The Hogue Report: Onto Stanford

I remember talking to some pretty smart football people before the season began, and it surprised me that almost every one of them was ready to pencil USC into the national championship game.

Then the season began, and all the talk has been about style points -- assuming that USC’s games aren’t a matter of winning and losing, but more about whether or not they can win pretty, keep their fans entertained, and set up some players for postseason awards.

Having seen the Trojans in their first two games, and looking around the landscape at the others on their schedule, the march to Miami just went from being a lazy walk down a paved path to a slow climb up a steep incline with a few caverns to cross along the way.

I am incredibly impressed by several individual players, but still waiting for USC to put it together and look like an elite team. Certainly, the two of the best receivers in the country are on this team, and their ability to take over a game is unlike any tandem I've ever seen. But they haven’t played against LSU’s secondary, where throwing them hitch passes and watching them run wouldn’t be good enough. And the offensive line, while still not consistent, played a better game and gave Silas Redd and Curtis McNeal room to run and do their thing. But they better shore up the missed assignments, penalties, and poor pass protection before facing stronger defensive fronts in the weeks ahead. And the defense, while it started strong, looked lacking in depth and out-of-gas in the second half. If the up-tempo pace of the Orange wore them out, what’s going to happen when Oregon come to town?

But the Trojans are 2-0, and in some ways, that's all that matters for now. The fact that their play might not have been good enough to beat Alabama, LSU or Oregon right now doesn't matter. They weren't on the schedule in the first two weeks.

But tests are coming. Soon. And repeatedly. With every week bringing a new team who has circled that particular Saturday on their calendar.

The Pac-12 just had its best weekend in a long time. Three unranked teams (UCLA, Oregon State and Arizona) beat ranked opponents from the Big Ten and Big-12. Arizona State looks talented as always, and now maybe a bit more disciplined and dangerous with its new coach. Stanford bounced back from a lackluster opening weekend win to throttle Duke. And at the top of the conference, Oregon rolled again, having scored 85 first-half points in two games. That’s all in addition to the No. 3 ranked Trojans.

Larry Scott is the happiest man in college football. But USC fans just got a lot more nervous.

Before this weekend's validation, even going way back to spring football, I told everyone who would listen that this road wouldn't be easy. In fact, I made a few Trojans angry by saying having USC in the title game was far from certain. As I described it, just because the odds the Trojans win it all may be better than anyone else doesn't mean it's likely. Just ask Vegas -- it's not like it’s an even-money bet.

So forget the style points, forget the postseason awards and dropping in the polls -- let those take care of themselves. Just keep improving and keep winning (and the latter won’t happen without the former). This weekend, just be good enough to beat Stanford. When the time comes, be ready to beat Oregon. And along the way, survive the game or two that, unexpectedly, is close in the fourth quarter when some breaks go against you - - whether that ends up being Arizona or Utah or UCLA. If USC can do that, week after week, they will end up in Miami. And if it truly is all about the journey, then maybe USC fans should just be thankful and enjoy the ride.