USC-Texas, Part III: The fight for national relevancy

The poster tubes from Wieden + Kennedy, PR firm for Fox Sports, arrived Tuesday morning. The contents were big, bold, clever, creative … and mercilessly undercut by recent events.

In one tube was a movie-style poster of Vince Young in a Texas uniform, running above a burnt-orange banner headline: “COMEBACK.” The subhead: “He Found The Perfect Ending.” It was an homage to the Longhorns’ epic, national title-winning victory over USC to end the 2005 season.

In the other tube was a movie-style poster of Sam Darnold in a USC uniform, winding up to throw beneath a red banner headline: “REVENGE.” The subhead: “They Waited 11 Years For This.” It paid tribute to the Trojans’ wild, double-overtime victory last September, the first meeting of the two programs since that classic in the Rose Bowl.

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And then there was a notecard-sized insert with both, getting to the point of the promotion: a picture of a movie marquee that read, “USC vs. Texas, Part III.” On the back: “After two hits this big, you don’t end the story there. You make a trilogy.”

The third chapter, if you really want to call it that, plays out Saturday in Austin. As is the case in Hollywood, the sequels rarely compare to the original — and it’s really hard to carry the concept over to a quality Part III. (See: “The Godfather,” “Jaws,” “Rocky,” etc.)

This is the risk inherent with going all-in on a promotional concept before the season starts.

Fox plans. Maryland and Stanford laugh.

USC’s Clay Helton and Texas’ Tom Herman will meet for the second time in as many years Saturday. (AP/Getty)
USC’s Clay Helton and Texas’ Tom Herman will meet for the second time in as many years Saturday. (AP/Getty)

The Terrapins threw the first rotten tomato at this blockbuster marketing pitch, shocking Texas on Sept. 1 despite playing without suspended head coach D.J. Durkin. That was a feel-good win for Maryland players, and a feel-terrible defeat for both Tom Herman and Fox Sports.

Then the Cardinal knocked Part III down another notch, suffocating USC 17-3 last Saturday. The Trojans and true freshman quarterback JT Daniels were overwhelmed offensively: six possessions ended with punts, two with field goals (one missed) and three with turnovers. Trojans fans went back to complaining about coach Clay Helton, and Fox Sports execs went back to commiserating about the fate of their promo campaign, which also has included a widely aired TV spot based on the same trilogy theme.

“It’s sports,” said Blake Danforth, Fox Sports vice president for marketing, with a zen-master’s air of acceptance. “Your heart starts to drop [when they lose], but USC and Texas are such huge programs. You’re almost guaranteed to get something great from them.”

The splashy buildup was partially spoiled by actual game results. But the show must go on. And so must the marketing campaign that was put into action last spring.

“Even though both teams have lost, they’re national teams with big fan bases who will bring a lot of eyeballs to the game,” said Valerie Krebs of Fox Sports’ media relations department. “Given the history of these two teams, this was a game we wanted to get behind a little more, and show our commitment to college football.”

Truth be told, last year’s meeting was partially scuttled by an early loss as well — Texas was upset at home by Maryland, the first installment in a stunning two-year ownership of the Longhorns by the Terrapins. But then the USC-Texas matchup (“REVENGE”) turned out to be a thriller. According to Fox Sports’ Valerie Krebs, that telecast drew 4.9 million viewers, which wound up being the network’s fourth-most watched game of the 2017 regular season.

Building any kind of big-swing marketing idea around these two programs is, at present, a sizable risk. They have a ton of tradition and big fan bases, but neither are Alabama, Clemson or Ohio State — programs built to win big for the foreseeable future.

Heretical as it may sound, there is no guarantee of modern-day success at USC or Texas. They’ve lost their way, just enough, to instill doubt. Both Cadillac programs have been leaking oil for about a decade.

The Trojans have had the better of it lately, riding Darnold’s brilliance to a Rose Bowl triumph after the 2016 season and a Pac-12 championship last season. But USC hasn’t sniffed the national title chase since 2008, the year before Pete Carroll beat the NCAA posse out of town for the NFL.

USC quarterback JT Daniels was running for his life most of the game against Stanford. (AP)
USC quarterback JT Daniels was running for his life most of the game against Stanford. (AP)

The loss to Stanford has Helton detractors scrubbing the fourth-year head coach’s résumé, picking out flaws. Remove Darnold’s career starts from the equation and Helton’s record is 10-9 — but it doesn’t make much sense to remove Darnold, as if Helton had nothing to do with his recruitment or his success upon arrival.

Helton is in a bit of a jam this year, starting a quarterback who should be a senior in high school but graduated early. Give him the rest of this season and all of next, at least, before passing judgment.

Herman has coached only 15 games at Texas, but the results are enough to make Mack Brown sorely missed. Herman is 8-7 thus far — better than Charlie Strong’s abysmal 16-21 mark, but not anywhere near what Longhorns fans expect. Especially for a guy Texas is paying $5 million a year based on two years of previous experience as a head coach.

But Herman took over at a perilous time, with facility upgrades needed and recruiting trending below the gold standard where Brown operated for many years. Year Two shouldn’t be a deal breaker for him, anymore than it was for Strong (he got three).

And, hey, the winner of this game will at least come out feeling better about themselves than they had at any point in September. Maybe it can be the start of something big.

It will never be the start of something as big as what Fox’s now-awkward marketing campaign pitched, though. You can’t fault the network for trying — and it will keep trying with future games this season. (Danforth coyly touted a promo in the works for Michigan State-Michigan, which the network will show in October.)

But as trilogies go, Texas-USC peaked with the original, offered thrills in an otherwise aggrandized sequel and now will end with a Jaws III thud.

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