USC will host the No. 1 team in the nation on Saturday when the rampaging Oregon Ducks come to Los Angeles. ESPN's GameDay will be there to dissect Oregon's nearly point-per-minute offense; ABC's primetime cameras will capture whatever funky uniform combination the Nike rock stars choose this week; and BCS hopefuls from Boise State to Alabama will wait to see how the Ducks fare. USC, the gold-standard in college football for a decade, is now just another low-end Top 25 team with no shot at the national title. The Trojans in a supporting role? Even in Hollywood, that's quite a role reversal.
1. Stopping a tidal wave. In their first game as the No. 1 team in the AP poll, the Ducks unleashed their hurry-up, zone-read offense in all its glory, scoring on their first six possessions en route to a 60-13 win over UCLA in front of a Thursday night TV audience. Tailback LaMichael James earns most of the headlines, but quarterback Darron Thomas gets plays off at a stunning rate, and opposing defensive lines are clearly affected. In an effort to prepare for the Oregon onslaught, USC coach Lane Kiffin noticeably increased the tempo at practice and had players run sprints after every practice during the off week. "I can't imagine there's been a bigger challenge [for a defense], [not just] because of the players but because of the tempo as well," Kiffin said this week. "When you combine it, that's why they blow everybody out." Oregon can run (308 yards per game), pass (261) and, most importantly, score (55.8 points per game).
2. Fight On will play repeatedly. Oregon players have been listening to the USC fight song all week at practice, and some have said they hope not to hear it on Saturday. Given how well USC quarterback Matt Barkley has been playing lately, and given Oregon's shaky defense, the Ducks will likely be hearing that familiar tune plenty at the Coliseum. Barkley hasn't thrown an interception in his last three games and is averaging more than 300 passing yards in Pac-10 play. On the other side, Oregon has given up more than 435 yards in four Pac-10 games, and Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck threw for 341 yards in Eugene. The offensive fireworks will not be limited to just one side of the field on Saturday.
3. Who will have gas left in the tank? Oregon has held a double-digit lead for at least the final 14:55 of each of its games. Arizona State and Stanford threatened to make things interesting, but neither could make it a one-score game in the fourth quarter. How will Oregon respond if this one is tight late? While Oregon's offense can leave opponents gassed, the hurry-up mode can leave the Ducks' defense on the field for an extraordinary amount of plays (99 vs. Arizona State) and time (the Ducks rank 114th in time of possession). Oregon's defense has been strong in the fourth quarter to date, but at some point those extra snaps are going to add up. USC has been in three close games in the fourth quarter, beating Virginia and losing on the final play to Washington and Stanford. The Trojans' experience playing in tight games may prove to be the difference.
Oregon enters the game as a 6.5-point favorite. Oregon is 3-6 against the spread away from home the last two seasons and 2-5 in its last seven against USC. This is the first time since 2001 (vs. UCLA) that USC is a home underdog, a string of 51 games. In fact, USC's underdog status against Stanford three weeks ago was the first time the Trojans were not favored since 2007. But while there is not a lot of data to analyze as far as USC playing the underdog role, there are two trends that point the Trojans' way: The home team has covered the last four in this series, and USC has covered six straight home games after a bye week.
Oregon delivers a host of mind-blowing offensive statistics, but here's another secret to the Ducks' success: They lead the nation in takeaways with 25.
SI.com NFL draft analyst Tony Pauline weighs in with his thoughts on the top pro prospects in this matchup:
T Tyron Smith, USC: The Trojans have sent a number of talented tackles to the NFL, and Smith is the next in line. He displayed great skill as a pass-blocking left tackle last season, but has improved his game as a junior, showcasing terrific run-blocking power on the right side. Grade: First-round prospect.
DT Jurrell Casey, USC: A slightly undersized but athletic defensive tackle who makes plays behind the line of scrimmage, Casey reminds many of former USC first-round picks Mike Patterson and Sedrick Ellis. Word in the scouting community is that the junior will make himself available for the 2011 draft. A good performance against the explosive Oregon offense could stamp Casey as a top 40 choice. Grade: First- to second-round prospect.
OL Carson York, Oregon: The junior is an interchangeable blocker who effectively lines up at multiple positions on the offensive line. His mechanics are outstanding and he has shown improvement in his run-blocking this season. Grade: Third-round prospect.
WR Jeff Maehl, Oregon: Maehl is not the fastest or flashiest receiver in college football, but he's a reliable wideout who always comes away with the reception. He's the perfect complement to the Ducks' running offense and a prospect who projects as a fourth receiver in the NFL. His battle against highly regarded USC cornerback Shareece Wright is one scouts will be watching. Grade: Sixth-round prospect.
This is USC's bowl game. There is a "red-out" organized for the Coliseum and you can bet Kiffin has been reminding the proud Trojans of their underdog role all week. Both defenses are going to have trouble stopping the opposing offense without turnovers, and Oregon has proved to be adept at taking the ball away this season. This one should have high energy, high excitement and a high score. Oregon pulls one out in the fourth quarter to keep its national title hopes alive. OREGON 48, USC 45