, and you can understand why USC fans are obsessing over the idea. He's won three national titles, after all. But the university's new leadership has paid a lot of lip service to "integrity" in recent weeks, and there are inevitable questions in that regard about Meyer. If not him, I'm sure USC will at least give James Franklin a call and force Penn State to extend him. It's hard to know just yet. Boosters and fans have focused all of their efforts on Meyer so far.
3. How much have injuries altered the potential course of this season?
USC has faced a ton of injuries this season -- that much is undeniable. It's hard to know where they'd be with a better bill of health. Would JT Daniels be better than Kedon Slovis at quarterback? I doubt it. Will USC reap the benefit of Kenan Christon's experience as a freshman? Possibly. Where it has affected them most is on defense and special teams. At various points this season, they've been without both starting defensive ends, one defensive tackle, two linebackers, three cornerbacks, and one standout safety. That's tough to overcome. But I don't think you can look at this season and say injuries are solely to blame.
4. Give us an evaluation of freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis, what his strengths are and how he has evolved during the season.
Slovis has really surprised everyone around the program with how quickly he stepped into being a poised, confident starting quarterback. His physical skillset was obvious right away. He has the arm talent to be an NFL passer, and he has the instincts to make plays. But where he's evolved most is the mental side of the game. He's still had a few games where his mistakes get the best of him and he starts to spiral (Oregon, BYU), but he's also been on point in the fourth quarter of recent games, when USC needs him most. The fact that he's only a true freshman -- and one that was only a three-star -- is still a bit baffling. He has to be considered the favorite to start next year, even when Daniels returns.
5. Has USC’s defense fallen short of expectations this season? If so, what have been the issues?
I mentioned injuries before, and those have played a part. But USC's defense has been generally inconsistent, even when it wasn't decimated by injury. There's a ton of talent on this unit, but it just hasn't put it all together that often this season. USC has really struggled the defend the perimeter, where scrambling quarterbacks and speedy backs have done a ton of damage. The Trojans did finally bottle up Arizona State's Eno Benjamin last Saturday, but the Sun Devils have a questionable offensive line. USC has no trouble getting pressure on the quarterback, but finishing has a been problem.