USC Football Countdown to Kickoff: Trojans Heading Into Pac-12 Play

A look at how the Trojans will do heading into Pac-12 play - Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The Trojans come out of their bye week with three straight Pac-12 games. How will they fare?

Bye weeks can go two ways: they can either help a team recover and refocus, or they can kill the momentum gained in the early part of the season. For the Trojans, the bye week couldn't come at a better time in 2014.

After their first three games, USC will head into the bye week undefeated with a big win over Stanford and on the verge of breaking into the top-ten. Sarkisian's offense will be in full swing, and Justin Wilcox's defense will certainly be molding into form.

At this point in the season, the Trojans will likely be pretty banged up from having played back-to-back weeks on the road, on opposite coasts, and a physical game against the Stanford Cardinal. Sarkisian will use this week to get his players rested and healthy. Then starting September 27th, USC's Pac-12 play will be back in full swing.

Oregon State Beavers (7-6)

September 27th-- Line: USC -17

Going into last November's Friday night lights matchup against Oregon State, Corvallis had been the Trojans recent nightmare. USC had not won in Beaver territory since 2004 and after three straight home victories against Southern California, Oregon State had every reason to feel confident. However, on the first play of the game Cody Kessler quickly yanked that confidence away. Layups are the easiest way to score in basketball, and Kessler's 71-yard touchdown pass to Marqise Lee was just as easy. USC went on to win 31-14, to break the Corvallis Curse and shine a little L.A. sunlight on the cloudy small town in the middle-of-nowhere Oregon.

Last season, Oregon State quarterback Sean Mannion set a Pac-12 record for most passing yards in a single season with 4,662 yards. But his numbers didn't instill any fear in the USC defense as Shaw, Bailey, and Seymour all made off with an interception, and held Mannion to just one touchdown. A few months later, Roger Goodell stood in front of a podium in Radio City Music Hall and announced, "With the twentieth pick in the 2014 NFL draft, the New Orleans Saints select Brandin Cooks, Wide Receiver, Oregon State." And just like that, the Beavers lose their All-American Biletnikoff winner.

This year, quarterback Sean Mannion will be playing without his top target. In addition, the wall protecting him will have several cracks to seal as Oregon State returns only two of their starting big men. These key offensive losses should allow the USC defense to have another heyday against the Beavers. The Beavers do return two of the better tight end security blankets in the conference at Mannion's disposal but early battling in the trenches against Leonard Williams and the Trojan front seven will earn the Beaver big men the nickname "Burger King" because they'll let the defense have it their way.

On the other side of the ball, Kessler won't be facing much pressure in the pocket. It's impossible for USC's offensive line to get worse than last year and Oregon State will be without three of their four defensive lineman, including third round draft pick Scott Crichton. Veteran running back Silas Redd and Buck Allen combined for 173 yards and three touchdowns against the Beaver defense in their last matchup, with all three touchdowns coming from the emerging first-team back heading into this season. Add a healthy Tre Madden and Justin Davis behind Allen, and the Trojans will show why Lane Kiffin shouldn't have put Alabama's trio ahead of any in the NFL-because they're not even the best in college football.

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Cody Kessler has spent most of the offseason focusing on his arm strength, and that could be a vital weapon in this game. Agholor is set to have an All-American season, and he has both the athleticism and the hands to sneak past the defense and go deep for touchdowns, much like his former teammate Marqise Lee did.

Oregon State's inability to stop the run will leave them dumbfounded and overcompensating by stacking the box, allowing Kessler and Agholor to connect for some deep balls. Add an experienced secondary facing a receiving core missing Cooks, and Mannion will be forced to hold on to the ball just a little too long so that front seven will encompass him and cause mayhem in the backfield.

Oregon State will be one of the better teams in the Pac-12 this season, but don't expect the score to show that. Sarkisian and the Trojans will exploit Beavers weaknesses, and send them packing with a demoralizing loss.

Prediction: USC 38, OSU 20

Arizona State Sun Devils (10-4)

October 4th-- Line: USC -11

The 2013 Arizona State squad left a stain in the USC record book when they tied the most points ever scored on a Trojan defense in their romping 62-41 victory. More importantly, they pulled the final block that caused the unsteady Jenga tower that was Lane Kiffin's USC career to come quickly tumbling down in the LAX tarmac.

