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USC, Oregon turn to what can still be gained, not what has been lost

USC's visit to Oregon on Saturday is chock-full of compelling storylines, but one big one is missing: national relevance. This game won't produce a national title contender or provide highlights for a Heisman Trophy coronation.

In August, that didn't seem possible.

Both teams began the season ranked in the top 10, with USC picked to win the rugged South Division and the Pac-12 overall, and the Ducks favored in the North, widely viewed as the best potential foil for USC if things worked out with transfer quarterback Vernon Adams Jr. USC had top Heisman contender Cody Kessler behind center, but more than a few folks thought his two-way teammate Adoree' Jackson might displace him as the West Coast's top candidate. And if not those two Trojans, it then might be bruising Oregon running back Royce Freeman.

Moreover, the matchup had additional appeal, as the teams hadn't met since an epic 2012 clash, a game filled with offensive lunacy, a 62-51 Oregon victory that featured 1,345 yards of offense from a star-studded cast of characters.

If the 2015 preseason perspective seems like the distant past, that game feels as if it happened ages ago instead of three seasons. The game matched Lane Kiffin against Chip Kelly, and Matt Barkley against Marcus Mariota. Ducks running back Kenjon Barner rushed for a school-record 321 yards and five touchdowns. Mariota threw four TD passes and Barkley threw for 484 yards and five TDs. Oregon's 730 yards and 62 points were the most ever allowed by USC, which began playing football in 1888. The teams combined for the third-highest scoring game involving ranked teams in the 76-year history of the AP poll.

So, yeah, it was something. You also might recall that two weeks later No. 13 Stanford would end the second-ranked Ducks' hopes for a BCS national title with a shocking 17-14 overtime win in Autzen Stadium behind a poised performance by a redshirt freshman named Kevin Hogan.

Hmm. Oregon kind of did the same sort of thing to Hogan and the Cardinal last week. College football has some odd symmetry at times, eh?

Funny thing about this game, though, is that after you get past the three losses each team has, which demotes the matchup to second-billing on the college football nation's marquee, its regional Pac-12 value is high. The winner remains alive in the conference hunt. The loser is pretty much doomed.

If USC beats the Ducks and then ends a three-game losing streak to UCLA at home on Nov. 28, it wins the South Division. If Oregon beats USC and Oregon State, and Stanford loses to California on Saturday in the Big Game, the Ducks win the North. So both could still end up in the Rose Bowl, not exactly a clunker of a consolation prize.

Both teams are riding four-game winning streaks after disappointing starts, and those streaks boosted the pair back into the national rankings, meaning this is the 10th straight meeting when that's the case.

Big stakes? If USC wins, it will be time to seriously consider whether Trojans interim coach Clay Helton has a legitimate shot to drop the interim tag from his current title, though of course he has to beat the hated Bruins, too.

"We've been in playoff football for the last four weeks," said Helton, referring to his team's approach after it lost at Notre Dame on Oct. 17, the first game after Steve Sarkisian was fired over an alleged drinking problem.

Helton praised his team's "physical nature and mental toughness," and noted it has excelled of late at finishing games. Those are three things USC fans found lacking under Kiffin and Sarkisian, so Helton is fully aware of the notes he needs to intone. He further noted the Trojans have outrushed their foes and not lost the turnover battle during their winning streak.

As for Oregon, it's certainly in a better place since it went rear-end-over-tea-kettle in the fourth quarter against Washington State during a 45-38 loss on Oct. 10. It gutted out a win at hated rival Washington, won a triple-overtime thriller at Arizona State, whipped California, and ended Stanford's national title hopes.

"I hope we're walking with confidence," Ducks coach Mark Helfrich said.

But Helfrich also is aware the key this season -- any season, really -- is muting the highs and managing the lows. A team can get full of itself when it's winning, and it can yield to malaise when it's losing.

Both these teams own demanding fan bases, which love you when you're winning and, as Helfrich said, "Everybody is an idiot and you're the worst team ever" when you're losing.

"Neither one of the those things is what you should be focusing on," Helfrich said. "You have to get back totally focused on your process."

Neither USC's nor Oregon's processes will create seasons that match high preseason expectations. Yet they both have a lot to play for, postseason goals that can be obtained, not the least of which is being much happier than the other when the conference's dominant programs of the past 15 seasons exit the field.