Utah's first conference game in the Pac-12 is a doozy, as they take on the program that, for much of the 21st Century, has dominated the conference.
These might not be your older brother's USC Trojans, but they're still one of the most talented programs in the country and, at home, are good enough to contend and beat most teams they line up against.
Obviously, though, that hasn't been the case recently - the Trojans have lost nine games the last two seasons, compared to just nine games over a seven year span between '02-'08. While there is talent and potential, this team is nowhere near the dominant force of the Pete Carroll era and that offers a program like Utah hope.
For the Utes, this game is all about validation and proving they belong. If they win, they instantly become the favorites in the Pac-12 South and put a great deal of other programs on notice that they're ready to make the leap.
It also will give the program national clout, as these are still the Trojans and winning in the Coliseum carries a bit of cachet with a large contingency of the media than a typical conference victory would. Even with SC perceived as being down at the moment, it's still the premier program in the second largest media market in the country and one that doesn't lose many games at home. Since 2001, when Carroll rolled into Southern Cal, the Trojans are 53-8.
But like I said, these are not Carroll's Trojans. All you have to do is look to last year, as three of their eight home losses over the past decade came in Lane Kiffin's first season. So, as unbeatable as they were in Los Angeles for so many years, that hasn't been the case recently. Even in '09, Carroll's final season there, they dropped two games at home for the first time since his first season back in '01.
Now we'll see if the Utes have what it takes to add another defeat to the Trojans' home record.
For that to happen, they'll need the following:
How will Utah handle the pressure?
This ain't Albuquerque, New Mexico. The Utes aren't going to roll out of the tunnel to a smattering of fans and an atmosphere more in line with a funeral mass than a football game. Even if the Trojans don't sell this game out, it still will be the biggest crowd many of these players have ever played in front of and the way they handle that pressure is going to dictate the flow of this game.
Are they going to be overwhelmed or take it in stride? Back in 2008, the Utes opened in front of 100,000-plus Michigan fans and did not wilt after fumbling a punt return and kept their composure when Michigan made an intense rally late. That was huge because, two seasons earlier, the team melted down on the road in front of a packed Rose Bowl crowd against the UCLA Bruins at the first sign of adversity.
It showed the growth Kyle Whittingham and his players had made from '06 to '08 and even though there were still eleven games remaining, I think most fans felt we had the chance to be really, really good after that game.
I'm not saying the same is on the line Saturday. But you'll learn a lot about a team by what they do on the road against a good opponent - whether it's coming out strong and building a lead (as was the case in the Sugar Bowl against Alabama, a de facto home game for the Tide) or not collapsing when the going gets tough (as was the case when the Wolverines scored first on a Utah mistake).
How will the Utes react to the crowd, the Trojan talent and the potential of trailing on the road?
How will Jordan Wynn look?
Wynn will definitely need to step up his game if Utah is going to beat SC. The Trojans are not Montana State and the short passes will not work against their defense. He'll need to open things up a bit more or the Utes might be in a whole heap of trouble in this one.
So, the question now is whether or not Wynn has the ability to open it up or if the poor routes and vanilla offense last week was solely by design and not due to his injury. The coaches, and Wynn himself, have not hinted at it being the latter, so that leaves the play calling and Wynn's ultimate judgment. If Utah is going to win, Norm Chow and Wynn will have to develop a more aggressive offensive game plan.
What should we expect from Utah's secondary?
With how good the Trojans passing game looked for much of their season-opening win over Minnesota, this might be the biggest battle on the defensive end for the Utes. Matt Barkley is a good quarterback and has the ability to really burn secondaries. However, he only really locked on to one receiver last weekend, Robert Woods, who was named the Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Week.
But there is no denying how great Woods is and if he gets open in the secondary, he can be near-lights out. How do the Utes defend that with some untested talent lining up against him?
This could be the key. Even though Woods torched the Golden Gophers for 177 yards and three touchdowns, he was held out of the end zone the entire second half, which allowed Minnesota to rally from a 19-3 halftime deficit to make it a game heading into the fourth quarter.
It's doubtful the Utes will hold him out of the end zone in their game Saturday, but if they can keep him from scoring more than two touchdowns, they'll be in good shape. Easier said than done, of course.
Will Utah's defensive line dominate the Trojan OL?
If there is one advantage the Utes have in this game, it's here. Though Barkley wasn't sacked in their first game of the season, SC could not find any ground game and that really made their offense one-dimensional in the second half. Their leading rusher was D.J. Morgan and he only finished with 65 yards on the day.
They should be helped, though, by the return of Marc Tyler, who sat out the opener due to suspension. How big of an impact will he make, though?
Will Kyle Whittingham's coaching advantage lead Utah to victory?
I'm not going to sugarcoat this one: I think Whittingham is a far superior coach than Kiffin. I have not been entirely impressed with his game planning, the need to go for two early and his lack of any consistency with the Trojans. There is no question that, from the top of the depth chart on down, SC is a more talented squad than Utah. But talent alone can't win you the game. If that were the case, Kiffin very well could be undefeated at Southern Cal. Of course, he isn't, as his overall record is only 9-5.
Utah's biggest advantage in this game is not on the football field, but on the sidelines and if they're going to win this game, I've got to think it'll be because of coaching. Can Whittingham and his staff out-scheme and out-plan the Trojans?
In the '09 Sugar Bowl, I thought Whittingham ran circles around Nick Saban and his staff, which certainly helped close the talent gap. He doesn't need to run circles around Kiffin to win this game, but a solid and prepared team should not only keep Utah in this one, it might be enough to win it for them.