Not sure how they do it but the prognosticators like our own Tom Haire, who are willing to not only pick every Pac-12 game of the season, as well as the score. And they put their name behind the numbers while getting it right more often than not -- truly amazing stuff.
Ask me at halftime at a game I'm covering and I'll hesitate to pick the final score. But an entire season? Without knowing who's going to be playing quarterback for so many teams. Or where the injuries will come. That takes a brave man.
What we will do here, however, is take a look at USC's entire schedule, front-loaded and back-loaded as it is, which may just mean the middle is where the traps lie, and talk about exactly how it is the Trojans could win, or how they could lose, every game on the schedule. Because that's how the ex-coach in us says we have to look at it.
So here we go:
Sept. 3 vs. Alabama
HOW USC WINS: If two things happen, USC wins this game. If Neil Callaway's O-line comes out and plays like the big, veteran bunch they think they can be, even against the most dominant physical group in the nation, and if Clancy Pendergast's defense plays as fast and as together as they've hinted they can, the Trojans can get the jump on a Tide team that may need some time to play up to its talent this season. Which they almost surely will. We think the one advantage USC could have is team speed even as fast as the Tide is -- especially on defense against a new quarterback still to be determined. But USC had a speed edge last fall against many of its opponents. You can't just have it, you have to use it. If USC comes out and plays fast, and relatively mistake-free, with a physical force of an O-line that protects Max Browne and gives the running backs some seams to run through, and a recently reinforced D-line can hold the line literally against the certain Alabama pounding, the Trojans win. We're pretty sure JuJu Smith-Schuster and Adoree' Jackson show up like veterans they are.
HOW USC LOSES: If despite all the spring, summer and fall work to change the culture, there's still too much of last fall left in the Trojan program. Or too much of thinking that this game is about Bama. It isn't. Or shouldn't be. If this game is about Bama being Bama, then USC can turn its thoughts to Utah State and the Pac-12 and what it must do to get physical enough to play with the big boys. That's the key. Can USC be USC, the USC it wants to be, against the toughest, most physically dominant, most established, best-coached program in the nation in Game 1? Against a program that's where USC was a decade ago? Not many think it can? But what do the Trojans think?
Sept. 10 Utah State
HOW USC WINS: Sure, it's the game between Alabama and Stanford. But it's not a trap game. No way the home opener ever can be that. The point here is that if you think you can play those two teams, can stand up to that kind of physicality with your own, that's not something you turn on and off. Play fast and physical against the Aggies, a better opponent than you see in these guarantee games, run the ball when you want and shut down the run, and USC puts its lone Coliseum game in the first four into the win column.
HOW USC LOSES: We've seen the Trojans lose one of these early at home. That 10-7 Washington State loss in 2013 comes to mind. Trojans would have to be really uncertain and out of synch on offense for this to happen.
Sept. 17 at Stanford
HOW USC WINS: It's going to sound a little like a broken record here but the USC defense has to come out every week and play faster than the people it's playing. Do not let them play their game. Against Stanford, do not sit back, wait for the Cardinal to get the ball to Christian McCaffrey with a head of steam as a runner, receiver or return guy, and then see if you can tackle him. You can't. Or won't. Take him away. Make their new quarterback beat you. He won't. Sure, McCaffrey is the best player in the nation. That's the good news. You know where the focus should be. Watch last year's two films and do everything opposite of what that defense was trying to do. On offense, do not limit yourself to slow-developing zone runs and mid-range passes outside the hash marks. Stanford may not have great athleticism but if you do what they know you're going to do, they'll beat you to the spot and out-tough you when they know what's coming. Make them defend the center of the field. And quick-hitting runs and passes. Make them run with you. They can't.
HOW USC LOSES: Play Stanford's game. Try to counter-punch. Just hang in there and hope for good things to happen. Make mistakes. Pile up the penalties that the Pac-12 officials will be only too happy to give you in Palo Alto. Forget that it's early in the season and a pretty much new Stanford team has just one game under its belt. And let Christian McCaffrey be Christian McCaffrey.
