When USC's schedule was announced, it was easy to pick out the most dangerous date on the schedule: Sept. 29. A Friday night game on the Palouse.
Washington State was set to return several key pieces from a team that went 7-2 in the Pac-12 last season, including a fifth-year quarterback, Luke Falk, who put the NFL on hold. Expectations for Wazzu were so high that it started the season in the AP Top 25 for just the third time in history. Whenever or wherever these teams played, it would have been considered one of the toughest games on USC's schedule.
Adding to that, however, WSU started the season with five straight home games, capped by the showdown with USC. It was a short week for both teams, but USC was also coming off a road game against Cal.
It wasn't ideal for the Trojans, but these types of scheduling oddities occur every year in the current era of college football. Last season, for example, Cal had to travel to USC on a short week, while the Trojans were coming off a bye. In 2015, Arizona and Colorado didn't have bye weeks.
That's all just a way of saying that USC's 30-27 loss to Wazzu shouldn't have come as much of a surprise. Especially considering the Trojans played most of the game without seven regular starters, including six on offense, and had seldom impressed during four straight wins to open the season.
Still, from a USC perspective, the loss was a profound disappointment. That's framed by USC's preseason expectations, its dominance in the series -- the Trojans won 35 of the previous 40 meetings -- and the significant perceived discrepancy between recruiting success. Any time a program made up of four- and five-star recruits (USC) loses to one made up of two- and three-star players (WSU), there's going to be some head-scratching.
Had the Trojans lost to No. 16-ranked Stanford or Oregon, it likely would have been a less frustrating loss for USC fans. Brand bias is a natural thing in college football, and it plays a role in how wins, losses and teams are evaluated by anyone who consumes the sport. It's often harder to accept when certain teams are good. That feels like the case here.
And that's also part of the problem when trying to piece together what went wrong for USC. The better team, on that night and in those circumstances, won the game. It doesn't mean there is anything broken about USC, which, let's not forget, hadn't lost in a full calendar year prior. It doesn't mean there needs to be large-scale changes. It's a close loss in a tough environment against a good team. Those happen.
On Sunday night, USC coach Clay Helton tried to convey as much and credited WSU several times throughout a 20-minute conference call with reporters. He went as far as to call the Cougars the No. 1 defense in the conference.
"We have a lot of respect for Washington State not only by scheme, but by personnel," he said of the defense. "They were a bunch that was only giving up 262 yards and 18 points a game."
Those stats are accurate, and in those areas the Cougars ranked No. 1 and No. 3 in the conference going into the game, but it should be noted they were compiled against four teams that are a combined 4-14, including FCS Montana State. Regardless, Helton was impressed.
"A lot of it is the scheme and the toughness of their scheme from stemming to movement, but also they have really good players," Helton said. "I don't know if we'll see a better player than [DL] Hercules [Mata'afa] in our league. He's a tackle-for-loss nightmare."
Without three starting offensive linemen by halftime, including both tackles, the challenge became tougher and USC never found a rhythm. It was held to its lowest yardage total (327) since last year's season opener against Alabama (194).
Helton said he thought offensive coordinator Tee Martin had the right idea by calling plays designed to take some of the pressure of the offensive line and out of dropback situations until they were required on third-and-long.
"I still thought we had opportunities to make some plays and left some stuff out there, but really credit Washington State," Helton said. "I thought they got to the quarterback and got us off our spots and the timing of our routes just weren't there when you're having to move around in the pocket like Sam [Darnold] was."
Coming out of the loss, it's also important to have some perspective. At this point last season, USC was 2-3 and still managed to wind up No. 3 in the final AP poll and add another Rose Bowl title to the resume. At 4-1, the Trojans are in an enviable position. Despite not looking like a national-title contender to this point, their conference title hopes are very much in play, which by default, keeps them relevant in the national conversation. It could be worse.