(AP) – Southern California's season was on the verge of derailing. The Trojans lost two of their first three Pac-12 games and coach Steve Sarkisian was fired, leaving the program in disarray.
Instead of seeing their season spiral out of control, the 24th-ranked Trojans rallied around interim coach Clay Helton, earning a spot in the Pac-12 championship game against No. 7 Stanford on Saturday night at Levi's Stadium.
''I think about the seniors and the roller coaster ride they have gone through, for them to be able to call themselves Pac-12 South champions is a victory,'' said Helton, who was hired as the Trojans' permanent coach Tuesday after leading a 40-21 win over archrival UCLA.
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While USC (8-4, 6-3) won the South Division to earn its first trip to the Pac-12 title game, Stanford is back in familiar territory – and playing for something much bigger.
The Cardinal (10-2, 8-1) got the season off to a shaky start by losing to Northwestern, but worked themselves back into the College Football Playoff picture by dominating the Pac-12 North. Stanford slipped up with a home loss to Oregon on Nov. 14, but still won the North for the third time in four seasons.
The Cardinal followed that up with a 38-36 win over Notre Dame on a last-second field goal last Saturday, thrusting themselves back into the playoff conversation while knocking the Irish out.
''We got the ball, drove down and it was almost like it was meant to be,'' said Conrad Ukropina, whose 45-yard field goal on the game's last play was the difference.
Should the Cardinal win, they still will need some help to make the playoff. Oklahoma appears to be in good shape because it doesn't have to play in a conference title game, and the winner of the Big Ten championship between Iowa and Michigan State would figure to be a lock. That leaves No. 1 Clemson and No. 2 Alabama. If the Tigers lose to North Carolina in the ACC title game and the Crimson Tide fall to Florida in the SEC title game, the Cardinal could make a case for being in the playoff after climbing two spots to No. 7 in this week's CFP rankings.
That puts added pressure on Kevin Hogan as his career winds down. He has the most wins of any Stanford starting quarterback with 34, and ranks fourth in yards passing (9,018), second in completion percentage (66 percent), second in rating (153.4) and fourth in TD passes (71).
But with a conference title game followed by a bowl game or playoff berth, Hogan is not ready to reflect on his career.
''There's so much going on in the next week and whatever the chips may fall after that, you can't really pause and think back yet,'' he said. ''I love the guys and all our focus is on the next one, as it should be.''
While Hogan was never in the Heisman Trophy conversation, teammate Christian McCaffrey certainly is. The son of former NFL receiver Ed McCaffrey will finish the season as the FBS leader in all-purpose yards – he's 52 ahead of the next closest player – and is bearing down on Barry Sanders' all-time FBS record of 3,250 yards. He also has plenty of eye-catching plays to put on his Heisman highlight reel.
USC has no such stars but is winning with uncomplicated football from a roster loaded with NFL talent. The Trojans have outrushed their opponents in every game, averaging 263 yards on the ground to just 124 for opponents, while committing nine fewer turnovers.
''You realize that this place was founded on a blue-collar toughness, a toughness that I hope to emulate with my time here,'' Helton said. ''I apologize for not being glitzy, but I believe that that blue-collar toughness mentality is what wins championships, and it has been proven here over a long period of time, way before me.''
Helton's team averaged 404.0 yards of total offense during its 5-1 finish to the regular season, fourth-worst in the Pac-12 during that span. However, the change coincided with Justin Davis becoming a bigger part of the offense. He's averaged 17.5 carries in that span – he previously was at 7.0 per game – and has been particularly effective over the past two weeks with 271 rushing yards on 41 attempts.
Another key has been the efficiency of Cody Kessler, who has 10 TD passes and one interception over the past six games while completing 68.3 percent of his throws for 1,310 yards.
Kessler finished slightly behind Hogan for No. 2 among the Pac-12's highest-rated passers – Oregon's Vernon Adams Jr. was No. 1. However, the Cardinal are better off when relying on McCaffrey and the ground game as opposed to Hogan's arm. Their two losses came when he topped 30 pass attempts.
Hogan was 18 of 23 for 279 yards and two TDs without an interception in a 41-31 road victory over the Trojans on Sept. 19. McCaffrey rushed for 115 yards and Remound Wright ran for three TDs. Kessler also played well, going 25 of 32 for 272 yards with three TDs and no INTs.