Pieces are in place for a USC victory

Plenty of hand-holding harmony occurred in the soon-to-be Pac-12 over the weekend, with the divisional split and revenue-sharing agreement set to take effect next season.

California has been split in two, but the rivalries have been maintained. Your annual Weekender plans are safe.

It was also decided that revenue from television contracts is going to be shared equally among all 12 teams. Whoever said socialism couldn’t work?

But with the conference of the future done posing for its smiling front-page photo op, it’s time to get back to business. The lame duck Pac-10 is in the middle of its final conference race.

Speaking of ducks (but certainly not lame ones), you might have heard about Oregon, No. 1 in the human polls and No. 2 in that other poll that college football somehow lets determine who plays for the national title.

Oregon visits the Coliseum this weekend in what is USC’s absolute last chance to stay relevant in conference competition this season. Even more importantly, this could become a season-defining win for a USC team that somehow seems to have momentum despite being 1-2 in its last three games.

But if you’ve watched the Ducks for even five minutes this year, you’ll understand the challenge the Trojans face. USC coach Lane Kiffin is trying to prepare his defense for 100 plays against Oregon — and he’s not kidding.

Oregon destroys opponents by being in better shape. Its defense gave up points in the fourth quarter for the first time against UCLA last week, but it was a meaningless touchdown that came with less than two minutes remaining.

The key to beating the Ducks is limiting their offense enough and tiring out their defense. Obviously, their team is in great shape. But their defense is good, not great, and it is vulnerable to fatigue with the offense moving on and off the field so quickly.

It’s because of this that Oregon’s defense has looked questionable at times. But with the offense playing so well, it’s been hard to notice.

The only times the Ducks looked beatable was against Stanford when they fell behind 21-3 and against Arizona State when they were down 24-14. Both deficits, however, were met in the first half and were quickly overcome in the second.

The way the Trojans have played offense this season, they should be able to score plenty. But plenty against Oregon is not good enough unless USC’s defense can at least limit the Ducks. If the Trojans can hold Oregon in the 35-point range, they have a chance. No joke.

As much of a long shot as it is, USC, which is 2-2 in Pac-10 play, would still be in the running for a share of the conference title. In a season defined by sanctions, however, conference titles are of little value if you can’t take them with you to the postseason.

The pre-Halloween showdown between the Trojans and the Ducks will be about more than trophies. USC will be out to prove it is still relevant, not simply the ghost of the conference waiting to get off probation.

Few people expect USC to win. It won’t be one of those games where Oregon stumbles in unprepared and the Trojan underdogs pull off a miracle against a sleeping giant. Even though the Trojans are not in the national title race, the Ducks will be ready. USC is still USC, and the nation will be watching.

But all the pieces are in place for an upset. A team ranked No. 1 in one of the major polls has lost the last three straight weeks. USC is better when it has something to prove.

The Trojans are also coming off a bye week, meaning they have had two weeks to watch film, two weeks to rest their injuries and two weeks to try to get in shape for what will probably be a game that feels like a marathon punctuated by sprints. A win could change the entire outlook on this season for the Trojans.

So while the new-and-improved Pac-12 stole the headlines last weekend, all eyes will now return to the Pac-10 Saturday. And if the Trojans can find a little magic, the conference could be in for one last midseason shakeup.

“Middle Ground” runs Tuesdays. To comment on this article, visit dailytrojan.com or e-mail Josh at jjovanel@usc.edu.