When the 3-2 California Golden Bears host the 4-1 USC Trojans on Thursday night, there likely won't be BCS implications as there have been in years past, but the contest will certainly have a huge impact on the Pac-12 standings.
USC was nestled comfortably in the Top 25 prior to a loss to Arizona State, but the Trojans bounced back with a solid win over Arizona a couple weeks ago. Junior quarterback Matt Barkley has led an aerial assault that will be key against the Golden Bears.
California has been up and down this season as it burst out of the gates against inferior competition, but the Bears have lost back-to-back games against the likes of Washington and Oregon. Their Pac-12 hopes are beginning to wane, but a win over the rival Trojans would go a long way toward getting back on track.
Where: AT&T Park in San Francisco, Calif.
When: Thursday, Oct. 13 at 9 p.m. EDT
Listen: KSPN AM 710 (USC) and KGO AM 810 (California)
Betting Line: USC (-3.5)
Who Might Not Play for USC: LB Lamar Dawson
Despite the fact that freshman linebacker Lamar Dawson isn't a starter for the Trojans, his presence has been sorely missed over the past two weeks. Dawson has been out with an ankle injury and is questionable to play Thursday against California.
Dawson's absence has forced starter Chris Galippo to play an inordinate amount of snaps over the past couple contests and it has severely limited his effectiveness. Dawson is a highly-skilled player that provides considerable depth to USC's linebacker corps. If he plays, it will be a huge boost for the Trojan defense.
Who Might Not Play for California: TE Spencer Ladner
Out for the past four games with a knee injury, California's junior tight end Spencer Ladner is again questionable this week against USC. Ladner isn't a threat in the passing game in the least, but his large frame makes him a very effective run blocker.
If the Bears are without Ladner's run-blocking prowess, it will be interesting to see how the ground game operates. It may not seem like a significant loss, but the absence of role players can't hurt as much as the absence of stars at times.
Key Storyline: Will Matt Barkley Maintain His Heisman Candidacy?
Although the Trojans aren't ranked in the Top 25, quarterback Matt Barkley is very much in the conversation for the Heisman Trophy. Barkley has neatly 1,600 passing yards and 14 touchdowns through just five games, and he is completing over 70 percent of his throws.
Heisman winners generally come from BCS-bound teams, and while that doesn't seem likely for the Trojans, Barkley's numbers may be too eye-popping to ignore. If he is truly going to stand a chance at winning the award, then he can ill afford an off game, so he'll need to light it up against Cal on Thursday night.
BCS/Top 25 Poll Implications
While California isn't expected to make a BCS game unless it wins out, there are certainly some Top 25 implications hanging on this game. With two losses California isn't likely to enter the polls anytime soon, but a win over USC would certainly look nice on its resume moving forward.
USC is just barely on the outside looking into the rankings, so a win over Cal could conceivably put them back into the Top 25. The Trojans aren't eligible for any bowl games or the Pac-12 title due to NCAA sanctions, so every game is essentially for pride at this point.
What They're Saying
Few teams in the nation have featured a more effective passing game than USC this season. While it has helped lead to a 4-1 start, head coach Lane Kiffin is adamant that the Trojans must develop their running game if they hope to remain competitive, according to Gary Klein of the Los Angeles Times.
"It's just been very up and down," Coach Lane Kiffin said Monday. "Not near enough explosive plays."
"We can't do that all year long," he said of USC's pass-heavy approach. "We'll get exposed if we keep trying to do that."
USC Player to Watch: WR Robert Woods
While USC quarterback Matt Barkley has been the catalyst to USC's offense this season, he can't do it all on his own. That is where his main target comes in. Sophomore wide receiver Robert Woods has been on the receiving end of more of Barkley's passes than anyone else this season, and his numbers reflect that.
Woods has already matched or nearly matches his numbers from all of 2010 this season through just five games. In total, Woods has caught 55 passes for 747 yards and six touchdowns in 2011. Not only is Woods' personal production integral to the offense, but his mere presence opens up space for the other Trojan receivers.
California Player to Watch: QB Zach Maynard
Junior quarterback Zach Maynard sat out all of last season after transferring from the University at Buffalo, but he has proven that he is capable of being a starter against BCS-level competition this season.
Maynard has thrown for nearly 1,300 yards and 11 touchdowns through five games and he will have to be at his best in order to keep up with Barkley and the Trojans. When compared to Barkley, Maynard is certainly unsung, but he is of equal importance to the Bears as Barkley is to USC. In what could easily be a shootout, Maynard will need to play his best game of the season.
Key Matchup: Matt Barkley vs. California Pass Rush
There is one thing that can slow down a high-octane passing attack, and that is a ferocious, consistent pass rush. The Golden Bears have had plenty of success getting to opposing quarterbacks this season and boast one of the nations' better pass rushes.
The vast majority of USC's offense involves Barkley passing the ball, so an effective pass rush could certainly be crippling to its game plan. Barkley seems to be capable of processing information and making decisions quickly, but pressure tends to make quarterbacks do strange things. California will try to prove that theory on Thursday.
USC 31, California 24