This was supposed to be the ultimate regular season weekend in college football. Before the season, many thought the national championship participants would be decided when the two beasts of the SEC West, Alabama and LSU, matched up and the two most dynamic West Coast offenses, USC and Oregon, faced off.
But instead of four undefeated teams battling in a de facto semifinal game, LSU has not had the quarterback play it expected from Zach Mettenberger and lost at Florida while USC was pushed around by Stanford and then gave a game away at Arizona last week with five turnovers.
After last week's disappointing loss, can the Trojans rebound against a team head coach Lane Kiffin says is the best in the country?
Here are five burning questions to watch for as USC welcomes No. 2 Oregon to the L.A. Memorial Coliseum:
1. Does Colorado strike again?
Colorado State, Fresno State, UCLA, Arizona State, USC. Those are the FBS schools that have beat Colorado this season. 22-7 to North Dakota State, 27-26 to Tulsa, 43-17 at Cal, 43-21 at Oregon, 39-36 at Arizona. Those are the losses suffered by the same teams the week after beating Colorado.
Every time an FBS team has defeated Colorado this season, it has lost the following game. Oregon is coming off a 70-14 pounding of the Buffaloes. Can USC help continue the Colorado Curse?
2. Does USC embrace the underdog role?
The Trojans are not accustomed to being the underdog. It's not something Trojan fans want to ever embrace. But it's something the USC players need to do against Oregon. There are a few maxims that are always necessary for underdogs to pull off upsets and that's what the Trojans have to do.
Rule 1 is get out to an early start. Last season, USC was able to take the Autzen crowd out of the game early when it took a 14-0 first quarter lead. An early start allows an underdog to quiet the crowd on the road or really get the home crowd into the game. USC will need to get the #CardinaltheColi crowd roaring early.
Rule 2 is don't turn the ball over. The Trojans have no chance if they commit five turnovers like they did last week. Ball security has been an issue all season, so can USC can avoid the turnover bug?
Rule 3 is don't beat yourself. Turning the ball over is a part of rule 3 as well, but this is in reference to dumb penalties and coaching decisions. Underdogs can't afford to give their opponents second opportunities. If you make a stop on third down, you can't get a STUPID, DUMB, OH MY GAWD DID HE REALLY JUST HOVER OVER TAUNTING HIM penalty and give the favored team new life with a first down they didn't earn. USC has been prone to trying to beat itself all season.
3. How does the young Trojan defensive line handle Oregon's spread option?
One of the main reasons, USC was able to upset the Ducks at Autzen Stadium last year was the play of the defensive line. Against the spread option, if the defensive lineman don't follow their assignments, they leave gaping holes for the running backs. The lineman may not always make the tackle, but by fulfilling their duties, they occupy the blockers and allow the linebackers and safeties the opportunity to make plays.
Gone are Nick Perry, DaJohn Harris, Christian Tupou and senior Devon Kennard is out for the season. Will the young, but extremely talented linemen be able to make the plays? It'll take discipline, which hasn't been USC's strength all season.
4. Who will be able to hold onto the ball?
D.J. Morgan looked like he finally had gained the coaches' trust and was going to get an opportunity to be the explosive running threat he once was in high school. With Curtis McNeal not making the trip to Arizona, Morgan got nine carries and churned out 63 yards on his first eight carries -- an impressive 7.9 yards per carry. But it was the ninth one that did him in. Morgan fumbled the rock on a second down carry late in the third quarter and didn't touch the ball again the rest of the game.
But Morgan isn't the only one who has had trouble holding on to the ball. Backfield mates McNeal and Silas Redd have put the ball on the ground as well. As a team, USC has fumbled the ball 16 times this season, turning it over 10 times. Oregon comes in having created 23 turnovers. If USC can't hold onto the ball, especially in the backfield, it stands no chance.
Whether you are an Oregon fan or a USC fan, just take a second and imagine having Marqise Lee on the outside and DeAnthony Thomas in the slot...
Whether you just imagined them in cardinal and gold or one of the Ducks' two billion uniform combinations, that nearly happened. Coming down to National Signing Day, both players' commitments were up in the air and both players could have ended up together. Imagine the nightmares a defensive coordinator would have trying to counter two of the most explosive playmakers in college football.
But who will be more electrifying on Saturday? Both are tremendous with the ball in their hands. It'll be up to which defense (and special teams) can keep them from getting the ball in the first place. To keep the Black Mamba from striking, USC needs to strike first and try to do what other teams have failed to do this season -- lay the wood. With electrifying players, you have to be able to slow them down a half step. That can be accomplished by giving them nowhere to go with gang tackling, but also by giving them more to think about with a big hit or two.
USC-Oregon kicks off at 4:00 p.m. PT and will be televised live on FOX and FOX Deportes. You can also catch the game on 710 ESPN .
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