USC fans are ostensibly counting on a 4-0 start before the Trojans travel to Arizona State on September 28. In the words of ESPN college football analyst Lee Corso, "not so fast, my friends."
Utah State is a very dangerous team that could pull off an upset at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in front of stunned fans on September 21. Utah State is not afraid to play the big boys and it is for good reason. Last year the Aggies beat Utah, 27-20, in overtime. They lost to Wisconsin, 16-14, and to BYU, 6-3.
A little perspective is warranted. USC beat Utah, 38-28. Oregon State beat Wisconsin, 10-7. Notre Dame beat BYU, 17-14. See where this is going?
Utah State's defense appears to be on par with USC, Oregon State and Notre Dame's. That was last year, of course, when the Aggies were playing in the WAC under head coach Gary Anderson.
Utah State is now playing in the Mountain West and Anderson is coaching at Wisconsin. Conference play will be tougher in the Mountain West, but all of those previously cited games were non-conference games.
Former offensive coordinator Matt Wells is in an ideal situation in his first year as head coach. Utah State loses only four starters on each side of the ball. There should not be much of a change in offensive schemes.
The Aggies averaged 34 points per game and their defense allowed an average of 15. Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda followed Anderson to Wisconsin and former Florida International defensive coordinator Todd Orlando is now in charge of a defense that was nationally ranked No. 14.
The defense will give USC fits. Its rushing defense was ranked in the FBS' top 20 and yielded an average 113.77 yards per game. USC struggled last year to get its running game established. But it is not just the defense that should concern Trojan fans.
Quarterback Chuckie Keeton is the X-factor.
The junior threw for 3,373 yards, 27 touchdowns and nine interceptions. He completed 67.6 percent of his passes and was given a lofty 154.65 passer rating. Keeton is a Heisman candidate, according to HeismanPundit.com. He is also on every major college football award's (offense) watch list including the Maxwell Award, Walter Camp Award and Davey O'Brien Award.
Keeton won't just beat you with arm. He'll beat you with his legs. Last year he rushed 724 yards and eight touchdowns on 112 attempts. If he feels the pocket collapsing, or if his receivers are covered, Keeton will take off. He is Utah's version of Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota. Or Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel.
USC will have to keep the pressure on Keeton without forcing him to take off. Bull rushes are probably not advisable. The Aggies offensive line is stout. It will give USC's defensive line a battle in the trenches. USC's best bet is to keep its offense on the field via long, sustaining drives that chew up the clock.
USC's offensive linemen, with the exception of 285-pound Max Tuerk, each weigh 300 pounds or more. Aggie nose guard A.J. Pataiali'i weighs 307 while ends Jordan Nielsen and Connor Williams weigh 260 and 278, respectively. USC has the advantage here.
The Big Uglies have to outmuscle the Aggies front seven and wear them out with power-running football. When the Aggies stack the box, USC can play toss-and-catch with receivers Marqise Lee and Nelson Agholor.
This game could be tightly contested through two or three quarters of play. Utah State is not a team that gives up in the fourth quarter. Its defense is stout, not opportunistic, as evidenced by its -.08 turnover margin. USC's margin is slightly worse at -.15.
If USC's defense can keep Keeton contained in the backfield and its offense can establish a strong running game, USC should prevail. Head coach Lane Kiffin must keep USC focused on the game at hand and not allow the team to look ahead at Arizona State the following week.
This is the very definition of a trap game.
If USC allows Keeton to run wild, or the Trojans are forced to pass the ball, this game will come down to the wire. If USC comes out flat, disinterested and not focused, this will be another upset of epic proportions.