USC is building tremendous momentum at just the right time for the Trojans to cause serious damage in the Pac-12 race. That's great for USC but less so for the conference.
This season has been a battle for national respect in the Pac-12. The continued success of Oregon and Stanford, as well as the strides UCLA and Arizona State have made, have helped turn some much-needed attention out West—so much so that even ardent SEC proponents like Paul Finebaum have conceded the Pac-12's strength.
The conference is collectively at its best ever, and USC's resurgence since Ed Orgeron stepped in as interim head coach is further testament to that. However, conferences are typically measured from the top on down, and the Pac-12 needs representation at the top of the national polls.
The conference's overall strengthening has coincided with USC's decline from national prominence. The two things are pure coincidence. In fact, popular sentiment is that a great USC team is a boost to the conference's profile because of its history and stature in the nation's second-largest market.
USC's clout is proven. When the conference was made up of several lower-rung programs trying to catch the powerhouse Trojans, USC still commanded more headlines than a teen idol pop-star.
No, it is not that the USC program is threatening the national perception of the Pac-12's strength but rather the circumstances. Top 20-ranked contenders going down to a roster that the NCAA sanctions and injuries have rendered small, by Football Championship Subdivision standards, looks bad for those supposed heavyweights—even if the Trojans are still stocked with talent.
The Trojans' final four-game stretch includes dates with Stanford and UCLA, both of which remain in the hunt for BCS at-large berths.
Don't think the Trojans wrecking that possibility couldn't happen, either. USC is coming off of its best performance of this season to be sure, and arguably, it's best since a 50-0 rout of UCLA to cap 2011.
USC is a team built with precisely the kind of make-up that vexed UCLA in its losses at Stanford and Oregon. A young Bruins offensive line struggled to contain the Cardinal and Ducks aggressive pass-rush defenses, which forced quarterback Brett Hundley far beyond his comfort zone.
The USC defensive line is among the conference's best, with standout sophomore Leonard Williams as the anchor.
The upcoming matchup—next week's showdown with Stanford in the Coliseum—is especially intriguing.
Much has been made of the Cardinal's four-game win streak over USC and its five wins in the last six tries. The Trojans haven't beaten Stanford at home since the 2005 season.
No series is more indicative of USC's descent from the pinnacle of the Pac than this. With the Trojans looking to begin their re-emergence now, reversing the trend against Stanford is an appropriate launching point.
The meetings between USC and Stanford have often been close. Discounting the infamous "What's your deal?" game in 2009, the only Pete Carroll-coached loss of the ongoing Trojans skid, Stanford has won each time by just single digits.
A sweep of nationally-ranked Stanford and UCLA would also put USC in shouting distance of the Pac-12 South title, which has ramifications for Oregon.
The Trojans need help to win the division, specifically for Arizona State to lose twice. Should Oregon beat Stanford on Thursday, the Ducks likely retake the No. 2 spot in the BCS rankings.
But with Florida State trading that crucial second ranking with Oregon, the Ducks need all the help they can get. The best case scenario for Oregon's BCS profile is a two-loss opponent from the South in December's Pac-12 championship game.
Whether that's UCLA or Arizona State isn't especially important, since both are ranked. However, the Ducks need to face a team with the most upward mobility in the polls to solidify their case for No. 2.
Certainly there's no faulting USC. Any team, from 1-8 Cal to BCS Championship-contending Oregon, is playing every week with the intention of winning.
For USC, finishing out 2013 on a win streak that leaves the aspirations of rivals Stanford and UCLA demolished would be especially gratifying.
For the Pac-12, the Trojans just might be the wrecking ball that knocks down the reputation it's taken years to build.
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