As the Pac-12 season nears the midpoint, Arizona and USC will meet in a game that has large implications for the Pac-12 South race. Both the Wildcats (4-2, 2-1 Pac-12) and Trojans (3-3, 2-1), along with Utah and Arizona State are currently tied atop the division. USC owns the tiebreaker with the Utes, who will host the Sun Devils on Saturday (6 p.m. ET start).
In the big picture, a loss by any of these teams doesn't necessarily eliminate them from the race, but it would put them a game behind the two front-runners.
Current positioning aside, the Trojans could use a win simply to stop the negative momentum. USC has lost its last two (at Washington, at Notre Dame) and really needs to take another step toward bowl eligibility rather than set up a scenario where a 3-2 finish would be necessary to punch a ticket to the postseason. The Trojans still have dates with Colorado, Oregon, Arizona State, Cal, and UCLA.
The prognosis for Arizona isn’t much better. Head coach Kevin Sumlin could use a strong finish as he looks to silence some of his doubters after going 5-7 last season. This fall the Wildcats started out with a loss to Hawaii -- one that looks better with each passing week given the Rainbow Warriors' success -- but then won four in a row. However, last week saw Washington take it to Arizona at home, thumping the Wildcats 51-27.
USC expects to beat a team like Arizona every time they play. But the Trojans are the kind of team that Wildcats fans were hoping Sumlin could figure out a way to defeat to help this program take the next step in the Pac-12 pecking order. So which team will rise to the occasion in the Coliseum on Saturday night?
Arizona at USC
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 19 at 9:30 p.m. ET
TV: Pac-12 Networks
Spread: USC -9
When Arizona Has the Ball
This is going to be a game of quarterbacks. Whichever quarterback can be the most efficient and make the fewest mistakes is going to give his team the best chance to win. It’s not like either of these defenses are tops in the country. For his part, Wildcats QB Khalil Tate is going to have to show some serious improvement. If he continues to make the same errant passes and takes the same bad sacks he did against Washington, the Trojans are going to turn this into a rout very quickly.
Tate has the ability to give a team like USC fits. The Trojans have never been a top defense against mobile quarterbacks in the past, and they definitely do not have a defense built to stop him this year. That said, Tate is going to have to avoid blue-chip defensive linemen Drake Jackson and Marlon Tuipulotu if he plans to impact this game at all. If he can negate those two up front, it’s going to be a long day for the Trojans.
When USC Has the Ball
The Trojans are presently in the process of trying to be consistent. The only consistency this team has is a consistent ability to be inconsistent. Head coach Clay Helton has yet to prove he has the ability to turn USC into a consistent contender without the aid of a top-five NFL draft pick as his quarterback. In fact, one might argue that much of his success has come because of that quarterback, Sam Darnold.
Kedon Slovis has turned the Trojans into his team with JT Daniels going down for the year. Under offensive coordinator Graham Harrell, Slovis has emerged as one of the conference's tougher quarterbacks. This shouldn’t be surprising for a quarterback who learned the high school game under Pro Football Hall of Famer Kurt Warner, but Slovis’ success running this offense has raised questions about why he wasn’t the top choice over Daniels from day one. If Slovis can learn the nuances of the game, he has the chance to be something special at USC.
Arizona isn’t a team that has done well against USC over the last nine years. The Wildcats are 1-8 vs. the Trojans since 2010 with their average margin of defeat in those games about nine points. Arizona's lone win during this stretch came in Tucson. USC has home-field advantage in this one and not only have the Men of Troy not lost in the Coliseum this season, but they also haven't done so to Arizona in a decade. History smiles on USC in this one with Kedon Slovis leading the way to a much-needed victory.
Prediction: USC 37, Arizona 29
— Written by Josh Webb, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @FightOnTwist.