USC faces critical two-game stretch

The next two games are crucial ones for the fate of the USC football program.

On Saturday, the Trojans take on Arizona State in Tempe, Ariz., a place where they were beaten 43-22 two years ago by a Sun Devil team that finished 6-7 that season.

After a bye week, the team returns to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum to face an Arizona squad that derailed USC’s 2012 season with a 39-36 upset win. The loss sent the Trojans into a woeful 1-5 stretch that turned last season from a disappointment into a disaster.

The revenge factor in these games notwithstanding, both are absolute must-wins for USC head coach Lane Kiffin and his team.

For one, both opponents are Pac-12 South rivals, meaning it is imperative that the Trojans win to bolster their conference record. But while winning will catapult USC back into the race for the South Division championship, fans might not want to think about what might happen should the Trojans lose one or both games.

Losing each game is not at all out of the realm of possibility, either. USC opened as 6.5-point underdogs this week against ASU, and, as previously stated, lost to Arizona in 2012. Playing the Arizona game at home should help its cause, but as USC showed against Washington State, this year’s team can lose to any team, anywhere and at any time.

Should the Trojans lose their next two games, the team will become something it hasn’t been in quite some time — irrelevant.

The 2012 season was an embarrassment, yes, but it was the sort of train wreck that caused everybody to stop what they were doing and watch in astonishment. Four of the Trojans’ last five regular season games were nationally televised, and the final regular season game against Notre Dame drew the highest TV ratings of the 2012 season.

But losing to ASU and Arizona would push USC’s conference record to 0-3, virtually erasing any chance at a Pac-12 South title. And with five of the team’s last six regular season games yet to be given a kickoff time or network broadcast, more noon kickoffs and Pac-12 Network-only broadcasts would most likely come as a result.

The low TV ratings would pale in comparison to the turnout at the Coliseum, though. The average attendance for USC’s last three home games in 2012 was 89,123. Through the first three home games this season, the Coliseum averaged just 67,770 spectators per game.

The attractiveness of USC’s opponent obviously plays a large part here. Two of USC’s last three home games of 2012 were against Oregon and Notre Dame, each extremely high-profile teams that drew sellout crowds and big TV ratings. USC’s opponents in home games this year (Washington State, Boston College and Utah State) are hardly big-name draws.

The fact remains, though, that USC’s home opener had more than 15,000 empty seats at a time when the team was unbeaten (only 1-0, but unbeaten nonetheless), ranked in the Top 25 and playing a Pac-12 opponent at 7:30 p.m., usually an attractive kickoff time for fans because it gives them ample time to tailgate and get to the stadium on time. That there were so many empty seats illustrates how critical the next two games are to ignite a spark in the team’s waning support.

I don’t mean to scare fans into a doomsday dread, because I don’t think the team will lose both games, especially with how well the defense has played thus far. In fact, I can easily envision USC winning its next two games and jumping back into the Top 25 heading into its crucial game against Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind.

But it must be said how imperative it is for the psyche of the Trojan faithful that the team perform well. It’s already been shown that one loss can send the Coliseum crowd into a tizzy, with calls for Kiffin’s job raining down from the rafters. A 0-3 Pac-12 record would make it seem like Armageddon is upon us.

It should be noted that the next two games provide an equally great opportunity for the team to prove once and for all that the loss to Washington State was more of a fluke than an indication of ineptitude, and to make a statement to the nation that USC should be taken seriously.

My money is on the latter. Call it blind faith if you want — it would be easy to, given that the Trojans’ offense has only played well in one of its four games — but I can say with confidence that I believe the team will finally put together a complete game and have its full talents on display.

Or at least I hope so. Because I really don’t want to imagine what might happen otherwise.


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