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USC Has More At Stake Than Usual Against UCLA

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This rivalry game will give USC the kind of exposure that has eluded them for much of 2014.

The Trojans need a great effort from All-American Leonard Williams.
The Trojans need a great effort from All-American Leonard Williams.
Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

As I write this, the last vestiges of sunlight are vanishing behind the Pacific Ocean. This time tomorrow, we will convene in Pasadena for an annual tradition of football, rivalry, and postgame parking lot fisticuffs between smug victor and drunk, furious loser.

As it should be in any rivalry, there's a lot on the line. The winner keeps their hopes of winning the toughest division in college football alive, gets to ring the Victory Bell, and gets a little boost in recruiting.

For the UCLA Bruins, it's a chance to keep the #BruinRevolution from becoming only slightly less embarrassing than #UnfinishedBusiness and to preserve their longshot hopes of reaching the College Football Playoff. For USC, it's a chance for a first year head coach to shed the nickname of "Seven-Win-Sark," as well as the general perception that he can't win the big one. And no, Stanford no longer counts as the big one considering how terrible their offense has turned out to be.

But beyond this, there's something else on the line for the Trojans that's rather uncommon for their program to be lacking in: major exposure. USC has developed some big-time playmakers on its team, but before this week you were probably not likely to hear about them outside of Los Angeles and some Pac-12 blogs.

Part of this is due, of course, to the fact that the Trojans are a three-loss team. The Stanford win came at a time when we all thought the Farm was still the conference beast they have become in recent years, and defeating them put USC in the top-10 and got pundits ready to talk about people at USC other than suspended cornerbacks mired in embarrassing scandals.

Then came the inexcusable Boston College loss. And then the worst Hail Mary defense in years. And then a late collapse in Salt Lake. In between those frustrating losses, there have been some incredible individual performances worthy of game stickers. There was Nelson Agholor's 200+ yard receiving efforts in back-to-back games. There's Buck Allen 's streak of 100-yard rushing games. Cody Kessler is putting up better numbers than Matt Leinart did in his Heisman year.

But all these achievements have failed to help SC win critical games that would have allowed them to keep control of their own destiny rather than need a loss from Arizona State to win the Pac-12 South. It's one thing to pile up those numbers. It's another to turn those numbers into big victories.

For these Trojans, their last and biggest chance to show they can shine with the best of them comes at sundown on Saturday. For Kessler, it's a chance to show he should have been considered for the Davey O'Brien Trophy. He will have to show the courage he demonstrated against Cal and launch long balls to Nelson Agholor, Randall Telfer, JuJu Smith and Adoree' Jackson to score quickly and frequently.

For Buck Allen, it's a duel against Paul Perkins to determine the best running back in the west. Amid names like Melvin Gordon and Ameer Abdullah, Buck has faded into the background. Now, in a primetime network slot, it's his chance to show all the talent that up to now has largely been shown this season on the Pac-12 Network and the now-world-famous #Pac12AfterDark time slot.

For Leonard Williams, this is a chance to remind everyone that he will likely be one of the first to hug Roger Goodell next year. The task of stopping Perkins and Brett Hundley will fall largely on him, and if the SC defense begins to collapse in the late going as it has in many games this year, it will be up to him to to take the pressure off the secondary. UCLA's effectiveness on offense will hinge largely on how many times the Trojans can get in the backfield and stop plays before they can start, and no one in the unit does that better than Williams.

And for the program at large, this game holds just as much meaning as the upset over Stanford last year. Like the Stanford of 2013, the Bruins are a proven threat. The team that barely squeaked out victories against the likes of Virginia and Memphis is largely gone now. These Bruins are peaking at the right time and have everything to play for, which would make defeating them so important. The Stanford upset looked like the beginning of a new age under Orgeron. Then the Trojans lost to UCLA, in came Steve Sarkisian, and the team is back to building momentum for the future.

Winning the next two games would reach that goal. It would show the nation that while USC is still losing games it should be winning, it is still moving in the right direction and ready to be a top contender in a new, intense Pac-12. It would show everyone, once again, what Zack Jerome once said:  "Even starved, caged and beaten to death, the Trojans can still land a kill shot."

The moment belongs to the Men Of Troy now. What they do with it is up to them.