LOS ANGELES -- After the 2014 season, USC quarterback Cody Kessler texted then-coach Steve Sarkisian to let him know he was returning for his fifth season. He told Sarkisian he wanted to come back and win a national title together.
That, Kessler thought, could be his legacy.
“I really don’t know what mine will be, but hopefully people will look back and just realize the stuff we went through and that I stayed consistent and really stayed positive and tried to keep this team together over the years,” Kessler said. “I always seem to be so positive, but it was tough at times."
Kessler will make his 39th career start against No. 22 UCLA on Saturday and for the 16th time it will be under an interim head coach.
“It was very hard. I don’t regret any second of it,” Kessler said. “Everything I’ve gone through, I’ve enjoyed it. I’ve enjoyed the ride.”
It’s close to being over, but there's a lot still to play for.
Remarkably, the four-loss Trojans, despite the midseason firing of Sarkisian and the drama that came with it, are still in contention for the greatest consolation prize outside the College Football Playoff: a trip to the Rose Bowl. If USC beats UCLA, then Stanford in the Pac-12 title game, Kessler’s roller coaster of a career finishes in Pasadena, where another win would give him a story he would be happy to tell for the rest of his life.
“Finishing the season off the right way is really important, too, and it’s something you’re going to be remembered for,” Kessler said. “We have a chance to do something great this year still and even after everything that has gone on. This week is very important, but even the weeks after that will be important, too, for us leaving our legacy.”
Fifth-year senior fullback Soma Vainuku said the seniors regularly talk about leaving their mark on the program, and they’re not ready to concede it won’t end with something memorable.
“I think [our legacy is] still being written right now depending on how the season ends and how it goes,” Vainuku said. “We could have a really good story.”
But there is also the alternative.
A loss to UCLA would be the fourth straight in the crosstown rivalry, meaning several players would exhaust their eligibility without a win in the series. That’s rare. In a series that dates back to 1924, UCLA’s eight-game winning streak from 1991 to 1998 is the only time in which the Bruins have won at least four in a row.
The bowl game that would come with a 7-5 record wouldn’t exactly energize the fan base, and Clay Helton, for all the good he’s done, would almost assuredly be out of contention to become the team’s permanent head coach. That’s something the players are also trying to avoid.
“I can speak for the whole team on this one that we all want him to be the head coach next year and the years to come after that,” receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster said. “For me, it’s not just him being a great coach, but him being a great person.
“You want to reward him. And what’s the best way to reward him? It’s to win football games to keep him here.”
Helton did his best not to look past this week.
“If you have the opportunity to win a Pac-12 South championship, you leave a mark,” Helton said. “You leave a legacy and I think that’s on their minds. It’s something that they fought for.
“A lot of those guys were here when we had enough wins to win the Pac-12 South, but we were ineligible for that title so this is their opportunity, and we’re doing everything we can to make it happen for them.”