USC, Stanford write final chapter to strange, unpredictable Pac-12 journey

Helton: I've loved being a part of these kids' lives

USC interim coach Clay Helton explains explain how he feels to overcome adversity and reach the Pac-12 championship, how his team needs to slow down Stanford RB Christian McCaffrey and if he feels he deserves the USC coaching position.

At first glance, USC squaring off with Stanford for the Pac-12 championship on Saturday feels pretty darn normal. The Trojans were picked to win the South Division and the conference in the preseason, and the Cardinal have won two of the past three conference titles.

That "feels pretty darn normal" description, however, is why you need to read the whole novel and not just the ending. The journey matters, and it's been plenty weird in the conference this fall.

You can start with these two teams having already played a surprising game. On Sept. 19, they squared off with USC ranked sixth and Stanford out of the national polls after opening with a seeming thanks-for-playing-see-you-next-year 16-6 loss at Northwestern, its offense looking thoroughly discombobulated. ESPN Stats & Information gave USC an 82 percent chance of winning.

So, of course, the Cardinal rolled over the Trojans 41-31, piling up 474 yards of offense, leading ESPN Stats & Information to then volunteer that the Pac-12 was now the most likely Power 5 conference to have a champion with two or more losses (84 percent likely!), which, of course, has proven true, no matter what happens Saturday at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara.

Things were just getting started, though. Guy by the name of Steve Sarkisian was USC's coach for the first matchup with Stanford. Clay Helton, Sarkisian's offensive coordinator, now leads the Trojans, and his win over UCLA over the weekend -- ending a three-game losing streak in the rivalry -- secured the program's first South championship and inspired earnest chatter that he might drop the "interim" from his title if his team prevails against the Cardinal and advances to its first Rose Bowl since the 2008 season.

So Stanford: Horrible loss in opener, dramatic turnaround into Pac-12's top national contender launched with upset win over USC, slim playoff hopes still lingering after its dramatic win over No. 6 Notre Dame on Saturday.

And USC: High preseason expectations dashed, coach fired in midseason for second time in three seasons, impressive win over rival UCLA, potential to play in Rose Bowl and earn Helton the full-time job.

Yeah, there's been some drama between August and now, and it's ongoing, with both teams functioning amid intense media and fan speculation. Both Helton and Stanford coach David Shaw are aware of the media interest in their teams -- Who's the next Trojans coach? Can the Cardinal get into the College Football Playoff through the back door? -- but not unexpectedly neither wants to further roil things by participating in the discourse.

"We have the opportunity to be Pac-12 champions. That is pretty good stuff," Helton said when asked about playing himself into the full-time job. "I let the guys whose job it is to speculate, speculate.”

Said Shaw, "We don't worry about what people say about us nationally."

Well, not all the time. Understandably, Shaw did take a moment to tout his team after slipping the Fighting Irish.

"We're 10-2 with a really tough schedule. No 1-AA teams on there," he said, not naming any names, of course. "We're 8-1 in the deepest conference in America. We have nothing to prove to anybody. We're in the Pac-12 championship game and we got to go play a great game against a team that's going to be fired up to play us. And that's where our head is. And once again, what the national chatter is, that's not up to me. That ain't up to us."

That national chatter goes back and forth, respecting Stanford and its rugged schedule, but also asking whether it should leap over a one-loss team because of that schedule. As for the Pac-12, it, too, is up for debate. With 10 bowl-eligible teams, it's unquestionably deep. With nine teams with at least four losses, it's also lacking the bevy of highly ranked teams that was expected in the preseason.

There's plenty to like about this Pac-12 title game, though. Stanford is USC's oldest rival, their first game taking place in 1905. Five of the last six meetings have been decided by eight points or fewer. Fifth-year senior quarterbacks Cody Kessler and Kevin Hogan have combined for 83 starts. Both played well over the weekend, accounting for seven touchdowns between them. They also know that the winner on Saturday gold-plates his legacy with a Rose Bowl berth in his final college game.

“One thing Coach Helton has talked about is, how do you want to leave your legacy?" an emotional Kessler told reporters after the UCLA game. "I have been through everything you can think of since my sophomore year. Big picture, it would be amazing."

Ah, the big picture. Injuries, middling performances in nonconference games and cannibalism during the conference schedule served to reduce the Pac-12's standing in the big picture among some folks.

Within the swirling debate and squabbling and speculation about the big pictures for USC and Stanford, the game itself offers clarity. Only one team will be the 2015 Pac-12 champions, and that will be decided on the field.

After that happens, we'll get some answers on the other issues.