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2015 USC Football: Under the Radar “Must-Wins”

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Everyone knows the Trojans have a brutal schedule, but there are a few trap games on the schedule as well

Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

The experts, pundits, and Vegas spreads can use all the statistics and reason to forecast the weekly victors of College Football. But the true beauty of the sport is that on any given Saturday (or Thursday) any given team can defeat any other and overcome all factors of logic and prediction. Far too many times have College Football fans become familiar with "the letdown factor" and upsets that drive home crowds to storm and rejoice on their fields of triumph. The key to avoiding a letdown, however, is to identify an opponent's threats early-on, treat each contest as if it is a championship game, and strain to finish to the final whistle.

Since the prior BCS Championship pairing and newly implemented College Football Playoff systems largely favor undefeated, or at maximum one-loss teams, it is no secret that teams ought to enter each contest believing that the game is a "must-win." In the case of the 2015 USC Trojans, while each game is of course a must-win in order to blaze a path to the College Football Playoff, these three games—while on the surface appear to already be easy Trojan victories—are perhaps just as important to overcome as the likes of Stanford, Arizona State, Notre Dame, Arizona, Oregon, and UCLA.

1) Washington (October 8, 2015)

The Washington Huskies look to rebound from a six-loss season in the first year of the Chris Petersen era in Seattle. Though they finished third in the North Division of the Pac-12 Conference in 2014, the Huskies still lost a host of defensive starters to the NFL Draft, including first round choices Danny Shelton, Marcus Peters, and Shaq Thompson. USC hasn't faced Washington since 2012, a 24-14 Trojan win in Seattle, and welcomes the Huskies to the Coliseum for a Thursday night primetime showdown. Though in theory the Trojans should take care of business, they must be cautious of overlooking their opponent's strengths and confidence—Washington faces Oregon at home in the following week, and would love nothing more than to build momentum for that contest by knocking off the Trojans on the road. USC, at the same time, must not be caught looking ahead to its annual date with Notre Dame (also in the season's next week), or looking back on its matchup with Arizona St. which falls the week prior to hosting Washington. The USC-Arizona St. matchup should be a very physical, hard fought battle, regardless of the outcome, and the Trojans will need to quickly transition to Washington after returning from the desert.

2) California (October 31, 2015)

Though the Golden Bears posted only a 5-7 record last season, California became one of the most surprising teams in the Pac-12 by avenging its 1-11 record from 2013. Behind the leadership of quarterback Jared Goff, who passed for 35 touchdowns and nearly 4,000 yards last season, Cal played their conference foes close in losses that could have easily turned into Golden Bear victories if allotted more time (49-45 vs. Arizona, 36-34 vs. UCLA, 59-41 vs. Oregon, and 38-30 vs. USC). In fact, Cal overcome a 31-2 halftime deficit against USC, battled back to nearly defeat the Trojans on the road, and outscored the Trojans 28-7 in the second half. Cal faces an uphill battle in 2015, with 4 out of 5 games prior to USC on the road (at Texas, Washington, Utah, and UCLA). You can bet that if the Bears steal one or two of those wins on the road, especially against UCLA in the week prior to hosting USC on Halloween night, Cal will roll into its contest with the Trojans riding great momentum. It is most important for the Trojans to remain focused and jump on the Bears early, as looming in the distance is its showdown with reigning Pac-12 South Division Champion Arizona. Though USC should leave Berkeley with a win, expect it to be closer than desired, something along the lines of 45-31, or 42-31.

3) Colorado (November 13, 2015)

The last two times the Trojans faced Colorado at Folsom Field in Boulder (both nighttime contests in November), they had to endure sub-freezing temperatures and harsh wind-chill. This year's matchup should feature much of the same conditions, and if the Trojans can overcome the weather factor (which sometimes is an integral component to a road-upset) expect USC to take care of business and cruise into the next week's showdown against the Oregon Ducks in Eugene. Even so, the Buffaloes are a much better team when playing at home, and last season nearly upset ranked challengers UCLA and Utah, just coming up short 40-37 in 2OT and 38-34, respectively. It is most important that USC not look ahead to Oregon, which is arguably the Pac-12 game of the year, as falling on the road to an unranked Colorado team in late November will undoubtedly derail the Trojans' dream of reaching the College Football Playoff. However, expect the Trojans to pull away in the second half and continue their path to the playoff with a victory in Boulder.