USC Trojans

BATON ROUGE, LA - OCTOBER 17:  College Football Playoff National Championship Trophy presented by Dr Pepper is seen at Tiger Stadium on October 17, 2015 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.  (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
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Power Five conference races beginning to come into focus

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As we get set to embark on Week 8 of the 2016 college football season, we’re officially beyond the halfway point and closer to championship weekend than we are to opening weekend. And, with that, the Power Five conference races are starting to come into focus — but are far from finished.

This weekend, though, there are a handful of key matchups that could offer further clarity across the major conferences, although most, if not all, are still weeks away from being decided.

That said, here’s a look at where the Power Five conferences and, in four of the five cases, how their respective divisions stand before the eighth weekend of the regular season kicks off.

At 4-0, Clemson currently controls its own destiny in the division courtesy of the Oct. 1 win over 3-1 Louisville.  The U of L will be desperately rooting for Florida State, at 2-2 with one of those league losses coming at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium in the middle of last month, to knock off Clemson next Saturday as well as the Tigers tripping up in one of their other three remaining conference games (Syracuse, Pitt, at Wake Forest) while also holding serve through the remainder of their slate.  FSU, with league losses to the U of L and North Carolina, will need a minor miracle to get back to the conference championship game.

Technically, 2-2 Wake Forest remains in contention, and still has games against Clemson and Louisville.  Then again, they’re Wake.

In all likelihood, the Coastal will come down to a three-team race: 3-1 North Carolina, 3-1 Virginia Tech and 2-1 Pittsburgh.  Tech has already beaten UNC, and will face Pitt next weekend.  The Tar Heels, meanwhile, own a win over the Panthers to go along with the loss to the Hokies.  Simply put, if Tech wins out (at Pitt, at Duke, Georgia Tech, Virginia), they will claim the division and represent the Coastal against their Atlantic counterparts.

As you know, though, this division very rarely plays to the form it presents halfway through the conference season.

With all due respect to 2-1 Penn State, 3-0 Michigan and 3-0 Ohio State are on a collision course for an epic edition of the greatest rivalry in all of college football that will likely not only impact the division and the conference race but the College Football Playoff as well.  PSU could make me eat my words almost immediately as they play host to OSU in the always-dangerous white-out game later tonight; that said, if the Buckeyes can get past the Nittany Lions, they’ll have to traverse home games against Northwestern and Nebraska as well as road trips to Maryland and an abruptly vulnerable Michigan State before hosting UM.  The Wolverines get to host Illinois, Maryland and Indiana along with visits to rival Michigan State and Iowa before The Game.

Like the ACC Coastal, this division’s winner will very (?) likely come from a trio of teams: 3-0 Nebraska, 3-1 Iowa, 2-1 Northwestern.  The Cornhuskers already have a win over the Wildcats, while the Wildcats beat the Hawkeyes on the road the first weekend of this month.  Nebraska will close out the season against Iowa, while the latter has one sizable advantage over the other two as they avoid Ohio State completely while the others will face the Buckeyes in Weeks 9 (Wildcats) and 10 (Cornhuskers).  Both of those games, incidentally, are in Columbus.

There’s a potential wrench that could be tossed into the race, it should be noted, as 1-2 Wisconsin still has games remaining against all three of the West teams mentioned above.  Sweep those and get a little additional help, and the Badgers could be right back in the discussion by the end of the regular season.

BIG 12
Next season, this conference’s champion will be decided by a league title game.  This season, the standard round-robin format will determine the champion, and, because of that and the way the schedule is constructed, this league is as convoluted as any in the sport.

Three members are undefeated at the moment in Baylor and Oklahoma at 3-0, West Virginia at 2-0.  Two others are 2-1 — Oklahoma State and TCU.  How convoluted is the current state of the Big 12 race?  Just two games have been played between those five teams thus far: Baylor beating Oklahoma State and Oklahoma beating TCU.  A third will be played this weekend as the Horned Frogs will travel to Morgantown to face the Mountaineers in a contest that will allow a little — little — clarity when it comes to the conference race.

