Southern Cal-Oregon Preview
Though it may not be the Pac-12 championship preview once anticipated, Oregon and Southern California's second-half resurgences have Saturday's showdown at Autzen Stadium still carrying plenty of weight.
The 22nd-ranked Trojans stand a good chance of holding up their end of that equation if they can take down the red-hot No. 23 Ducks, as USC is back in control of the South Division thanks to a four-game win streak and Utah's recent struggles.
USC (7-3, 5-2) moved into a first-place tie with the Utes following last week's 27-24 victory at Colorado and Utah's loss at Arizona. The Trojans, who host reeling UCLA in next Saturday's regular-season finale, own the tiebreaker via a 42-24 win Oct. 24 that began their turnaround under interim coach Clay Helton.
Oregon (7-3, 5-2) will require some help in the North despite last Saturday's thrilling 38-36 victory at first-place Stanford, as it needs to win out and have the Cardinal lose to California this week. The Ducks conclude the regular season at home against last-place Oregon State next Friday.
Though back in the Top 25 and still in contention for the conference title, the Stanford game may end up more of a reminder of what could have been had quarterback Vernon Adams not fractured his finger in the season opener.
Adams was hampered in a loss at Michigan State the following week and forced out of the Ducks' 62-20 home defeat to Utah on Sept. 26. He subsequently missed two games, including a damaging home loss to Washington State on Oct. 10.
Oregon has re-emerged as perhaps the Pac-12's most dangerous team with Adams back healthy, winning four straight since his return. The Ducks are averaging 42.3 points and 538.5 total yards during the streak, and they followed a 777-yard outburst against Cal by gaining 436 versus Stanford.
''We're definitely a different team than at the beginning of the season,'' said Adams, who's posted a 178.6 rating and thrown for 12 touchdowns over the four games. ''We're playing a lot faster and I'm a lot more confident in the offense.''
The Ducks' trademark explosiveness was fully on display against the Cardinal, with Oregon recording touchdowns on a 75-yard run from Charles Nelson and Adams passes of 49 and 47 yards.
Linebacker Joe Walker delivered the biggest play, however, by breaking up a 2-point conversion try with 10 seconds left to likely end Stanford's hopes of a College Football Playoff berth.
USC, which was one spot behind the Ducks at No. 8 in the AP preseason poll, has shown its share of resiliency as well in recovering from a poor start and Steve Sarkisian's midseason firing. The Trojans were 3-3 following a 41-31 loss at then-No. 14 Notre Dame in Helton's first game, then rebounded for a season-saving result against the then-unbeaten Utes.
More grit was apparent last week when Cody Kessler threw for three touchdowns as USC scored 24 straight points to overcome a 17-3 second-quarter deficit in Boulder.
''I told them that in 21 years of football, I've never been more proud of a group,'' Helton said. ''They'll never forget this moment, what we've been through this season. That's what is really cool - kids who refused to fail.''
Kessler, the Pac-12 leader in passing efficiency, and receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster now face an Oregon defense that's been vulnerable to downfield attacks all season long. The Ducks have allowed 317.7 yards per game and 31 touchdowns through the air, ranking near the bottom of the FBS in both categories.
Smith-Schuster tops the conference with 1,160 receiving yards and has 10 touchdowns on 63 catches.
"You turn on the tape and quickly get slapped in the face with how good USC is," Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said. "Our guys will be excited about that challenge."
The Trojans have improved defensively as well, yielding 83.8 rushing yards and 2.7 per attempt during the win streak. The unit gets its toughest challenge yet, though, as the Ducks rank fourth in the FBS at 297.4 rushing yards per game while averaging 6.2 per carry.
Royce Freeman produced a sixth straight 100-yard effort with 105 on 16 rushes against Stanford. The sophomore's 139.2 yards per game tops the conference.
These Pac-12 heavyweights are meeting for the first time since a 62-51 Oregon win at the Rose Bowl in 2012. The Trojans won 38-35 in Eugene the previous year.