You aren't suffering from deja vu: Saturday's Pac-12 Conference matchup between USC and No. 19-ranked Colorado might feel like a retread of the last time the Buffaloes visited Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Rest assured, you haven't returned to 2016. The circumstances are just strikingly similar.
Colorado visits USC looking like a viable Pac-12 title contender, as it did two seasons ago. And, similar to two seasons ago, the homestanding Trojans are in the process of rebuilding from a sluggish start.
Though the divisional title part may be nice for the visitors, avoiding a repeat of 2016 takes priority for the Buffs this weekend. Losing to USC is a bad bit of deja vu for Colorado dating back 12 games and 91 years, when the two programs first played. The Buffs have never beaten the Trojans in that time. What's more, a loss this year puts USC in the driver's seat to win the division for the third time in four years.
Colorado at USC
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 13 at 10:30 p.m. ET
Spread: USC -7
Three Things to Watch
1. Coliseum magic
More than three years have passed since USC last lost in the Coliseum. The Trojans haven't gone untested at the friendly confines in that stretch, winning their last game there on a blocked field goal; rallying on a heroic drive and overtime against Texas and stopping a two-point conversion against Utah a season ago; and surviving an error-plagued game to withstand a Colorado comeback effort in the Buffs last visit two years ago, a 21-17 USC win.
With two of its road Pac-12 games out of the way — including a 24-20 win Sept. 29 at Arizona, a crucial, divisional contest — USC now plays an equal amount of home and road contests the rest of the way. Meanwhile, one of those road games is a short jaunt to Pasadena to face UCLA.
Holding serve in the Coliseum would give USC the inside track on the South, with the Trojans already boasting a head-to-head win against fellow one-loss opponent Arizona, and drawing each of Arizona State and Colorado at home.
2. Laviska Shenault Jr.
The Colorado offense has multiple weapons, including a running back averaging more than 100 rushing yards per game (Travon McMillian), a trio of potential breakout wide receivers in Jay MacIntyre, K.D. Nixon and Tony Brown, and the dual-threat ability of quarterback Steven Montez. But the engine driving the Buffs in their 5-0 start has been Laviska Shenault Jr.
The multidimensional Shenault is a matchup nightmare because of his ability to move around the field in a variety of positions. He's unlike any player the Trojans' defense has seen in 2018 — in part because there isn't really any players who have demonstrated a skill set comparable to his.
Slowing Shenault is key for USC, but defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast must strategize doing so without placing too much emphasis on him. Because of the aforementioned players around Shenault, Colorado has the ability to attack elsewhere on the field. The risk the Trojans run in focusing too heavily on Shenault is getting peppered with 10-to-15-yard passing gains from Nixon, MacIntyre and Brown, akin to how Washington State put up 30 points in a little over two quarters on Sept. 22.
3. The things that can be controlled
USC's most vexing issue in a closer-than-it-should-have-been defeat of Arizona had little to do with the opponent: The Trojans gave up almost 50 percent of what Arizona accrued in offense on penalties. Add that to a bevy of turnovers, and USC was truly its own worst enemy.
Colorado thrived on defense by generating turnovers two seasons. That hasn't been the case in 2018, with the Buffs going the last two weeks without a takeaway. However, with just four giveaways on the other side of the ball, Colorado doesn't cough up possession, either. A USC defense that only made its first interception in Week 5 may be ill-equipped to rely on takeaways to set the tone.
However, USC can and must steer clear of self-inflicted errors. When the Trojans move the ball on the ground effectively, whether from Stephen Carr, Aca'Cedric Ware or Vavae Malepeai, that takes pressure off JT Daniels. Daniels spreads the ball among the deep pass-catching corps effectively when working with a clean pocket.
Colorado entered its Week 6 matchup with Arizona State something of an unknown commodity. The Buffaloes were 4-0, including a blowout win against UCLA, but none of their first four wins came against opponents with winning records. Losing to Colorado dropped Arizona State to 3-3, but the Sun Devils came within a score of each of those losses. That should go down as a quality win for the Buffs, showing both the explosive playmaking ability of Laviska Shenault Jr., as well as the physicality of the defense.
That said, USC is certainly the most talented team Colorado will face through the first half of its schedule. The Trojans have the pieces to return to the Pac-12 Championship Game, if not win the league. Head coach Clay Helton hinted as much following the Sept. 29 Arizona win. He said in his teleconference call the next day that he couldn't wait for people to see this team come November, an obvious allusion to the Trojans' ongoing improvement.
USC has enough question marks that it's vulnerable in the back-half of the season, but the bevy of playmakers on both sides of the ball sometimes mask mistakes. Saturday's a test for both sides, and USC having faced stiffer competition thus far could make the difference.