This could be the most simplistic of all the P5 divisions: barring something extraordinary taking place, the winner of this division will be decided in the Apple Cup between a 3-0 Washington and a 3-0 Washington State.  Or, at the very least, the winner will play in that rivalry game.  And, of all the developments thus far this season, that may be the most stunning.  To put a finer point on this divisional race, the team currently in third place at 2-2, 2015 Pac-12 champion Stanford, lost to both UW and Wazzu by a combined score of 86-22.

Utah and Colorado are tied atop this division at 3-1, with 3-2 USC still in the same neighborhood.  The Utes own a win over the Trojans, while the Trojans own one over the Buffs.  Utah and USC still have Washington on their schedule, while Colorado, which avoids UW, has to play a Washington State team that won’t face either of the other.  One date to circle on the calendar: Nov. 26, with the Utes traveling to Boulder to square off with the Buffs in the regular season finale.

A lot like the Big 12, this race likely won’t be decided until we get deep into November.

Despite its loss to 2-2 Tennessee, 3-1 Florida controls its own destiny in this division.  Win out, and the Gators will earn their second consecutive berth in the SEC championship game.  Their remaining league schedule?  The annual World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party grudge match with Georgia in Jacksonville, and road trips to No. 17 Arkansas and No. 25 LSU sandwiched around a home game against South Carolina.  UT, though, could easily win out as their lone remaining games consist of South Carolina, Kentucky, Missouri and Vanderbilt.  While the Gators are currently in control, their path to Atlanta is much steeper than that of the Vols despite currently sitting in the driver’s seat — and knowing full well that that come-from-ahead loss to UT is riding shotgun.

This might be the most fun division in all of college football.  Again.  Alabama and Texas A&M both sit at 4-0, while Auburn and LSU are at 2-1.  The really, really fun part?  Only A&M and Auburn have met already this year, a Sept. 17 win for the Aggies on The Plains.  The Tide and Aggies meet in a critical matchup this afternoon, but several more critical contests await the division in the coming weeks.

In other words, grab your popcorn.  This thing is far from decided — a sentiment that’s far from the exclusive property of this division.

USC loses WR Steven Mitchell to torn ACL

EUGENE, OR - NOVEMBER 21:Wide receiver Steven Mitchell Jr. #7 of the USC Trojans leaps over cornerback Ugo Amadi #14 of the Oregon Ducks during the third quarter of the game at Autzen Stadium on November 21, 2015 in Eugene, Oregon. The Ducks won the game 48-28. (Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)
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A torn ACL in his right knee brought an end to Steven Mitchell‘s true freshman season before it ever began.  Unfortunately, a devastating injury in the other knee has brought a premature end to Mitchell’s season three years later.

According to USC head coach Clay Helton, Mitchell sustained a torn ACL in his left knee while returning a punt in the second quarter of the Week 7 win over Arizona.  As a result, the wide receiver will miss the remainder of the 2016 season.

“I thought he was playing his best ball,” Helton said according to the Orange County Register. “I’m sad for him. I’m sad for our football team.

“You could tell how it affected everybody. He’s a kid that’s much beloved by our team, especially that wide receiver unit.”

Mitchell is currently third on the team in receptions with 24 and fourth in receiving yards with 226.  His two receiving touchdowns are tied for second.

High-ankle sprain to sideline USC’s leading rusher vs. Arizona

LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 08:  Justin Davis #22 of the USC Trojans leaves the field during the game against the Colorado Buffaloes at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on October 8, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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The dreaded high-ankle sprain has claimed yet another victim.

The latest to fall into the injury’s clutches is Justin Davis, with USC head coach Clay Helton confirming Thursday that the running back won’t play against Arizona Saturday because of it.  The decision to sideline Davis came after the back hadn’t practiced at all this week.

The senior sustained the injury in the win over Colorado last weekend.  It’s possible the injury will linger beyond this week, although it will help that the Trojans have a bye for Week 8 and won’t play again until Thursday, Oct. 27, against Cal.

