Armed with Sam Darnold, USC ready to embrace lofty expectations in Pac-12

Darnold focused on improving (0:54)

USC QB Sam Darnold is focused on the "now" and working hard to improve. (0:54)

LOS ANGELES -- If everything goes according to plan inside Heritage Hall, USC coach Clay Helton expects to make a familiar postseason trip: 15 miles up the road to the Rose Bowl.

It’s where the Trojans concluded their run of nine straight wins to close last season and where quarterback Sam Darnold turned into a bona fide college football superstar. And as memorable as that win against Penn State was, a repeat appearance would be more significant.

“The Rose Bowl is the first round of the playoff,” Helton said on Day 1 of Pac-12 media days. “How neat is that?”

After a 1-3 start last season, Helton is careful not to put the cart too far before the horse, but he’s also almost matter-of-factly ready to embrace the expectations that his team has generated. The preseason Pac-12 media poll released Wednesday showed the Trojans as a slight favorite over defending champion Washington, which, should it play out that way, could very well result in another game in Pasadena.

Helton has no problem talking about that potential reality and his team’s national title aspirations.

"That’s why you come to USC,” Helton said. “The expectations we know will be there every year and we see it as an opportunity, not an obligation. An opportunity to have a chance to do those things."

Any conversation about the Trojans as legitimate national title contenders begins with Darnold. And, really, because of him. After starting last season as a somewhat anonymous backup, his meteoric rise culminated with the Archie Griffin Award -- a national college football MVP honor that takes into account bowl games -- and picks up now with a clear designation as the Heisman favorite.

Even in a conference that features stars like Washington quarterback Jake Browning, the reigning Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year, Oregon running back Royce Freeman and polarizing UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen, Darnold is without question the face. With that newfound celebrity, Darnold admits there has been adjustments. A year ago, no stranger would ask Darnold to take a selfie with him. Now? This would not be considered an odd request.

To his credit, Darnold appears unfazed. There’s a level of humility to him that he credits to his parents and a close group of friends.

“My friends would never let me get a big head,” he said. “If I ever did anything like that, they would set me straight. That’s just how it is. I can always look forward to them, if I’m on TV doing an interview or whatever, for them to make fun of me somehow.”

Because of a slow start last season, USC missed out on a chance to play for the Pac-12 title, but the Trojans still managed to finish No. 3 in the final AP poll. They were just the second three-loss team in the poll’s history to finish that high, and there are no misgivings about how hard it will be to take that next step.

“That’s where the poll had us for winning the Rose Bowl,” Darnold said. “Coach Helton said we made the leap from whatever we were to there, and now it’s an even bigger jump from three to one. We’ve been working twice as hard as we did last season.

"We have the same goals, but we have a better idea of how we want to go about that."