Two years ago, in Los Angeles, the Utes were a made field goal away from forcing overtime against USC. It was Utah's first Pac-12 game and, even though they lost, I think most fans felt optimistic about Utah's standing in the conference. The team that took what turned out to be a really good USC squad (10-2 with an upset on the road against Oregon) to the brink of an upset, kinda just vanished and hasn't reemerged since.
We keep waiting for that team to show up, for the team to put themselves in position to pull off a memorable, solid conference victory, and though they were sorta positioned last year against the Trojans again, that game also got away from 'em much faster than the one down in Los Angeles in 2011. Is this the year that changes?
I don't know. This whole stretch - UCLA, Stanford, at Arizona and then at USC - is probably the definitive stretch of the season. I don't want to suggest Utah has to win them all, but you get the sense the season will only prove successful if they can nab at least one of those games. Losses in all four would make it very difficult, as I already said in those previews, to come back and finish with a winning record. USC's game, which happens a week before a bye, is also the second of a the Utes' back-to-back road games. That's going to prove a challenge, as it was against Oregon State last year a week after a narrow road loss to UCLA and California two years ago coming off a victory at Pittsburgh. It's not easy staying on the road consecutive weeks, and yes, I understand they're not literally away from Salt Lake City for that amount of time - but it still has a similar effect. Will Utah be able to keep the discipline needed to pull off two major road games?
Frankly, this is why I think the Arizona contest is much more important. That first road game always is because it does give you a bit of leeway when it comes to the next opponent. Had Utah lost to Pitt and then Cal in 2011, it's entirely possible the wheels come off that season and we're talking right now about the potential of a third straight losing season. Likewise, had the Utes defeated the Bruins last year, and the loss to the Beavers isn't as damaging - it also would have given Utah that one extra victory to claim a bowl berth.
So, I don't look at USC as a must-win. It is a statement game, though, and that's pretty much how I think we've addressed this game in the past. We certainly didn't need to win it in 2011, and while it would've been nice to win last year, I doubt anyone believes that loss was the big reason Utah didn't finish with a winning record. Utah can turn heads, just like any team would, if they went down to the Coliseum and knocked off the most prestigious program in the conference.
That's pretty much the extent of this game. Which means, if the week of it, we're talking about how it's a must-win, odds are they didn't defeat Arizona, they've probably lost a couple other games as well, and they're on the verge of another losing season. That's not a situation I hope they're in and the only one, outside actually contending for the division, where this game becomes a must-win.
But beyond just the importance of this one, can Utah win?
I think history, at least the brief history we have with this team, suggests there is a chance. Unlike, say, ASU, the Trojans haven't really blown Utah out of the water their last two meetings and while they might not have as many questions as the Utes, they still have enough questions to make people doubt their ability. It doesn't help their coach is number one on the hot seat entering 2013. But then you remember USC is still USC, whether they're still fighting back scholarship limitations or questionable coaching. Lane Kiffin might not be a great coach, but they still have great talent and that alone makes them maybe the most dangerous team in the conference.
I don't expect Utah to win this game. I think it could be close, and entertaining, and you never know, but it's going to be a challenge, especially on the road - especially against the team most in the media predicts will win the Pac-12 South. Of course, they predicted the same thing last year, so...
While I won't predict the Utes to win this one, I'll happily dream about the possibilities. I've said all spring and summer how much I just want that one big victory against a good opponent that makes this game so special. That's something lacking since the 2008 season ended, and while there have been plenty of opportunities the past two seasons, Utah hasn't done much with 'em.
USC, along with a whole host of other games, is their chance to change that and I want to see it this season. No more excuses. No more dropping every game against every team with a winning record. It's time to pull an upset, turn some heads and gain respect.
If that comes against the Trojans ... even better.