The No. 20 USC Trojans head on the road for potentially their toughest game of the season, traveling to Salt Lake City to take on No. 19 Utah -- another of the five ranked Pac-12 South teams.
Here are five reasons why the Trojans will be heading back to Los Angeles with their heads hanging:
MUSS Field Advantage
USC has traveled to Salt Lake City just once in the last 97 years. Rice-Eccles Stadium will be the most hostile environment the Trojans will play in this season. The MUSS, Utah's student section, will have the stadium rocking, especially with an 8 p.m local start time giving the students plenty of time to get lubricated beforehand.
The Trojan faithful, on the other hand, will be hard-pressed to be found in the stands because this will be one of the least-attended games for USC fans. After trips to San Francisco and Boston, Salt Lake City isn't exactly that enticing of a flight. Only next weekend's Washington State game will have less Trojan fans. The few Trojans that travel will surely be easy to spot since Utah has planned its annual "Blackout" game for this weekend.
Remember the struggles USC had last time it traveled to Rice-Eccles? The Trojans fell behind 14-0 with a quickness. Nate Orchard, then Nate Fakahafua, ripped the ball away from Matt Barkley after a bad snap and took it eight yards for a score. A botched snap recovered by Star Lotulelei on the second play of the next drive gave Utah the ball back and two plays later, a fade route made it 14-0 before the Trojans could blink. A veteran USC team led by seniors Barkley and center Khaled Holmes calmed down and was able to come back, but this year's team wouldn't recover the same way.
Thin Depth in Thin Air
Another part of the Utes' home-field advantage is their acclimation to the thin air. Playing at altitude in the Rocky Mountains is something that will be completely foreign to nearly the entire USC roster. There is so much youth on the roster, there are several players that have key roles that have only seen the Rocky Mountains on a map in Social Studies class.
While head coach Steve Sarkisian can pump crowd noise through speakers all week in practice, there's not really a way for him to get the team accustomed to having less oxygen (maybe he can have them practice on top of an LA skyscraper in the smog?).
A lot of teams have to deal with going on the road and dealing with the elements, but the altitude is even more of a factor due to USC's limited depth. The coaching staff doesn't really have the option of increasing their rotations to account for altitude-derived fatigue. In both the Trojans' losses and in the Arizona victory, they wore down in the fourth quarter and were ineffective on both sides of the ball. Utah will try to do exactly the same.
Baby Offensive Line No Match
The Trojans entered this season with exactly one offensive line starter returning to the same position -- left tackle Chad Wheeler. Instead, they start three freshmen on the line with Wheeler and veteran Max Tuerk, who was moved to center this year. The unit has come together really well over the last couple of games, but it hasn't faced a defensive front as fearsome as Utah's.
There's a reason Nate Orchard and company lead the nation with 33 sacks. They attack the quarterback. They are very aggressive. That means the offensive line is going to have a lot of work to do. Utah uses a lot of zone blitzing schemes that can be particularly difficult for young players to pick up.
USC was fortunate quarterback Taylor Kelly wasn't available for the Arizona State game. The Trojans shut down Arizona State's rushing attack, but Kelly would have brought a whole different aspect to the offense that the Trojans have yet to really stop in the last four or five years. They have routinely struggled with running quarterbacks -- Darron Thomas and Matt Scott immediately come to mind.
This issue was on center stage this season when USC couldn't stop Boston College's Tyler Murphy. The Trojans have excelled in run defense the last three games, but the concerns haven't necessarily been put to bed since none of the quarterbacks USC faced were the running threat that Kendal Thompson will be when he enters the game for Utah. Travis Wilson is slated to start for Utah, but if Thompson has success on his first drive in the game, expect Utah coach Kyle Wittingham to stick with the hot hand, especially if the Trojans continue to struggle with running quarterbacks.
Automatic Andy vs. Injured Andre
The two senior kickers in this game are basically polar opposites. USC's Andre Heidari was the No. 1 kicker recruit in the country, has a gregarious personality and doesn't mind being the life of the party. Utah's Andy Phillips was a member of the US National Ski Team and had a soccer background. Rather than being recruited, he sent videos to every school in the state of Utah and was given a walk-on tryout by Utah despite never having played football competitively.
Phillips is a father and a husband. He's been cleaning dirty diapers over the last two weeks while Heidari has been trying to recover from a groin injury that has kept him out of the last two games. Both have big legs and have been relatively good from distance, but "Automatic Andy" doesn't miss any short ones while Heidari has shanked a few.
If the game comes down to field goals, my money is on Andy Phillips, unless Matt Kalil is coming back to block kicks and Torin Harris is around to scoop and score, and then not score, and then score again 30 minutes after the game (Vegas isn't a fan of the Pac-12 refs either).