That hot night in the desert was an embarrassment to Trojans everywhere and the historically dominant defenses of this program's past. The Sun Devils dictated the game start to finish, effortlessly moving the ball up and down the field by racking up more than 600 yards of total offense. The Trojan offense didn't look much better as they turned the ball over four times and delivered just three touchdowns in the first three quarters.

The Coliseum crowd and the perfect Southern California weather should help new defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox slow down the Sun Devil attack. This will be the first true test for Wilcox's bend-but-not-break defense, and an opportunity for him to justify being awarded the job over the relatively successful Clancy Pendergast.

Wilcox will be installing a 3-4 scheme, as opposed to Pendergast's 5-2 look. At Washington, Wilcox's numbers were very similar to Pendergast's in points per game, interceptions, and turnover margin. Wilcox's Washington defense, however, surpassed the Trojans in two crucial categories: sacks and passing efficiency defense.

INSIDE LOOK ON WHAT WILCOX BRINGS TO THE TABLE

This year Wilcox will not be working with the type of athletes that Husky football attracts, but instead he will have some of the best in college football, including Preseason All-American defensive end Leonard Williams. Under Pendergast, one of the biggest problems the defense faced all year was stopping the spread offense. Taylor Kelly broadcasted this weakness by exploiting holes in the USC defense bigger than those in the now demolished BCS system.

Kelly will be deprived of scoring addict Marion Grice's ability to sniff out the end zone another four times, and the bend-but-not-break style defense will aid the Trojans in stopping the big plays, but will still have their hands full with second-team All-Pac-12 selection Jaelen Strong (7 catches for 103 yards vs. USC) catching the rock. The secondary led by Josh Shaw and Su'a Cravens will create an environment much tougher for Taylor Kelly to fire deep strikes than in his desert home a year ago.

Cody Kessler, Nelson Agholor, and Buck Allen will have no excuse not to have a big game as Arizona State returns only three starters on defense. Kessler will be able to sling the ball down the field to Agholor and Darreus Rogers without worrying about safety Alden Darby, cornerbacks Osahon Irabor or Robert Nelson picking him off three more times. The absence of Pat Tillman Defensive Player of the Year Will Sutton will also allow Allen and Madden to bulldoze through the middle without the fear of getting stuffed in the backfield.

An improved USC defense under defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, and a new high-tempo offense going against a depleted Arizona State defense should prevent another Sun Devil obliteration---but it won't be easy.

Prediction: USC 42, ASU 34

Arizona Wildcats (8-5)

October 11th-- Line: USC -7.5

Last time the Trojans marched into Tucson, the preseason number one team left with their second loss of the season, one that led to losses in four of their next five games and a collapse comparable to the 2008 Detroit Lions.

There's something about the Arizona Wildcats that stirs up turmoil for USC around the time the two play each other. Whether it's Rich Rodriguez or their party-hard demeanor, they always seem to cause trouble. The 2012 game led to the biggest fall for a number one team in college football history. And last years game came with its own set of expectations given what had transpired the 11 days prior to a rare Coliseum Thursday night contest.

Interim head coach Ed Orgeron was able to ignite a passion and effort in the Trojan players that allowed them to jump out to a 28-10 lead by halftime. Although Denker and Carey put together an offensive run in the second half, the Trojans were able to hold on, igniting an inspired squad to win six of their next eight games to end the year.

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Running machine Ka'Deem Carey will be suiting-up for the Chicago Bears this fall and quarterback B.J. Denker has already put on his cap and gown, so 497-of-the-508 yards Arizona accumulated against the Trojans last year will be missing. That leaves two major holes to plug in the Wildcat offense and should extinguish any anxieties about Arizona's offensive ability that the second half created last season. But we do know Rich Rod can always plug in new holes out of nowhere.

Without 97.8% of their offensive production, however, whoever takes the reigns of Arizona's offense won't find much success against Hayes Pullard and the Trojan defense. The biggest threat the Wildcats pose to USC is their environment. Never underestimate the difficulty of playing in Tucson. Last year the Wildcats turned their stadium into a hunting ground, shooting down the fifth ranked Ducks for their second loss of the season.

A matchup in the desert can never be written-off as an easy win. The Trojan's memory of the last time they played there still haunts them, and they won't let it happen again.

Prediction: USC 31 Arizona 16

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