Courtside: USC football could stand to benefit from fanless games in 2020
Obviously, I’m not even touching on the impact empty stadiums would have on the fans trying to fill those stadiums, student-athletes who enjoy playing in front of packed houses and ticket revenue for athletic departments including USC’s. That’ll all go to shit, I’m not gonna lie to you. The Tough Cookies group is where things get interesting. That group comprises: neutral site against Alabama, at Utah, at Oregon, vs. Washington and vs. Notre Dame. We seem to be approaching that anticlimactic reality more and more every day as the coronavirus pandemic rumbles along. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease Director Anthony Fauci said last Wednesday that sports could resume this summer and fall if there are no fans at the stadiums. It’d be an unprecedented reality, one that could dramatically change the way the college football season plays out from coast to coast. Let’s divide USC’s 2020 schedule into two categories: The Cakewalks and, for lack of a better mealtime analogy, the Tough Cookies. Let’s examine the former first. Start with the first of those games. The Trojans and Crimson Tide will match up in the infamous Jerry World — AT&T Stadium in Dallas, 605 miles by car from Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa, Ala. and 1,422 miles along the shortest route to the Coliseum. USC fans travel well (albeit less so in recent years), but this is Alabama we’re talking about. Given that and the respective mileage, it’s hard to imagine a full stadium would yield anything but a Crimson Tide crowd. (Plus, who voluntarily ventures to the South unless you’re already in the South?) The reaction from the crowd? You could hear a pin drop. But here’s the thing: It could actually benefit USC. Here’s why. These are the games that, as hinted by the descriptor, will be USC’s most challenging of the year. I could see the Trojans going 1-4 in that set; I could also see them going 4-1. These are the games in which home field advantage will certainly be a factor, and I wouldn’t be shocked if each game is so close that it’s essentially decided by the atmosphere in the stadium. Another possibility: California, which is far ahead of most states in terms of bending the coronavirus curve, maintains restrictions the whole season while the eagerness of governors in states like Utah and Texas to reopen everything and ease social distancing guidelines might backfire and bring about a second wave, necessitating stronger social distancing policies into college football season. Just saying, if you really want to see college football this year, you might want to listen to the medical experts on this one. But at the end of the day, the team’s job is to win games, and from that standpoint, silent stadiums might not be the worst thing for USC. But eliminate that crowd altogether. All of a sudden, it’s not quite as much of a home game for Nick Saban’s bunch. USC now has a fighting chance — to get stomped by only 30 rather than 50. (Sorry, I had to say it.) The Cakewalks are the games USC has no business losing. They’re the games in which home field advantage should make absolutely no difference — if the Trojans drop one game, the problems extend way beyond the venue; if they lose two, the entire coaching staff should go. Games No. 2 and 3 in the Tough Cookies slate are in Eugene, Ore. against the defending Pac-12 champs and Salt Lake City against the reigning Pac-12 South champs. USC is 0-3 in its last three games in Salt Lake City and 1-3 in its last four games in Eugene. USC indisputably has a tough time winning in these cities, and who’s to say that would change in 2020?That is — unless the stands are empty. Unless the elevation in Utah and the, uh, trees (?) in Oregon are what’s been giving USC trouble all along, the Trojans will clearly have a less daunting task ahead of them if these games are essentially played at neutral sites. Sure, there’s also Notre Dame. But how much will a non-conference game at the season’s end mean for a team that figures to compete for a Rose Bowl — which is based on conference record — and not the rankings-based College Football Playoff? Beyond bragging rights, not much. Of all the Tough Cookies, this is probably the one USC fans should care about least. The other thing about those two home games against the Huskies and Fighting Irish? Washington is USC’s third-to-last game of the regular season, Notre Dame is USC’s last. There’s a real possibility that USC takes on Alabama and Utah in Weeks 1 and 5 on the road without fans, then social distancing restrictions ease up and Trojan fans show up in droves to take on Washington and Notre Dame in Weeks 11 and 13. Now, the last two Tough Cookies: home games against Washington and Notre Dame. Start with the former. Throw Alabama, Utah, Oregon and Washington into a pool and pick the least intimidating opponent. If you have even the slightest semblance of college football awareness, you’ll go with Washington — which makes this game the one in which the Trojans can most afford to sacrifice home crowd advantage. USC should go 7-0 at best and 6-1 at worst in these games — and if it’s the latter or anything worse, I don’t want to hear the whole they-would’ve-won-if-it-was-at-the-Coliseum garbage. That shouldn’t matter. As such, ignore the impact of empty stadiums on these seven games. The Cakewalks category is made up of seven out of USC’s 12 regular season games. Those are vs. New Mexico, at Stanford, vs. Arizona State, vs. California, at Arizona, vs. Colorado and at UCLA. It’s fourth-and-goal from the opponent’s 7-yard line for the Trojans. The score is 27-24, six seconds remaining in the fourth quarter. Head coach Clay Helton, in typical new and improved 2020 Clay Helton fashion, rolls the dice. Kedon Slovis drops back. Under pressure, the sophomore quarterback escapes the pocket, but there’s hardly any room. With the game seemingly lost, sophomore receiver Drake London appears in the back corner of the Coliseum’s east end zone. Slovis finds him, London reels it in. Game over. Nathan Ackerman is a sophomore writing about sports and sociopolitics. He is also an associate managing editor of the Daily Trojan. His column, “Courtside,” typically runs every Friday.