But the Tar Heels play in the weak Atlantic Coast Conference, and they reeled off wins against Boston College, NC State, Virginia, Pittsburgh and Old Dominion. Does that look anything like WSU’s final four of 2014: USC, Oregon State, Arizona State and Washington?
Still, the example of North Carolina says there’s a chance. But the likelihood is Washington State is in position to play spoiler, and nothing more. So here’s what the Cougar dream-killers could accomplish:
-- Completely knock USC out of the Pac-12 South playoff race.
-- Climb out of the Pac-12 North basement by sending Oregon State there.
-- End any hope of a major bowl, and perhaps a Pac-12 South title, for Arizona State.
-- Beat Washington. Who needs a reason?
Remember Cougar Nation’s state of mind following the crushing season-opening loss at Auburn, knowing they were staring at 0-2 with an upcoming game at USC? Instead, WSU began to gain belief it had something last season when it scored a 10-7 win over the Trojans.
To be sure, though, these aren’t your 2013 Trojans. They’re also not the Pete Carroll Trojans, either.
They are Steve Sarkisian’s Trojans, a team that has some incredible athletic talent but dubious results. There was the 37-31 loss at Boston College, the incredible last-minute collapse to Arizona State, and Saturday’s last-second loss at Utah. Not to mention USC darned near kicked away a win at Arizona.
This isn’t a good USC team, but it’s still USC. The marquee win, if there’s one on the Trojans’ schedule, probably was the 13-10 decision at Stanford during Week 2. From a score perspective, USC’s most dominating win was 35-10 over Oregon State, but a pick-six and a Hail Mary TD just before halftime dressed up that score.
Here’s where the spoiler part comes in. USC needs one win to become bowl eligible, and with four games remaining, it’s likely to happen. But if the Cougars can somehow spring an upset, suddenly the Trojans are looking for a win against a remaining cast of California, UCLA and Notre Dame.
Offensively, the Trojans are balanced. They average 450 yards a game, 272 through the air, and 178 on the ground. Outside of passing efficiency (No. 8), USC doesn’t have an offensive category among the national top 30. Defensively, the Trojans are solid, but hardly spectacular. They giving up 396 yards a game, including 244 passing yards. USC does excel in turnover margin at nearly plus-1 per game, but are also one of the country’s most penalized teams at nine per game.
USC lost two key players in the loss to Utah, and they began the season thin due to sanctions and limited scholarships. Out for Saturday’s game are linebacker J.R. Tavai (sprained knee) and left tackle Chad Wheeler (knee). Tavai is one of USC’s top tacklers, and has eight tackles for loss and four sacks this season.
Defensively, USC’s leaders are linebacker Hayes Pullard (59 tackles), safety Su’a Cravens (11.5 tackles for loss, 2 interceptions) and defensive end Leonard Williams (4.5 sacks). Also watch out for cornerback Kevon Seymour, who has 11 pass breakups this season.
USC quarterback Cody Kessler is efficient. The Trojans’ junior has passed for 2,148 yards and 20 touchdowns, completing 70.2 percent of his passes, with just two picks. Nelson Agholor is easily his favorite receiver, with 58 catches for 643 yards and seven touchdowns. Other receivers of note are Juju Smith (32-427, 2 TD) and tailback Javorius “Buck” Allen (27-316, 1 TD).
Speaking of Allen, he will be a key figure in WSU’s defensive game plan. Allen is one of the Pac-12’s top running backs, with 1,010 yards and eight touchdowns this season. Allen has eight 100-yard games in 2014.
Last year: Andrew Furney's 41-yard field goal with 3:03 remaining snapped a 7-7 tie and led Washington State to a 10-7 win over USC in the Coliseum. In a game where both defenses dominated, the Cougars’ Damante Horton returned an interception 70 yards for a touchdown just before halftime to tie the game at 7-7. Horton’s second interception during the final minute sealed the win.
Familiar faces: USC has three Washington prep graduates on its roster in sophomore kicker Alex Wood, sophomore offensive tackle Zach Banner and freshman quarterback Max Browne. The lone assistant coach with Washington State ties is running backs coach Johnny Nansen, a Coug linebacker from 1994-96. Two coaches with in-state ties are tight ends coach Marques Tuiasosopo and linebackers coach Peter Sirmon.
Notable note: The last time Washington State beat USC in Pullman was 2002. It’s one of the great Cougar games of the past 20 years, when Drew Dunning kicked a 35-yard field goal in overtime to knock off the Trojans 30-27.
Read Nick Daschel’s occasional Pac-12 ramblings at twitter.com/nickdaschel