They’d prepared for just about everything. A quiet, empty Coliseum. An unusual, early start time. Constant testing and social distancing and endless safety protocols.
But at the start of a shortened USC football season defined by the unexpected, coach Clay Helton did not anticipate the rain.
Add that to the list of extraordinary circumstances USC could face when it finally debuts on Saturday at 9 a.m.against Arizona State. Los Angeles hasn’t recorded a measurable rainfall in nearly six months, but with a better than 60% chance of precipitation, rain seems likely to fall at some point during the game.
So this week, Helton and his team were forced to adjust again, this time adding wet footballs to their preparation.
By this point, USC should be used to adjusting on the fly. Since spring practice was shut down in March by the novel coronavirus, change and the looming uncertainty that comes with it have been pretty much the only constants across college football.
That rocky path to Pac-12 football may finally smooth out Saturday, when the conference’s seven-game season kicks off more than two months after it was originally scheduled. But even with daily testing in place and games being played, the threat of a season suddenly being derailed will likely linger until Dec. 19, when the conference title is scheduled to be decided.
The league was reminded of that razor-thin margin for error this week, when on Wednesday, a California player tested positive for COVID-19. By Thursday afternoon, the Saturday game between Cal and Washington had been canceled because contact tracing left Cal without the minimum number of scholarship players necessary to play, according to Pac-12 safety protocols.
USC has been largely successful in limiting spread of the virus since welcoming athletes back to campus in June. Football workouts were paused for two weeks between late August and early September when a rash of cases tied to an off-campus party infiltrated the football and water polo programs. But with 4,877 tests conducted at USC as of last Friday, only 21 positives had been reported since testing began in mid-June.
Helton praised his players’ efforts to stick to protocols, but after months of good fortune in that regard, he said he has constantly warned his players not to get too comfortable.
“It’s something where we have to try to be as consistent as humanly possible,” Helton said. “You have to try as hard as you can to be able to put yourself in safe situations. A lot of it comes down to decision-making, to be honest with you. Making the great decisions of wearing a mask, staying socially distanced. Don’t put yourself in an atmosphere to get it, which not only hurts you individually, but hurts your team. That’s going to be a part of this thing.”
USC can play through a bit of precipitation. But a coronavirus outbreak — and the cancellation that could come with it — would almost assuredly end the Trojans' hopes of contention for the College Football Playoff before they begin.
"We’re at the Thursday of Week 1, saying prayers every night," Helton said. "Stay healthy, stay safe, and we continue to move forward."
USC’s expected starters should have a mostly clean bill of health heading into the season. Running backs Markese Stepp (turf toe) and Vavae Malepeai (hamstring) are expected to play Saturday, as are edge rusher Drake Jackson (hamstring) and linebacker Kana’i Mauga (hamstring). … USC will release its initial depth chart Friday, while also announcing its captains for the 2020 season. … Six USC players were named to the All-Pac-12 preseason first team: Jackson, quarterback Kedon Slovis, wide receivers Tyler Vaughns and Amon-ra St. Brown, offensive lineman Alijah Vera-Tucker and defensive back Talanoa Hufanga. Punter Ben Griffiths was named to the second team.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.