What to watch vs. Oregon

November, 2, 2012
11/02/12
3:09
PM PT
In a matchup that would have been even more intriguing if USC had taken care of business last week, the No. 18 USC Trojans face the No. 2 Oregon Ducks at 4 p.m. PT on Saturday at the Coliseum.

USC's national championship hopes are over, but a win would kill Oregon's -- and keep the Trojans in the hunt for a Rose Bowl bid.

Here are 10 things to watch:

1. Fewer expectations. There are a lot of people out there who credit USC's late-season success in 2011 to the fact the Trojans had nothing really on the line -- no national-title hopes to lose, no Rose Bowl chances, even. Those theories will gain more credence if USC upsets Oregon on Saturday, because there's a lot less on the line for USC than there was a week ago. The best-case scenario for the Trojans is now a Rose Bowl win, a scenario likely available even if the Trojans lose this week. As long as Arizona loses once in its remaining four games, this game means nothing for USC's conference championship hopes.

2. Playing the role of spoiler. It's a time-honored tradition in sports. Once you're eliminated from postseason contention -- or, in college football, title-game contention -- the next biggest focus becomes eliminating your biggest rivals from the same thing. The Trojans have a great chance to do that this month, with games against their three biggest rivals approaching. It could start with Oregon on Saturday, continue with UCLA in two weeks and then conclude, dramatically, with Notre Dame in the regular-season finale on Thanksgiving weekend.

3. Matt Barkley. What's the single biggest reason so many people thought Barkley would declare for the draft after last season? It wasn't the 50-0 win over UCLA, although that didn't hurt. It was the virtuoso performance the previous week against Oregon, when Barkley completed 77 percent of his passes for 323 yards, four touchdowns and only one pick. Considering the stage and the quality of the opponent, it's still the best game he's ever played. If USC's going to win on Saturday, Barkley's going to need to play similarly.

4. The turnovers. Here's a little secret: Oregon actually fumbles a lot -- 211 times in fact, fifth-worst in the FBS. But the Ducks don't lose too many of them -- only nine, not bad comparatively. USC has fumbled 16 times itself and lost 10 of those, while forcing 14 opponent fumbles and recovering eight. The Trojans have consistently won the turnover battle by producing 15 interceptions and throwing only eight. If they can win it against Oregon with a couple of fumble recoveries, that might be the advantage they need to keep the Ducks' offense off the field and away from the end zone.

5. Kelly-Kiffin. It'd be difficult for an objective observer to say, at this point in the men's coaching coaching careers, that Lane Kiffin is a better coach than Chip Kelly. A better recruiter? Sure, that would make sense. But a better coach? It's hard to back that statement up, even though the coaches are 1-1 against each other. If Kiffin wins a second time, though, then what happens? And it's conceivable that this matchup could be the last between the two teams until 2015, because of the new Pac-12 scheduling. What if both coaches aren't in their current posts by then? This could be the deciding factor.

6. The running game. It's pretty simple: In USC's two losses, its leading rusher has averaged 50 yards on the ground. In USC's six wins, the rusher has put up an average of 101 yards. The Trojans' immediate goal upon kickoff on Saturday, then, should be establishing the run game, with both starter Silas Redd and a now-healthy Curtis McNeal. At their best, USC's top three running backs -- including D.J. Morgan -- aren't far off from Oregon's multiple-source running attack. But the Ducks are massively out-gaining the Trojans on the ground this season, and that can't happen Saturday.

7. Dion Jordan. At 6-7 and 243 pounds, he's basically a basketball small forward, except he plays a hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker spot. And he's been bothered by a shoulder injury in practice this week, although The Oregonian reported Thursday he is likely to play. Jordan can be a true terror as a pass-rusher, if healthy, with 11 sacks over his last 15 games. Who's going to block him?

8. The Coliseum crowd. This is a real test for the USC fan base. The Trojans haven't had any problem selling tickets this season, and the attendance has generally been positive. But that's when there was hope that USC would make the national title game. Now that the same-old Rose Bowl's the goal, will Trojans fans still show up en masse and give the team a home-field advantage? USC's been trying to get fans to wear cardinal to the Coliseum. We'll see how well that worked.

9. A preview? The most likely Pac-12 championship game scenario would involve these two teams playing, again, in four weeks. And, in that scenario, the site of that game will essentially be determined by this game. Is it possible that Kelly will try to hold a little back on Saturday to save it for Nov. 30? Probably. Remember, Oregon has to win both games to reach its goals, too.

10. A prediction. USC has a legitimate shot in this game. Don't let anybody tell you different. Any time a team has as much talent as the Trojans on a single side of the ball, they have a chance against any opponent. And the USC offense is that good. But the worry here is that the Trojans' defense is still not up to par to hold Oregon to a low enough total. Remember, the Ducks' defense shut out Arizona and USC gave up 39 points to the same team last week. Yes, the circumstances were different. But a 39-point swing? That's disconcerting. That's why this two-tiered prediction is a bit of a cop-out: Either USC wins close, say 35-34, or loses not close, say 49-28. The latter prediction is the one that counts, but an occurrence of the former won't be surprising.
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