Nine weeks ago, if you would have told me that an unranked, injury-riddled USC team challenging the No. 4 Stanford Cardinal would be a sold-out, College GameDay-worthy game of the week, I would have laughed in your face.
If you would have told me USC stood in a position to potentially win out the season after beginning it with an early, pitiful loss to Washington State, I would have told you that you weren't watching the same Trojan team that I was watching.
If you would have told me that an identity-less, quarterback-less team led by a head coach that seemed oblivious to whom he even had on his own depth chart would be exciting to watch late in the season, I would have told you were crazy.
But you would have been right.
In 12 weeks, USC has gone from nationally ranked, to embarrassment, back to national relevance again. It's been a roller coaster of a season for the Trojans, one that saw their head coach fired midseason in a move that could have further derailed the program. Instead, the replacing of Lane Kiffin with Ed Orgeron only seemed to reinvigorate this team, and it has been on a tear ever since.
To be sure, when Kiffin was in charge, we saw the parts of the car all laid out. We saw exactly what kind of machine it could be if all the parts fit and worked together. That didn't happen in the early weeks of the season, however. Instead, we saw a defense that looked national-title worthy paired with an offense still trying to find its legs. Then, in the Trojans' blowout loss to Arizona State, we saw a powerful offense and a defense that just wasn't there.
And then Coach Orgeron came along. Under him the team has not only gone 4-1 (undefeated in Pac-12 play), but the car that is the Trojan football team has been put together under his leadership. It's no longer a collection of parts that could be; it's running (more or less) like a well-oiled machine, despite the fact that it's had to undergo more than its fair share of maintenance.
Now, it just needs to win the race.
The Trojans face their biggest challenge yet when they host the No. 4 Cardinal on Saturday. After two impressive, strong showings on the road leading up to this matchup, is USC really ready to contend with Stanford, or are expectations getting ahead of them?
Well, in looking at the stats, the numbers suggest that not only can USC compete, but that it might even be a little bit better than Stanford offensively, at least on paper.
|USC vs. Stanford: Offense Statistics|
|2013||USC (10 games)||Stanford (9 games)|
|Total rushing yards||1859 (21 TDs)||1845 (18 TDs)|
|Passing Yards||2167 (12 TDs)||1654 (13 TDs)|
Even defensively, the Trojans and the Cardinal are neck and neck in many categories.
|USC vs. Stanford: Defense Statistics|
|Opponents' Total Points||196||175|
|Opponents' First Downs||184||190|
|Opponents' rushing yards/game||3.62||3.25|
|Opponents' passing yards||2265||2251|
|Opponents' total yards/game||226.5||250.1|
The numbers show that USC is every bit as good as Stanford—health, depth, musical positions and all.
But USC doesn't just need to be better than Stanford, talent-wise. USC needs to play better, and that means avoiding the stupid penalties that have hurt the Trojans often this season.
USC has given up at least one penalty for a first down in all but two games this season. In total, the Trojans have committed 74 penalties for 610 yards, an unacceptably high amount. Stanford on the other hand has committed only 45 penalties for 358 yards, and against Oregon, the Cardinal had only two infractions for just 10 yards.
The incredibly well-disciplined Cardinal hardly make mistakes, and if USC wants to stand any kind of a chance of an upset, the Trojans can't afford to make them either.
That said, Coach Orgeron is in prime position to really make his case to earn the head coaching job in Troy. He has a team that found a way to be competitive despite the odds stacked against it, and its performance against Stanford will tell us whether USC has really bounced back.
USC doesn't necessarily need to win for Coach O to really be in contention for the job. He merely needs his team to show up against Stanford, to play to its abilities in ways they did not against Notre Dame earlier this season.
The stage is set. The tickets are bought. The GameDay peristyle is set up in McCarthy Quad. The homecoming crowd grows more anxious by the minute.
There will be a battle fought on the field inside the Coliseum on Saturday. Regardless of the outcome, this game is shaping up to be another epic chapter in the rivalry between these conference foes.