There are a couple different ways you can look at USC's upcoming game against Oregon on Saturday.
One way is as a perfect example of a team playing with little to lose (USC) against a team with plenty to lose (Oregon). But the second is as two teams matching up with plenty to prove to observers, one in much better position (Oregon) than the other (USC).
Either way, this much is clear: Both teams have things on the line. They're just different things, as the Ducks will risk an almost-sure BCS bowl berth and potential national championship game contention, while the Trojans will risk potential double-digit wins and the chance to finish the season in the top 10 nationally.
But look at it this way: Since the NCAA sanctions were laid down at USC in June 2010, the school's goal has essentially been to get through the next two college football seasons without much collateral damage, and maybe -- hopefully -- develop its talent in the process. If the Trojans could emerge from December 2011 without a serious loss of talent or national respect, the next few years of the scholarship-limited sanctions wouldn't be so bad.
That was the thought.
Now, USC has the opportunity to turn that common, much-espoused thought entirely on its head. By beating Oregon, the Trojans would essentially have proven that the final year of the Pete Carroll era and the first year of Lane Kiffin's tenure were flukes, and will also have injected the third and fourth and fifth years of Kiffin's time to come with a ton of promise.
By beating Oregon, USC would have sent a clear message to the NCAA, to the Pac-12 and to a number of outside observers that it is here to stay -- and, as Kiffin loves to say, will have moved all the dark clouds covering the program away for good.
"At the end of the year, we want people to wonder, 'What if USC could have been in a bowl game? What would happen?' " USC defensive end Devon Kennard said after the Trojans' 40-17 win over Washington on Saturday. "That's where we want to leave everybody."
Kennard is a junior. He was coming off his freshman season when the sanctions were announced and thus didn't have the opportunity to transfer away without penalty like many others could and some did.
But he has always maintained, like quarterback Matt Barkley and many more young players also did at that time, that USC would still be able to keep up a similar level of dominance without going to a bowl game. They all said it, in one way or another.
But now it sounds a bit more real.
"We don't worry about what we can't control," Kennard says. "This is the last year [of the sanctions], so we're trying to give the conference and everybody else a glimpse of what it's going to be like the rest of the time in the Pac-12."
And about Oregon? The Ducks are good -- no, the Ducks are great. They may not be the single hottest team in the country, as Kiffin said they were Sunday, but they're certainly up there. And they just beat a top-5 team on the road.
Matchups don't come much harder than that. Last year, before USC faced Oregon, defensive tackle Jurrell Casey memorably said the Duck's weren't "that good" aside from a "good quarterback and a good running back."
You get the sense nobody from USC's side is going to say anything like that this week, although the Trojans have also retained a key sense that they belong in a head-to-head battle against the Ducks, even at this early stage in preparation for the game.
"We feel like we can play with anybody in the country on any day," Kennard said. "We know they're a great team and we'll have to have a great effort to beat them.
"But we're confident in what we can do."