Sept. 23 (Friday) at Utah
HOW USC WINS: OK, the temptation is to use this game as the perfect time to rail against the Pac-12's ridiculously self-sabotaging scheduling that has a Top 20 league team playing on the road at Stanford and then six days later -- again on the road on a Friday night -- in Salt Lake City. No other conference anywhere would try that. But in the name of letting USC and Stanford flip their schedules every year to play Notre Dame in South Bend in mid-October and in California to end the season every other year, this is what you get, the Pac-12 says. Tough. But to throw in Utah on a Friday night six days after Stanford is beyond stupid. Which is why USC doesn't make this anything special. Make it an extension of how you play Alabama and Stanford. Play fast on defense against the new Utah quarterback. Use your skill players with speed to beat the Utes to the edge and down the field. Play your game. Forget the schedule. And if you can pull off some of those Cameron Smith takeaways from last fall, that will help as well.
HOW USC LOSES: Turn the ball over is the easy way to get crossways in SLC. Don't give the Utes anything. If you do, they'll take it. And after the way USC destroyed the then-No. 3-ranked Utes' hopes last fall in the Coliseum, they'll be looking to get even. Not to mention for USC's takeaway of Stevie Tu'ikolovatu. Let them in the game, let them think they have a chance, don't show up ready to play and you breathe life into a solid, tough Utah team. Let them hang around to the end as USC did two years ago here and you see what can happen.
Oct. 1 Arizona State
HOW USC WINS: At last, it's October and USC is back in the Coliseum and if the Trojans have built up a head of steam from September's gauntlet of good to great opponents, it's time to build on that. If not, it's time to get it going in the friendly confines for an eight-game regular season run. Either way, this is a big deal, getting back to LA. Play like you're a team that's getting better every week and building on what you've done the game before. And do it right away. We're thinking Arizona State doesn't always handle adversity all that well, except of course for that horrific finish -- from USC's perspective two years ago -- here and send the Sun Devils off with their tails between their legs from the get-go. Clancy owes them one from his only time against them in Tempe in 2013. How about holding them to -- oh say -- 50 points fewer than in that game. That should do it.
HOW USC LOSES: Show up and think getting back home is the answer this week. It isn't. But USC has not been as dominant at home as a Trojans program should be in recent seasons. Let this one get loose early, give up a turnover score or two, and in the Pac-12, you can give a team a shot and they'll take it. Even if you're not sure exactly how. If USC doesn't set the tone for how these kinds of games will be played, then it's going to be played where USC doesn't want it to be.
Oct. 8 Colorado
HOW USC WINS: Home for the second straight week, the Trojans win it the way they always seem to against the Buffs: Get up early, get your skilled people into the game right away, play too fast for the Buffs to respond to and then just hold on while getting everyone into the game. Sounds like a formula that works. CU is getting better but just not better enough.
HOW USC LOSES: Coming up with a losing scenario isn't easy here. Colorado will be more able to challenge teams like USC this year. And that has to be the thought on everyone's mind. But it would take a breakdown on both sides of the ball for that to happen.
Oct. 15 at Arizona
HOW USC WINS: One of our favorite trips. Always enjoy playing a RichRod team in Tucson. They will challenge you. Although we're just not sure how the Wildcats have enough defense to do that against a USC team that can run it, throw it and catch it with the skill people. But most of all, for the first time in a while, a USC team that can defend it as well. Just play your game, don't make mistakes and it's a bad matchup for an Arizona team without the talent to handle a USC team that shows up ready to play.
HOW USC LOSES: Let Arizona throw it around and tempo the game to start and get into a shootout in steamy Tucson. You do not want to do that. You don't even want to let them think they have a chance after halftime. Running it down their throats is the best way to do it here. Take the Wildcats and their fans out of it by pounding the ball. But get into one of those we'll-throw-it-to-Marqise-Lee-for-a-Pac-12-record-375-yards games and you just might lose. So don't do that. Keep the October momentum going into the semi-bye week.
Oct. 27 (Thursday) California
HOW USC WINS: First, take advantage of the bye, use these 12 days for a much-needed regrouping for the final five-game run to the finish. And based on the defense Cal played in its opener giving up 31 points to Hawai'i in Australia, that should start with getting the offense into a finished state building on its demonstrated strengths thus far. And if this is a game where USC gets to display its enhanced depth, let's see it. Perfect time for it if the defense keeps a dangerous Cal offense in line.
