I'm going to have to stick with the team that I thought would present the biggest challenge before the season began, and that's Notre Dame. Sure, the Irish offense didn't look all that impressive in week 1, particularly in the first half, but you have to take into account the fact that they were playing against a pretty strong defensive ACC team in Georgia Tech. It's also not unusual for a team to struggle offensively coming right out of the gate, and you could tell that Quinn and company started to find their rhythm in the second half. I think that'll continue as the season goes on. Remember, the Trojans aren't playing Notre Dame this weekend, but way ahead on November 25th. What was even more impressive however, was the Irish defense. They definitely look improved from a year ago and could present a bigger challenge to the Trojan offense. Throw in the uncertainty and high emotion that comes with a rivalry game, and the USC-Notre Dame clash should still be the biggest game of the year when it's all said and done.
Notre Dame is the toughest game left on the Trojans' schedule and one, two, or six Irish losses before November 25 isn't going to change that. Cal isn't nearly as bad as they showed in Knoxville and right now, and Oregon is an easy call for the second-best team in the Pac-10, but Notre Dame is on a different level than both of those teams. Talent-wise, Notre Dame can't match up to the Trojans, but that was even more evident last season, and we saw how that played out. Charlie Weis isn't going to win any personality contests, but you know he'll do everything he can to not start his career 0-2 against USC. The best part about this game for the Trojans, however, is that if their toughest game this season is a home game in late November, they should be right in the middle of the National Championship hunt.
The Notre Dame game is the most obvious choice because they are most talented and well coached team remaining on the schedule. However, for the sake of argument since others have already written about Notre Dame, I will say the Arizona game presents a pretty tough challenge for the Trojans. With all the comparisons being made to the 2003 team, we all remember that the only loss for that team came on the road against the first Pac-10 opponent of the season (Cal). That Cal team featured a new coach who had re-energized the program, similar to the way in which Mike Stoops has people in Tucson fired up, and they had a talented quarterback they believed in with Aaron Rodgers while the Wildcats think they have a big-time guy in Willie Tuitama. If Willie gets hot in the game, you never know what could happen because they have just enough talent to be dangerous. The thing that makes me nervous about Arizona is that Stoops will have them playing with emotion and there is nothing more the Wildcats would love than to knock off the Trojans in this early season match-up. Chances are the Trojans roll down there for a business trip and take care of things but this game has all the signs of being one the Trojans had best not overlook.
California. Yes, California. The 35-18 debacle at the hands of Tennessee was a little embarrassing for the Pac-10, but it was the first game of the season, Cal was breaking in new offensive coordinator Mike Dunbar, and they were playing at Tennessee. While the pre-season number 9 ranking may have been a little high, the fact remains that Tedford is the only Pac-10 coach who can compete with Carroll. With the exception of 2005, when Cal lost Nate Longshore midseason as its starting quarterback (leaving Joseph Ayoob to be thrown to the wolves against the Trojans), the Bears have played the Trojans tougher than any other Pac-10 team. Cal returns 15 starters and is expected to be improved from last season. Assuming there is no quarterback controversy (Longshore managed to hold onto the starting job for at least this weekend), Tedford and Dunbar should have their Bears ready to go against the Trojans. This goes for Heisman Trophy hopeful Marshawn Lynch, who will likely put on more of a running game against the Trojans than he did against the Volunteers. USC will be coming off of a likely tough game against Oregon, and there's also the danger it may look ahead to the Notre Dame game, making that November 18 date with Cal ripe for a potential upset. Trojan fans often point to the 2003 team that won a National Championship when asked how USC will fare without Leinart, Bush and White. Remember USC did lose that year, to Cal.