For USC, the variability of what could happen in the next three weeks is pretty crazy to think about. Let’s run through the scenarios.
First, let’s assume the Trojans the table. They beat UCLA, then a top-three Notre Dame team, then win the Pac-12 championship at Autzen Stadium by knocking off the No. 2 Ducks. Doable? Absolutely. Likely? Mmmm … no. But it wouldn’t be crazy. If all that happens, the Trojans work their way back into the conversation as an elite team, and complete one of the major in-season turnaround projects of all time. Lane Kiffin will have redeemed himself. Matt Barkley gets his Rose Bowl. The award-season attention on Marqise Lee would be tremendous. And the Trojans would set themselves up for a major run at the national championship in 2013, with young offensive and defensive fronts returning, a strong recruiting class coming in and two (maybe three) young quarterbacks fighting to become the heir apparent to the most coveted position in college football -- throwing to No. 9, among others.
Now, let’s go to the other end of the spectrum and consider what happens if USC loses to UCLA and Notre Dame. Then, there is no Oregon rematch. Likely? No. Possible? Absolutely. USC would almost assuredly drop out of the rankings. Its bowl game options are closer to Christmas than New Year’s. The pressure on Kiffin would be enormous, with major staff changes being made, at the very least. Barkley’s stature in program history would pale in comparison to expectations coming into the year when some called him the greatest Trojan ever. And the forecast for 2013 would be cloudy, with doubts about USC’s ability to hold this recruiting class together while starting to feel the effects of scholarship reductions.
And then, of course, there are several possible outcomes in between. But I don’t remember such a small stretch where a team had such a huge swing in potential outcomes and the domino effects of those outcomes, with both ends of the spectrum – positive and negative – being fully realizable. My prediction is the Trojans win on Saturday against UCLA by a good margin, win again against Notre Dame in a closer game and lose a shootout rematch at Oregon. But if I fell unconscious for three weeks and suddenly woke up to be told they won all three or lost to UCLA and Notre Dame, neither outcome would shock me. This 2012 USC team has proven equally capable of both.
Just think about last Saturday with ASU in town. Could USC have looked worse in the first quarter? The defense was pierced for runs right up the middle. ASU’s tight end not only converted on a third-and-16 but turned into a touchdown (by the way, the Trojans will be facing a couple of outstanding tight ends in the coming weeks). The offense was listless. It was on its heels, lethargic and uninspired, turning the ball over and wasting red-zone opportunities. That USC team loses to UCLA and Notre Dame.
But then there’s this other USC team that showed up with about six minutes left in the second quarter. It had an offensive line that came off the ball and physically dominated an incredibly talented ASU defensive front. It ran the ball. Over and over. It threw the ball well, set up with play-action off its strong run game. Its defensive front got penetration, got off blocks and made plays. Sacks. Tackles for loss. Stuffing the run. That USC team beats UCLA and Notre Dame, and gives itself an even better chance against Oregon than the team we saw on Nov. 3.
Which team shows up, and which outcome comes to fruition in these next few weeks is the big unknown. Obviously, the young men in the locker room will have a lot to say about it, and this is the time of year -- against rivals -- when we see how they respond to the attention and pressure. And then there’s Kiffin. With just one marquee win (last year against Oregon) through his three seasons), this is his time. Which team shows up may depend on his week preparing, inspiring, focusing and motivating this team to play its most complete games of the year in the closing stretch.
From one end of the spectrum to the other, we will have to just wait and see. One result could have fans demanding season tickets next year. The other end could have them demanding Kiffin’s head. And it’s all on the line with UCLA and Notre Dame on the schedule. Should USC fans want it any other way?