This is a game I'm going to look forward to every year. The (once) mighty Trojans of USC roll into Boulder for our tenth straight game of the season. They may be the weakest they've been in years, but that doesn't mean it will be an easy game for our Buffs. They still have some incredibly talented players (we're going to be saying that every year) and they've now spent a full offseason getting used to the schemes on both offense and defense.
But after all of that, this may be our chance to get a win over a team in the top half of the Pac-12. The only question is whether that is what will actually happen.
Follow the jump to see if I've got any inside info about USC now that I live in LA!
Southern California Trojans
When you think about USC this century, what jumps to mind? A talented QB throwing to a phenomenal group of skill players? A dominant defense? A cocky head coach? Well they're working hard to get back to that right now. They've certainly got a cocky HC. Really, do we know if this guy can lead a program? For all the hype around him and all of the high profile hires, he has yet to be a successful head coach anywhere. How odd is that?
Anyway, back to USC. They've got the QB and they're starting to restock all over the offense. Their defense will benefit from spending more time in Monte Kiffin's cover-2 defense, and they're getting healthier and deeper everywhere. But they still have questions. This is a team that could win some games and should have the attitude to do so, but that is only due to optimistic projections about new contributers and returning players improving.
Well first of all, USC has Matt Barkley. As good as he's been, they're still waiting for the light to come on. I certainly hope it doesn't happen until after this game, because he's already a tough matchup. He still forces some throws, but that's really his only weakness. If he stops doing that, he will be nearly impossible to stop. Plus, he's got a pretty talented group of wideouts (what's new, USC) beginning with Robert Woods. He burst onto the scene last year, and will be in the running for the All Pac-12 team this season (also, he's in the running for best sophomore receiver along with Paul Richardson and Keenan Allen of Cal). Beyond that, it's mostly unproved talent, but it's pretty likely that at least one other kid will step up and be big for them in 2011.
Running the ball is a different story. We don't know if/when Marc Tyler will be back from his TMZ-related suspension, so we don't know exactly who will be starting or playing much for the Trojans in the backfield. It may be freshman Amir Carlisle, but by the time this game is played, who knows. At fullback, they're replacing the dependable Stanley Havili and there is solid competition, but it's safe to say that production at that position will drop pretty drastically. That will force USC to rely on Barkley even more, which might be a good thing.
I say that, because they are unsure about the quality of their offensive line. They return Matt Kalil at left tackle and Khaled Holmes at center, but that's all that's 100% settled. They are going to miss Tyron Smith at right tackle (full disclosure, I'm from Dallas and a 3rd generation Cowboys fan, and we are absolutely THRILLED to have him now), and they are concerned a bit about their line's ability to protect Barkley and to get a good push in the running game. I actually think we have a shot and slowing down their offense and forcing Barkley into some less-than-stellar decisions. We'll just have to see how our cornerbacks are faring at this point in the season. No matter who USC plays at wideout, they are going to be tough matchups. If we can get a handle outside, we may have some success against this offense.
While we might have success against the USC offense, I don't think we will against their defense. I think last year was a funky transition year and that they bounce back in 2011. Monte Kiffin is too good a coach/coordinator to have a repeat of last years defensive performance. Their line is healthy and looks good this time around, especially with Devon Kennard's move from MLB back to defensive end, and it looks like Armond Armstead will be back on the field this fall. Add in a healthy Wes Horton and Nick Perry, plus everyone else and I think they will be back to their nasty, run-stuffing and pass-rushing selves. They have some powerful ends, so our young tackles will have a pretty big chore in this game setting the edge in the run game. It will be tough and I'm not sure we can get a great per-rush average against the Trojans, but I think we will find at least a little open space.
At linebacker they look about as weak as they ever have, especially when you look at some of their recent units there. You have the eternally underwhelming Chris Galippo, who they are still waiting on at middle linebacker, and the solid but small Shane Horton on the weakside. And on the strongside, they have a bunch of candidates who are all waiting for their shot. It might be converted safety (and also small guy) Dion Bailey, but that's two LBs that are only barely 200 lbs. I like that matchup in the run game against our tight ends Deehan (245 lbs), Bahr (260 lbs) and Fernandez (255 lbs) plus the fullbacks Harrington (230 lbs) and Ahles (240 lbs).
They make up for some of their issues at linebacker with their safeties. TJ McDonald is the free safety and one of the best in the conference. Next to him, they have three guys with starting experience, plus the phenomenally athletic Demetrius Wright fighting for the spot. Whoever they line up back there will be good and ready to play, especially by this game. They have solid cornerbacks and there is enough competition back there to push the starters to play even better. They are better inside in the secondary than outside, but they are still pretty good. By this time in the season, everyone will know to gameplan for Richardson, but I still think he's going to tear it up in the conference in 2011. Overall, though, I think they will be able to handle what we throw at them. Another year in Kiffin's cover-2 is going to help them a ton. This will be a very difficult game for our offense.
Their return game is great, with Woods and whoever else they want to put back there. They look fine when it comes to their other specialists. We just have to hope our spread punts allow enough cover-guys to stay unblocked and in their lanes to keep anything crazy from happening.
USC is a hard team to read this year. They look better in some areas, worse in others, and none of it may matter in the end because they're banned from postseason play. Even if they win the division, they can't play in the conference championship game, or a bowl game. Can Lane Kiffin motive his team without anything tangible to play for? Well, if nothing else, we'll finally get to find out if Kiffin is actually a good coach. I don't think we can win this game if they're all playing hard and at least most of the way up to their potential, but if they're struggling to stay pumped for games, then we have a shot. Again, I won't predict this now, except to say I'm leaning towards a loss at this juncture. homefield advantage is good, but they are much deeper than they were last year, and this game is still months away.