Back in August, when college football was just a twinkle in our sports-starved eyes, a group of media gathered in sunny Los Angeles. There, Pac-12 coaches, players, SID’s and PR pros hung out, drank way too many Mai Tai’s, and predicted that Oregon and USC would run rampant in their respective divisions, and clash in Santa Clara for the conference title in December.
As we hit the final stretch of the season, and pretenders fall by the wayside, that prediction can technically come true; however, it would take a monumental collapse by a number of teams if it were to become a reality.
How so? Well, let’s start with the only team we care about. For Oregon, it’s simple – win out, and hope (pray) that Cal can upset the Trees Saturday night. It’s not quote win-and-you’re-in, but it’s close.
For USC -- just win, baby! If USC wins their final two games, they’re in.
But, for an Oregon-USC conference title showdown? Oh, boy. Far too many scenarios would have to take place that it’s not even worth mentioning. I’ll put it this way: Saturday night in Eugene, it’s a de facto title game.
Win, and you’re (still) alive. Lose, and get ready for Vegas.
Both teams enter Saturday’s game with strikingly similar seasons under their belts. Both endured rocky starts; both could have folded under immense scrutiny and pressure; both are riding a four-game winning streak, awash with momentum.
In case you live under a rock (or are a Beavers fan, and have completely given up on following football), USC endured a program-shifting coaching change midway through the season, when Steve Sarkisian’s substance abuse problems became too hard to ignore (aka, he lost a winnable home game). Since then, following a competitive road loss to Notre Dame, the Trojans, and interim head coach Clay Helton, have been as hot as anyone, notching wins against (at the time) #3 Utah, Cal, Arizona and a tricky Friday tango with Colorado.
The Trojans have always been ridiculously talented. What they have missed since Pete Carroll slid out the backdoor, except for a stretch with Ed Orgeron (another interim coach), was the ability to not get in their own way.
For the last four weeks, we’ve seen what the Trojans can be – a dynamic, suffocating squad. The only question is, which team will show up to Autzen: The tentative team that slushed through a mediocre start? Or the hungry, missile-launching one that appears hell-bent on keeping their coach around?
Here’s three things to watch ahead of Saturday’s huge showdown.
1. Who wins the battle: Adoree’ or Charles? In 2015, it’s rare to find players who excel in all three phases of the game; it’s in even rarer to have two of them on the same field, at the same time. But that’s what we will have, when USC’s Adoree’ Jackson squares off against Oregon’s Charles Nelson. Jackson, like Nelson, will have his biggest impact on the defensive side of the ball, where he has 19 tackles on the year – a low number, primarily due to the fact that teams simply shy away from throwing near him. Offensively, he hasn’t done much – but, also like Nelson, he’s simply a threat if he walks onto the field.
So far this season, Nelson is one of five players to score a touchdown rushing, receiving and returning. Jackson is the only player to score offensively and defensively. Nelson has caught fire lately, with a kickoff return against ASU, a receiving td against Cal, and a 75-yards TD run last week at Stanford. Of these two, whoever makes the biggest plays will give their team a huge leg-up.
2.Can Arrion Springs keep it up? As a defensive back, passing the eye test can sometimes be more telling than looking at the stat sheet. Case in point: in their early season loss at Michigan State, Oregon cornerback Arrion Springs tallied 13 tackles, yet often times was out of position, leading to heartbreaking third-down conversions for the Spartans. Last week, Springs totaled just three tackles – yet was in the hip pocket of any receiver he covered, coming up with big play after big play.
The continued development of Springs and Co. has made Oregon’s secondary respectable as of late – and, compared to where things were, that’s a huge step in the right direction. When USC comes to town, Oregon’s defense will face a horde of athletes that they haven’t seen since last season’s playoffs. How they hold up – not stop, but hold up – will go a long way towards determining the outcome.
3. Crowd – will you show up? I made it a point to call out the Oregon fans a couple weeks ago, after subpar performances to start the season. Now, riding a four-game win streak, with USC in town and a (faint) shot at a Pac-12 title, there is no excuse for Autzen not to be back to the Autzen of old. It’s going to be cold and sunny, with an earlier than normal kickoff; a national TV audience; and, like I said, IT’S FREAKING USC. All Oregon fans asked is that the team turn it around and make something out of what was becoming a dumpster fire of a season – they have. Now, it’s time to give them the home-field advantage they need and deserve.
With all due respect to the toughness of Michigan State, the spread ability of Cal, or the nastiness of Stanford, this will be Oregon’s toughest test to date. USC is more talented than almost any team in the country – and now they have an identity.
This one will go one of two ways: USC’s athletic ability overwhelms Oregon, and they run away by three touchdowns. Or, Oregon proves the last few weeks were not a fluke; that they were a healthy Vernon Adams finger from being a playoff-contender, and they end up in a neck-and-neck battle with the Men of Troy.
I’m taking the latter. Oregon is too confident, and has too much to play for, to be pushed around. He hit a huge field goal last week, and will again – Aiden Schneider nails a 38-yarder with one-minute to go, and Oregon becomes the biggest fans of Cal, after a 41-38 win.