SALT LAKE CITY -- It has come down to this -- as we always thought it might. USC was always going to be an underdog against No. 1 Alabama and No. 7 Stanford. Although a win over Alabama might have changed the line for USC-Stanford.
But the way the Trojans have lost those two games, the way they've done so much damage to themselves, maybe more so than Alabama and Stanford did, is the issue as USC prepares to kick off (6 p.m., FS1) in what is predicted to be a cold and rainy, loud and blacked-out RIce-Eccles Stadium although it's not raining right now.
USC's Utah State game gave the Trojans the standard mismatch between a power program and someone who's not. And was certainly more impressive than Utah's three wins -- over Southern Utah, San Jose State and a gift from BYU in a game where the 24th-ranked Utes turned it over six times.
What's a bit surprising is how absolutely dismissive the folks here seem to be about USC's chances. Maybe the Trojan running backs and wide receivers have the edge, the radio sports talk guys were saying yesterday, but nowhere else.
Utah, they say, is bigger, badder, smarter, sounder, superior by far on both lines of scrimmage, better special teams, an edge at quarterback with Sam Darnold getting his first start and clearly an edge in coaching with veteran Kyle Whittingham against a USC coach they probably couldn't name.
How they could know all of that, considering the vast disparity in scheduling, is hard to imagine. It's really unknowable. That's why they'll play tonight's game.
But what is knowable is the way USC's stock as declined. As in the understanding, not even worth talking about, that Utah is just so much more sound than USC the way it plays the game and pretty much always has been when you put one program against another. Say what?
Sure, USC has had its troubles -- many self-inflicted since the Trojans dispatched Utah 23-14 in the Utes first-ever Pac-12 game in 2011. And how about that game here in 2012 when a careless USC spotted Utah a couple of TDs before running off 38 straight points or something like that.
And had USC not had a Sark brain-lock when it could have put the game away two years ago only to lose with eight seconds on the clock, USC would be coming in here with five straight wins since the 2001 10-6 loss in Pete Carroll's first year in the Las Vegas Bowl. And of course, that would include USC's 42-24 thumping of No. 3 Utah last year in a bounce-back game for Clay & Co. in his second game -- and after his first full week of practice -- as the Trojans' interim coach after Sark's dismissal.
And yet the script has been written, it seems, for this one. Utah knows who it is, what it expects and how it wins. USC? Who could possibly know? And there's a point there even though it was USC that rebounded last fall from the Sark saga to win a Pac-12 South title, something Utah has never managed to do.
But where is that physical, run-first, tough, technique-sound Trojan team Clay promised this season? Nowhere to be seen except for a moment here, a moment there against sound, strong Alabama and Stanford programs who don't just preach that kind of football, they play it.
Even Clay's upbeat "faith, family and football" theme has been disrupted by the sad story of Osa Masina and Don Hill, both no longer on the roster, and E.J. Price, headed home to Georgia.
So now it comes down to this. Playing hard, playing smart, playing together, won't cut it. USC must win here, as unfair as that might be. Footballs take funny bounces. You never know. Those are Pac-12 officials out there. Who knows what they'll do.
But none of that matters now. As Clay said of last year's run to the Pac-12 title, it was a "win and advance" scenario where one more loss would make for an elimination game and USC survived beating Arizona, Cal, Colorado and UCLA -- not exactly Murderer's Row, around a humbling loss at Oregon, but that was enough.
Enough for Clay to secure the USC job with that UCLA win and get a spot in the Pac-12 Championship Game. That's what it will take this year, it would seem, after the stumbling start that's created a "can't do" narrative about USC football that will surely impact recruiting and transfers if it's not ended this evening with a win here.
USC must win this game. Sure, you can create a scenario that even with a loss and an 0-2 Pac-12 start, in the South, a team could put together a win streak despite the clear improvement at Cal and Colorado, and get itself in the mix with two losses and a final Bruin-eliminating win like last year. But that USC team had already beaten Utah. This one must as well.
There's also this. Lose here after beating a better Utah team a year ago and what really are the chances that this USC team, without last year's baggage, can string a streak together? Not likely after losing six of the last eight with Clay in charge if this is not a win -- three of four to finish last year, three of four to open this year.
The good news has to be that even if there's a question about how much pressure this USC team faces in practice to get into its uptempo game, it's had to face that in actual games from Alabama and Stanford. And with a roster peppered with veteran, talented, four- and five-star players that their coaches thought would produce an explosive offense, at the very least, well, that could all come out tonight.
Sometimes having better athletes matters. Like in the Las Vegas Bowl with Clay in charge in 2013 when USC's fewer players turned out to be just so much better, faster, more athletic, than those on a decent Derek Carr-led Fresno State team. But it's not a panacea.
You must produce, especially on offense where USC goes with a first-time starter. Does this help? Does it focus the Trojans on what they can do -- and only that -- with an additional running back. And a big back at that, in an offense sorely lacking the ability to enforce its will on defenses for all sorts of reasons -- starting with an offensive line that has looked slow, not all that physical, and distracted, unable to give you that five-forming-a-fist punch Neil Callaway has been preaching.
That we're asking all of these questions is something of an answer in itself. We simply have no idea after the encouraging signs we saw in spring, summer and the ensuing devolution in the fall thus far when people started hitting the Trojans in the mouth.
Maybe that's what has to happen here. No more Mr. Nice Guy in all the ways you can mean that for USC football. People are pointing and laughing at you. They feel sorry for you -- well, not quite. And they say you had it coming.
Only one way to change that talk. Beat Utah. Nothing else matters. This is it. A one-game season.
Lose this game and you face a one-game-at-a-time season where you try to be a spoiler, maybe, as a participant in someone else's season but a bystander in your own.
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