With all that’s happened around the USC football program in the past year and a half, it’s at once surprising and to be expected that ESPN’s College GameDay is yet again coming to Los Angeles this Saturday when the Trojans take on Stanford in what will undoubtedly be the biggest game of the season.
The decision to host GameDay at USC is surprising given that this is a season in which USC fired its head coach, lost at home to Washington State and has had so many injuries and depth issues on its roster that it should be nearly impossible to have a successful season. But, believe it or not, the Trojans are having just that — an objectively successful season, or at least their “new season,” which is a term interim head coach Ed Orgeron has used to describe the time period since he took over for former head coach Lane Kiffin.
Under Orgeron, the Trojans are 4-1 overall and unbeaten in Pac-12 play, including two consecutive dominating road victories that have put USC in position to make a run at the Pac-12 South. This impressive stretch is why ESPN’s decision to host GameDay at USC is to be expected — USC looks like USC again, and people are starting to notice.
But even as recently as last season, GameDay chose to come to the USC-Notre Dame game despite USC’s 7-4 record at the time, suggesting that the Trojans could draw a crowd no matter how much they struggled. Sure, Notre Dame’s No. 1 ranking and eventual BCS National Championship Game berth had something to do with the decision, but even at its worst, USC could still capture the spotlight. Now, with a team that has risen from the ashes, USC is once again commanding the nation’s gaze, though this time more on its own terms.
During last year’s disappointment, GameDay arrived at a time when it almost seemed like the program didn’t want any attention. Kiffin’s hot seat was heating up, former quarterback Matt Barkley was injured and nobody in cardinal and gold wanted to have to watch the Irish celebrate on the Coliseum field as they capped off an unbeaten regular season.
This season, though, the Trojans are welcoming the attention. USC’s past two victories have been reminiscent of USC teams of the mid-2000s, a timeframe that represents the glory days just before the NCAA sanctions hit. Beating a good Oregon State team on the road by 17 was impressive, but putting up 62 points against a woeful California team is exactly what USC was supposed to do, and by doing that, the Trojans have reinvigorated a fanbase that has been aching for something to cheer about all season.
The highest attendance at the Coliseum this season so far was 77,823, roughly 15,000 less than capacity. This was at the Washington State game, the season’s home opener. Since then, attendance has failed to reach 65,000 in any of the team’s next four home games — against Boston College, Utah State, Arizona and Utah.
Of course, there were reasons why fans didn’t show up to these games. Against Boston College and Utah State, fans were not yet ready to watch a team that they recently saw lose to Washington State. Against Arizona, Kiffin’s firing and a Thursday night home game kept fans away. And for the Utah game, the Trojans had just lost to Notre Dame. And let’s face it — noon is just too early to start a football game.
This weekend, though, the conditions are perfect — kickoff is at 5 p.m., the team has won three in a row and coming into town is a Stanford team that hasn’t lost to USC since 2008. This will be the first time in more than two months that the team returns home coming off of a win. At the risk of jinxing the whole thing, come Saturday night, the Coliseum might feel (and sound) like the Coliseum again. Though it doesn’t garner as much attention as other big-name stadiums, few others are more imposing than a packed Coliseum — anybody who was at the 2011 USC-Stanford game can attest to that.
USC is a program that typically has thrived on the big stage — players come here because they want to be seen by as many eyes as possible. On Saturday, they’ll get their wish, because all eyes will be on the Coliseum to see what all the fuss is about.
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