HOW USC LOSES: Depending on how things are going -- really good and the Trojans listen to people telling them how good they are or really not good, and they listen to the downers -- this game could go South. But it would take a failure of the focus here, losing track of how important games like this can be ultimately. And USC does not come out and play fast and physical.
Nov. 5 Oregon
HOW USC WINS: Looking forward to this game. Last year in Eugene, the Trojans demonstrated exactly how not to play man-to-man coverage. Techniques were terrible. Execution was awful. The result an embarrassing mess in a game where USC should have been competitive. This will -- or should be -- much different. For Oregon, watching last year's film won't be all that instructive. And like the last time USC beat the Ducks in 2011, pound the ball. Make them defend the run right at them. Don't think they can.
HOW USC LOSES: Look at last year. Unfocused, undisciplined play will still get you beat, even at home against a Duck program not maybe what it used to be. The winning story for USC is the same. But if the Trojans fail to play physical and focused on offense, and fast and mistake-free on defense, then Oregon is good enough to beat you.
Nov. 12 at Washington
HOW USC WINS: Watch last year's film. Do the opposite. And while revenge isn't always the best motivation, maybe embarrassment can be. Not only did it help USC lose its head coach a couple of days later, it showed how much USC had lost its way with a distracted coaching staff and failure to focus on what it could do and should do. So that's what has to happen here. Sure, Washington is the hot pick right now. We'll see where the Huskies are Nov. 12. USC clearly has more talent, for whatever that's worth. If it's disciplined, focused, smart and physical -- there's a theme here -- USC wins in Seattle.
HOW USC LOSES: Watch last year's film. Repeat. Because if USC loses this game, that's what it will take -- USC losing it. The Huskies probably aren't good enough to go out and win this game all on their own without USC's cooperation. So if the Trojans cooperate in this final game away from LA, they can stub their toe once again.
Nov. 19 at UCLA
HOW USC WINS: One of the times when we look at last year and say, yeah, that pretty much worked. And while the stumbling start in that USC win wasn't all that spectacular, the finish -- physical and forceful -- was. Start out that way this year against a Bruins team that's been challenged much less through the season than USC will have been. Make that "iron sharpens iron" truism of Clay Helton's come to life in the Crosstown Rivalry where one team has had to negotiate a far more difficult schedule than the other. And even given that, this should be USC's chance to sew up the South and with a deeper, more talented, and more importantly, much more motivated and disciplined team, the Trojans triumph.
HOW USC LOSES: If the Trojans watch last year's film and think they're really that good. It's happened before in recent years in this series, when a USC team just knew it was better than UCLA. And got clocked. If USC comes in here with wins over better teams than a UCLA that's getting picked, it would seem, more because of its schedule than its ability, watch out. It doesn't take a week of family and friends telling you how big you're going to win this one in the Rose Bowl to not show up against a UCLA team -- and fan base -- that wants to beat you more than anything else in its world.
Nov. 26 Notre Dame
HOW USC WINS: Play a full four quarters. Not a bad effort in South Bend last fall on a short week with a new coach. Now finish strong against an Irish team that's barely been out of South Bend. And probably hasn't been challenged the way this USC team, finishing strong, could be prepared to bring it to a Notre Dame team without the talent of last year. When USC handles its business by letting its athletes be athletes, its skill players play with skill, its defenders attack aggressively, and it does so with discipline and focus, USC should have the upper hand here. The Trojans have more weapons. They just have to use them. Sure, Notre Dame's two best players are quarterbacks. But you can only play one at a time.
HOW USC LOSES: It does so if it lets one of those ND quarterbacks go off. It does so if things haven't gone as well as USC had hoped this season and the Trojans are down in the dumps about that. Or maybe it's the other way around and the Trojans have done better than even they expected and they come in here all high and mighty although in our 15 years covering them, we haven't seen that happen. Notre Dame is always enough to focus the mind if you're a Trojan So then it comes down to making mistakes or getting sloppy. Are injuries a factor as they were a year ago at the end of the toughest season any team has had to play in recent memory? That could be a decider and it's the great unknown.
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