At the start of the 2012 season, USC and Utah were considered the two teams to beat in the Pac-12 South. Fast forward four games and the Trojans and Utes have greatly underwhelmed while their entire half of the conference save for Colorado has looked better than was expected. UCLA started strong, going 3-0 (before falling to an Oregon State that is straight up balling) and showing how lethal of a combination QB Brett Hundley and RB Johnathan Franklin are. Rich Rodriguez and Arizona have established one of the highest-scoring offenses in the country, though they are on the verge of going 0-3 in conference play. The Sun Devils have looked strong in all of their wins and even in their 24-20 loss to Missouri in Week 3, but with ASU being ASU, count on them to struggle later and finish 6-6 as usual. Colorado still looks like an FCS school and makes us all wonder why in the world Commissioner Larry Scott would have wanted them to join the conference in the first place.
But the Trojans and the Utes? The best way to describe what they have been is meh.
In their three wins and further in the loss to Stanford, the Trojan offense looked disjointed at best and had been the subject of much discussion until they got the running game going against Cal. Of course once they finally establish a ground game, Matt Barkley starts showing puzzling signs of doubt, throwing careless interceptions unbecoming of a senior quarterback who
is was the Heisman front runner. Utah’s struggles have been even more puzzling, losing to lowly Utah State 27-20 in overtime and getting absolutely rocked by Arizona State, losing 37-7 to the Sun Devils.
To be fair on the Trojans end, when they have won they did so convincingly, having an average margin of victory of 23 points. Utah on the other hand has no offensive accolades to claim, as they have the worst offense in the Pac-12. Defensively, both of these teams have flourished. The Utes have the fourth-best defense in the Pac-12, surrendering only 329.5 yards per game. USC’s defense has been balling in a way most did not expect, with breakout star DE Morgan Breslin sacking quarterbacks like they are going out of style, and the Trojan back seven making plays and getting picks more aggresively than they did in 2011.
Utah has looked less and less menacing as they have played this season, but the Trojans cannot afford to take this team lightly. First, they are playing in unfamiliar Rice-Eccles Stadium, at night, and on a Thursday. In 2011 the Utes really stuck it to the Trojans, almost upsetting USC in the Coliseum in the inaugural Pac-12 game.
There is still a lot of football to be played, but for either of these teams to regain a dominant foothold in the Pac-12 South, it starts with a compelling performance in this game. For USC that means coming off the bye crisper and more productive than in the first third of the season, and actually looking like a team worthy of consideration for a national title. For Utah that means shrugging off their crushing home loss and further knocking USC down a notch in the conference pecking order. History is on USC’s side in this, as they have won 70-percent of their Thursday games.
However, as we have seen many times this season already, in a trap-like atmosphere, which Utah has the potential to be, anything can happen.
For one of these teams, Thursday night’s game will be a victory that paves another stride along the road to redemption. For the other it will be another loss that proves that in some cases, perception is far from reality.