Davis currently leads the Trojans with 476 yards and 6.4 yards per carry.  Sophomore Ronald Jones, who’s second on the team with 208 yards, is expected to get the start in place of Jones.

Additionally, Helton stated that fellow sophomores Aca’Cedric Ware (133 yards) and Dominic Davis (13) will shoulder more of the running-game load than usual.

“We’ve got three really quality runners,” the coach said by way of the Orange County Register. “We still remain balanced. We’re going to stick to our M.O., where our run still sets up the pass and be a balanced offense. We got a lot of confidence in the three kids.”

USC QB Max Browne talks transfer without using the ‘t-word’

LOS ANGELES, CA - SEPTEMBER 10:  Max Browne #4 of the USC Trojans looks to pass the ball against the Utah State Aggies at Los Angeles Coliseum on September 10, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images)
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Out of a starting job, Max Browne is likely moving on from USC upon the completion of the 2016 season.  Probably.

After starting the first three games as USC’s quarterback, Browne was benched in favor of Sam Darnold.  Since then, the redshirt freshman solidified his hold on the job and his performance has signaled that he’s the Trojans quarterback of the future, at least for the time being.

While most have assumed that Browne, who has one year of eligibility remaining and has already graduated, will transfer in the next couple of months, the redshirt junior, at least publicly, hasn’t broached the subject.  That changed Wednesday as Browne was asked about his future following practice, and, while he tap-danced around the topic and never uttered the word “transfer,” heavily intimated that this season will be his last in the Land of Troy.

“I want to play,” Browne said according to the Los Angeles Daily News. “I had an opportunity to. I wish it had worked out better. I don’t know. I’ll just leave it at that. …

“We’re at the halfway point of the season, I don’t really have a plan necessarily. I’m sure I’ll dive into it with each passing week.”

Clay Helton said he will “sit down with [Browne] after the season” to discuss what if any future the player has with the program.

“I’m so appreciative of him,” the head coach added.

As a graduate, Browne could transfer to another FBS program and use his final season of eligibility immediately in 2017.  The Daily News mentions Cal as a possibility, given the success of Texas Tech transfer Davis Webb.  Should he ultimately pull the trigger on a move, the usual suspects, including Power Fives such as Florida, Michigan State, Nebraska and Texas A&M, will likely be bandied about as possibilities.

The last two seasons as Cody Kessler’s primary backup, Browne completed 11-of-19 passes for 143 yards.  As a recruit, Browne was’s top-rated pro-style passer in the Class of 2013.

Clay Helton’s hot seat cools a little as USC moves past No. 21 Colorado

LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 08:  Uchenna Nwosu #42 of the USC Trojans celebrates his blocked pass during the first quarter against the Colorado Buffaloes at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on October 8, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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USC head coach Clay Helton’s hot seat cooled a little on Saturday afternoon as the Trojans used some big plays through the air and a few timely stops on defense to move past No. 21 Colorado 21-17.

Young quarterback Sam Darnold made many wonder why he wasn’t the starter from day one with yet another impressive performance. He finished 25-of-37 for 358 yards and three touchdown throws, almost all of which came on a scramble in order to find some daylight.

The Trojans run game was paced by tailback Justin Davis, who averaged 6.4 yards a carry but sat out the final quarter after leaving with a leg injury. Even more impressive was the effort of the team’s defense, which limited a normally potent offensive attack and saw super-athlete Adoree’ Jackson pull in a highlight interception in the second half.

Colorado’s first game as a ranked opponent in a long time didn’t wind up exactly how they thought it would go. While Phillip Lindsay was solid in the run game (and caught a wild 67 yard touchdown on a trick play), the Buffs just couldn’t get much going in the first half on offense and saw quarterback Steven Montez get hit or pressured on nearly every play.

The victory by USC will further muddle the Pac-12 South standings as they were the only team without a conference loss coming into the week. The division remains a tossup at this point but UCLA could make some moves with a win on the road at Arizona State.

That probably won’t matter much to Helton, who gets the Trojans back to .500 on the season after a brutal start and likely hears a little less about his job status come Monday.