A new era of football begins this Saturday as USC hosts Utah in the inaugural Pac-12 conference game. With all the uncertainty involving conference realignment, it also might be the first game of the final season of this conference as we know it.
Regardless of what happens in the future, this weekend will be a monumental moment for the Utah football program and I feel, at least for perception's sake, it could be the biggest game since the 2009 Sugar Bowl win over Alabama.
But this is not going to be an easy contest. Thursday showed us the Utes still have a lot of room for improvement and it's going to take their best performance of the last two years to leave Los Angeles with a win that will vault them to the top of the Pac-12 South.
Fortunately, just like Utah, SC wasn't entirely stellar in their season debut. They barely eeked out a win over a Minnesota Golden Gophers team that finished last year with a losing record - a team the Trojans had no problem beating on the road in 2010.
Their victory was sloppy and Lane Kiffin was quick to call out the offense, which produced a lot of pretty yards and plays, but, where it counted the most, failed to really make a dent in the scoreboard. SC ended the day with 371 total yards, 304 of which came through the air, yet still produced only three touchdowns and a total of zero points in the second half.
Of course, this game wouldn't have been dangerously close for the Trojans had Kiffin not decided to go for two twice in the first half. Both times, SC came up short and because of it, down the stretch, the Gophers were only a field goal away from winning.
Going for two early after a score is something Kiffin loves to do and I'm not so sure he'll go away from it until it proves fatally flawed. So, expect the Trojans to do just that in Saturday's game if they jump on Utah first.
Though, as I mentioned, they struggled to put points on the board, especially in the second half, SC still has a potent offense. Matt Barkley is a good quarterback and has potentially the best receiver in the game in Robert Woods - who accounted for all of the Trojans' scores last weekend.
Woods is a beast. He'll murder Utah's secondary if given the chance and will be priority numero uno for the the Utes' defensive staff.
Even though he was kept out of the end zone in the second half of their game against the Gophers, Woods still finished the day with 177 yards and 17 receptions. Those are Heisman-like numbers and it will be interesting to see if that continues this weekend against the Utes.
On the other side of the ball, the Trojans' defense actually did something SC had failed to do a few times last season - close out games in the fourth. They blew several fourth quarter leads last year and it was the difference between a ho-hum 8-5 season and something a bit more special.
Saturday, they nearly did it again, however, held on, barely, for the two-point win. Still, they led this game 19-3 at the half and looked to cruise through the second half. That didn't happen. The offense was plagued by stupid penalties that killed drives and made this game agonizingly close.
For Kiffin, that has been the story of his past two seasons with the Trojans. They've got the talent to beat nearly every program they line up against, however, coaching mishaps, undisciplined play and this obscene and ridiculous notion of going for two after every initial score, leaves them teetering in far more games than you would ever expect from a program of SC's caliber.
Under Kiffin this last season and one game, the Trojans have played in seven games that have been decided by a touchdown or less. That is a remarkable statistic when you consider he's only coached in thirteen games there. Over half came down to one score, including their season opener against the Gophers.
That alone dictates Saturday should be a close contest. In fact, of their past eight home games, five were decided by a touchdown or less. The only two lopsided home contests were against Cal (a 48-14 win) and the Oregon Ducks (a 32-53 loss) - every other game has been narrowly won or lost by the Trojans. Kiffin, in games decided by seven points or less, is 4-3 as head coach of the Trojans and 5-6 overall including his one-year layover with the Tennessee Volunteers.
If history is a template, and it often isn't, Saturday's game very well could come down to a play or two.
Of course, that will require a better performance from Utah than what we witnessed Thursday. That means Norm Chow and Jordan Wynn will have to realize that, believe it or not, the football can be thrown down the field. Whatever the reason Thursday, this is not the time to go vanilla and wing it. This offense needs to show up, rely a bit on John White IV's impressive start to the year and, more importantly, get Wynn into a rhythm where he actually looks like a confident and capable quarterback.
Short passes are good, but an offense can't survive on them alone. Sooner or later, the defense will take those routes away and beg the offense to go deep. If it can't, and they're made into a one-dimensional mess, it will take a magnificent defensive performance to have a prayer in this one.
So hopefully Thursday was by design and not for reasons that suggest Wynn is either still nursing his pesky injury or lacks any ability to throw down field. I guess we'll find out in this game because if the coaches aren't ready to open the playbook Saturday, then when?
What happens Saturday will go along way toward dictating the remainder of the season. Utah might not win, and they're not favored to win, but a competitive performance that equals what we saw from Minnesota should be enough to leave us at least satisfied this team can hang with the big boys. That's the major question and one everyone in the college football world will be asking the second these two teams kick off in a historical first game.
Hopefully the Utes produce far better on the national stage than they did the last time everyone was watching.
Utah wins if...The offense can throw down field and the running game continues to be a strength. None of us are sure what to make of Jordan Wynn after the first game, but this one should tell us much of everything we want to know. He'll need to have a better performance, obviously, but he also will have to do the right things - things he did do against Montana State. I liked that he didn't throw an interception and didn't make that many bad mistakes. That needs to continue against a better and more talented team than the Bobcats. Of course, the Utes will also need a strong defensive effort and do everything in their power to keep Robert Woods out of the end zone. They do that, and they'll win - maybe by a decent margin.
USC wins if...Jordan Wynn and Utah's offense continues to slumber through the early part of the season. I don't expect the offense to look abysmal to the point where it's just giving the ball away, but if the Trojan defense can keep drives to a minimum and the Utes decide throwing the ball longer than 10 yards is an offense, there is no reason SC shouldn't win this game. I'm just not convinced, against a good and talented team like the Trojans, that Utah can get away with short passes and an uninspired offense.
What should happen...The Utes will come out and play nervous. SC might even score first and Lane Kiffin will even go for two. But by the second half, with things calming down a bit, we'll find ourselves in a very contested game. One that should be highly entertaining entering the fourth quarter. Well I hope, anyway.