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Despite the loss, USC football is officially back

The result of Friday night’s Pac-12 Championship game didn’t matter. It was already set in stone. USC is back.

It sounds pretty shameless — especially after a demoralizing, soul-crushing, life-draining 47-24 loss at the hands of Utah, one which killed the Trojans’ College Football Playoff chances — but it remains true.

For USC to be playing in its conference championship game for a spot in the playoff was already more than anyone could have expected. You don’t have to look too far back into the past to find a basement-dwelling, discipline-devoid squad that couldn’t even muster a bowl-eligible season.

Just over a year ago, we all watched the Trojans and wondered when the suffering would end.

USC is now 11-2, destined for a New Year’s Six bowl game. It’s an unprecedented leap, putting the team right back in the mix with some of college football’s perennial powerhouses.

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The success didn’t come without some close calls. In Corvalis, Oregon State nearly slowed the season to halt. Then the Neilon Nudge happened. In Pasadena, UCLA almost ended the dream. Then Korey Foreman made the play of the season to recapture the Victory Bell.

Every step of the way, USC just kept on pulling the rabbit out of the hat, even when things looked grim. On Friday night in Las Vegas, the magic ran out all at once.

“You come as far as this team has come, this program has come in the last 12 months, you get that close to winning a championship and possibly much more — obviously to not get it done is a tough pill to swallow,” Riley said.

The loss was an indictment on a team that, in the end, wasn’t sustainable. The defense folded, allowing Utah to rush for 223 yards and post 47 points. Sophomore quarterback Caleb Williams’ injury stalled the offense, all Utah needed to go on a 44-7 scoring run to close out the game.

I’ll reiterate: the loss was gutting. No getting around it. I recognize it’s not the best look to be singing the praises of a team that just got systematically outplayed in the biggest moment of the season.

But we simply must put this in perspective. Now is not the time to furrow our brows and turn away in disgust, even after an admittedly disgusting performance. Riley said it himself:

“Obviously there’s a much bigger picture and outlook here of the progress that’s been made here in the last 12 months,” Riley said. “So we’re not going to walk around like this is some funeral.”

I implore USC fans to heed these words. This season must be celebrated for what it is: a historic overachievement.

“We’ve made some great progress to be in this moment,” Riley said. “We expected to win tonight. We didn’t get it done. But that changes nothing in terms of the direction and trajectory of this program.”

More than ever, things are looking up for this program. If you think Riley and USC hit the portal hard last offseason, just imagine how many players will want to come play for a revitalized team in sunny Southern California.

Another year of Heisman shoe-in Williams won’t hurt, either. He makes the impossible seem routine, and now he gets quite the chip on his shoulder to bring into next season. If he wasn’t required to stay another season to be eligible for the NFL draft, he would be long gone to the pros.

Apart from his undeniable talent, Williams’ mentality is the gold standard for a leader.

“[Kobe] always said the game is bigger than what you’re feeling,” Williams said after playing most of the game with an injured hamstring. “I was in my head encouraging myself.”

How could you hear that and bet against him?

His team’s season isn’t over, with a bowl game on the horizon and a chance to reach 12 wins for the first time since the 2008 season.

Regardless of how the season ends, USC now has to walk the walk. The timeline has been shot to warp speed; most fans would’ve been content with such a season in year three of Riley’s tenure. Now, much more will be expected of them. The Trojans will need to rise to an increasingly difficult task.

I’ll call my shot now. You will see USC back in the Pac-12 Championship Game 364 days from now. Maybe then the entire nation will understand what I already know: USC is back.

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