Does last season’s fate await USC? (Counterpoint)

Yes, yes, the circumstances do seem similar. Far too many students will be running around South Los Angeles in Charlie Sheen costumes (it’s Halloween weekend). Lee Corso will also wear the headwear of the team he picks to win Saturday.

But the comparisons pretty much stop there. It’s 2011 and USC is clearly a better football team than it was 12 months ago.

To make an obvious point, the Trojans are 3-0 this month. Last year, USC entered the game against Oregon with a mere 1-2 mark in October.

The team has momentum this time around — there was no bye the week before. Things appear to be on the upswing.

In USC’s last two contests, it has outscored both California and Notre Dame by a combined score of 61-26. In each of those games, it looks as if USC coach Lane Kiffin has grown as a play caller and as a coach. Hey, the results speak for themselves.

But two things stand out most about this year’s group.

For one, junior quarterback Matt Barkley’s development has only continued. He might not exactly be Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck, but he’s darn close. Through seven games, he has thrown for 2,006 yards with 19 touchdowns and four interceptions. His completion percentage also stands at 68 percent.

By comparison, Luck has actually thrown for fewer yards — 1,888 of them. He has, however, posted a touchdown-to-interception of 20:3 and a 72 percent completion percentage.

Secondly, USC’s defense is far better against the run than it was last season. Before Saturday night’s game against the Trojans, Notre Dame had been averaging 194 rushing yards per game, including 114 yards against Michigan State — the nation’s seventh best run defense. But the Irish finished with 41 yards on the ground and their season average dipped to 172 yards per game.

ESPN might opt to bill Saturday’s matchup simply as a Luck versus Barkley showdown, but it’s going to be won — to steal an old football cliché — in the trenches.

Stanford amassed 446 rushing yards last week against Washington. It ranks 17th nationally in rushing yards per game. But luckily for USC, its own defense is ranked 11th in rushing yards allowed per game. Something has to give, and for once, the breaks seem to be going USC’s way.

Don’t tell me the Trojans haven’t played anyone, either. Granted, their opponents are a combined 24-25 this season, but the Cardinal’s 65-21 win over then-No. 25 Washington was its first victory this season against a team with a winning record. And it came at home.

Last year’s Oregon team was ranked No. 1. It had defeated Tennessee in front of more than 100,000 fans in Knoxville, Tenn. It also beat Stanford by three touchdowns.

This season, the No. 4 Cardinal, because of a nonconference slate that included just San Jose State and Duke and a weak Pac-12, remains somewhat of an enigma more than halfway through the season.

Sure, Stanford is pretty good. Anyone will concede that. But so is USC, as testament to its more recent showings.

A season ago, the Trojans lost to Oregon by 21 points. But with the way they are playing thus far in 2011, it’d be wise not to change the channel come Saturday.

To steal a line from Corso, this one will be closer than the experts think.

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