USC enters season with trying schedule

Take a glance at the USC football schedule this year, and you’ll notice a few quirks: a couple of notable conference mainstays are missing that home game against Arizona isn’t on a Saturday and how are the Trojans playing 13 regular season games?

All of this makes for an interesting and unique schedule for USC this year, especially compared to the last few. Most notably, Oregon is off the slate for the first time since 2004, and Washington for the first time since 2000. Back on the schedule are Oregon State and Washington State after a    two-year hiatus.

The shift is due to the Pac-12’s new schedule rotation, which dictates out-of-division games. USC will play the Beavers and the Cougars for the next two years before returning to the Ducks and the Huskies in 2015 and 2016, then back again to Oregon State and Washington State in 2017, and so on.

It’s a dramatic difference in schedule difficulty for USC. The Ducks and Huskies have a combined 72 wins in the last four years, 42 by Oregon alone. In that same timespan, the Beavers and Cougars have won a combined 35 games.

Oregon State and Washington are more or less interchangeable as opponents. The Beavers have been slightly better in recent years, but the difference is insignificant compared to that of Oregon and Washington State. Playing Washington State instead of Oregon is quite literally swapping one of the top teams in the nation — not just the conference — with a team that hasn’t had a winning season in a decade and has finished dead last in the conference four years running.

The switch, however, does have one ominous consequence for USC: a trip to Corvallis, Ore., where the team’s last victory came in 2004. Twice the Beavers spoiled a probable title run for the Trojans with a shocking upset in Corvallis, knocking off No. 3 USC in 2006 and No. 1 USC in 2008, the lone loss of the season that year. In 2010, No. 20 USC converted just four of 16 third downs and was battered around by the unranked Beavers in the legendary Reser Stadium fog, which seemed to shroud all hope for USC.

This year’s trip to Corvallis will be for a Friday night game, one of three weeknight games on the docket for USC this year. The Trojans will open their season at Hawai’i on a Thursday and then host Arizona on Thursday, Oct. 10 at the Coliseum, the first regular season home game the Trojans will ever play on a Thursday that hasn’t fallen on Thanksgiving.

“It’s gonna be exciting,” USC redshirt junior linebacker Hayes Pullard said. “The fans can come in during the week, maybe miss a couple classes. I’m sure some people will like that.”

The thought of some 70,000-plus people descending upon Downtown Los Angeles precisely at rush hour (kickoff is 7:30 p.m., meaning many people will be arriving at the Coliseum between 5 and 7 p.m.) is worrisome enough that the athletic department created a webpage dedicated to explaining some of the many ways this will be different from your average Saturday home game.

But the team isn’t concerned with traffic or a ban of on-campus tailgating. For them, it will be treated like all other games, with a hotel stay the night before and meetings throughout the day before heading to the stadium. And with no Saturday game the week before, the team will still have a full week of practice and then some.

“We’ll still bring that same intensity like it’s on Saturday,” Pullard said. “Coach [Lane] Kiffin still puts the emphasis on prep, not hype. When you’re prepared, you’re confident, and that’s our mindset.”

The only one of the three weeknight games where the schedule poses an issue is the Friday trip to Corvallis. USC hosts Utah the Saturday before, meaning the team will lose a day of rest that normally falls on Monday.

“It does break up your routine, and you try to stay in your routine as much as possible,” Kiffin said. “I don’t think many coaches would prefer that. I think we’d all just like to play every Saturday. But we also understand the impact of television contracts and why we do that, so we’ll just deal with it the best we can.”

With seven home games and six road trips, USC’s schedule is slightly imbalanced. The 13-game regular season is made possible by the Trojans’ season-opening trip to Hawai’i. The NCAA allows teams that make the trip out to the islands to schedule an extra home game, giving them extra revenue to offset the higher cost of travel.

“[The extra game] is just another chance to compete,” Pullard said. “Another chance to get better for postseason.”

The so-called “Hawai’i exception” allows USC to schedule four nonconference games — including Notre Dame — instead of three, adding in Utah State this year in addition to Hawai’i, Boston College and the Irish.

There is no particularly foreboding stretch this season, as there was last year when the Trojans took on three ranked teams in four weeks in No. 2 Oregon, No. 17 UCLA and No. 1 Notre Dame. This year, their four games against preseason ranked teams come every other week in a seven-week stretch to end the season, as Notre Dame, Oregon State, Stanford and UCLA are interspersed with Utah, Cal and Colorado.


Follow Nick Burton on Twitter @NickMBurton