The USC Trojans have hit the mid-way point of the season and all of their goals are still within reach. The Men of Troy (4-2, 3-1 Pac-12) currently are in first place in the Pac-12 South, though a game with Utah this weekend will go a long way toward deciding the outcome of the division race. USC is eliminated from the College Football Playoff talk, but they were never going to realistically end up there, and few experts had them pegged for one of the four spots in the first place.
Blowout losses to Texas and Stanford early on had some thinking this could be a down year for the Trojans, but narrow wins over Washington State and Arizona, followed by a dominant performance against Colorado put the Trojans right back in the thick of things in their division. The second-half slate is where they will either prove their worth or fold under the pressure. They have some tough contests during the back stretch, but they also have very winnable games right up to the last.
The biggest test for USC in Pac-12 play occurs this weekend in Salt Lake City. The Utes enter the game with a similar 4-2 record but a real need to accomplish something under head coach Kyle Whittingham, who has yet to even win a division title since joining the Pac-12. To frame Whittingham’s failures in a different light, the best finish the Utes have had was 2015 when a USC team that finished 8-6 overall beat out a Utah team that would finish 10-3 for the right to play in the Pac-12 Championship Game.
Defeating the Utes on the road this weekend would give the Trojans a nearly insurmountable lead in the South. For their remaining games, they would likely be favored against Arizona State, as well as Cal and UCLA, and they'd definitely get the nod over Oregon State. The regular-season finale against Notre Dame is important (Trojans could have a chance to spoil the Fighting Irish's playoff hopes), but it won't factor into whether or not USC gets a shot at defending its Pac-12 crown.
Offensive MVP: RB Vavae Malepeai
Malepeai is the Trojans’ offensive MVP and the numbers aren’t even close. Perhaps the biggest surprise as well, Malepeai has six rushing touchdowns on the year, which is twice as many score as fellow back Aca’ Cedric Ware and wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr. (three each) have. Malepeai is averaging 5.2 yards per carry and has become a reliable option in the red zone.
Defensive MVP: DE/LB Porter Gustin
Though he is now lost for the year, Gustin was really making the most of his final year at USC and that’s despite missing a half for a targeting call. Gustin was USC's pass rush with seven sacks and 10 tackles for a loss. He'll finish the season 28 total tackles, 18 of those solo. Defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast will have to get creative with his looks and personnel now that more than half of his sack production (USC has 13 total through six games) is on the sidelines.
Best Moment of First Half: Jay Tufele Blocking Washington State’s Game-Tying Field Goal Attempt to Preserve the Win
One could really point to this as a moment where USC’s season was saved from a much different season potentially. Had the Cougars tied the game and won it in overtime, the Trojans would be fighting uphill against a season that started 1-3 rather than 2-2. Maybe a 1-3 Trojan team doesn’t frustrate Arizona and Kevin Sumlin finds his signature victory. Who knows? Tufele made sure the Trojans didn’t have to find out.
Best Newcomer: WR Amon-Ra St. Brown
St. Brown was one of the most sought-after recruits in the entire nation. The chemistry he had with JT Daniels is a large reason both of them wound up at USC together and it shows in games like Washington State. A sensational pitch and catch with Daniels gave USC the lead and helped kick-start the comeback against the Cougars. St. Brown has 427 receiving yards and two touchdowns along with nine rushing yards. Brown is the type of player that you know, barring an injury, is only going to be at USC for three years.
Biggest Surprise: Porter Gustin’s Career Ending Like it Did
Gustin is a guy who took a chance on USC when the Trojans were in a period of disarray. Urban Meyer made a late play for Gustin and he nearly committed to Ohio State. It's scary to think of that Buckeyes defense with Gustin part of it. He told USC that his top priority was to win a national title. He wanted to hear from the coaches that this would be possible if he came to USC. Steve Sarkisian, Justin Wilcox and Peter Sirmon told him that he would be one of the pieces that would get the Trojans there and that’s all Gustin needed to hear. He signed with USC and was a force out of the gate. This was not how anyone figured he would end his Trojans career, especially after the tremendous start he had put together. An ankle fracture isn't the way any player's college career should end, especially one the caliber of Gustin.
Three Things to Watch in the Second Half
1. Can USC get after the passer?
As mentioned earlier, Porter Gustin's season-ending injury is a significant blow to a USC defensive line that isn’t generating much pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Gustin sits tied for seventh in the nation in sacks (7.0) and now he’s down for the year. Six other Trojans combine for the team's six other sacks, led by Malik Dorton's 1.5. Without Gustin, USC's sack production would tie Texas State for 124th in the country. The only Pac-12 team with fewer would be Oregon State (five).
2. JT Daniels' decision-making
A true freshman, Daniels is only completing 58.2 percent of his passes with seven touchdowns and five interceptions. In an era where freshmen quarterbacks are lighting up scoreboards, Daniels is averaging 255 passing yards per game. He has helped the Trojans start out 4-2, but there's room for improvement and you definitely don't want to see him take a step backwards the rest of the way. The best-case scenario is that he mixes in a few big games with some solid, but maybe not spectacular performance while avoiding the duds and minimizing the mistakes. The future is bright for the USC signal-caller but the pressure is on to deliver right away.
3. Getting healthy
While Gustin is lost for the season, there are four others who could still potentially make their way back from the injured list. Among those who could potentially suit up against Utah, two in particular could have a significant impact on the game. Middle linebacker Cameron Smith and WR Josh Imatorbhebhe are questionable for Saturday. Daniels could benefit from the return of another potent wideout, while Smith is the unquestioned leader of that Trojan defense. Without him and Gustin on the field, the Trojans would have to execute their game plan flawlessly because of an inability to generate much pressure or create turnovers.
Ranking the Toughest Remaining Games on the Schedule
1. Nov. 24 Notre Dame
This is far and away the toughest game remaining on USC’s schedule. The Fighting Irish are currently No. 4 in the country and have their sights set on going undefeated to justify a spot in the College Football Playoff. Notre Dame cannot afford a loss and probably needs to look impressive against the Trojans. Given the potential high stakes, there is nothing USC fans would love more than for Notre Dame to leave Los Angeles with their first L right before the committee meets to determine the playoff field.
2. Oct. 20 at Utah
The Irish may be the toughest game left on USC’s schedule, but the Utes are the toughest team the Trojans are likely to face in the Pac-12 South this year. The winner of this game will be in the pole position for the Pac-12 South crown and retain a shot at a New Year's Six bowl game. This game is going to be a war of attrition and Porter Gustin’s injury has to come with mixed feelings for Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham. Coaches never want to see a kid hurt and they’re competitors just like the players, but not having to worry about Gustin makes preparing for USC's defense much easier.
3. Oct. 20 at Arizona State
The Sun Devils are a spry and lively team under Herm Edwards. It’s little surprise that Edwards is finding some success early on as he builds up his own program, he has a slew of knowledge from which to draw upon and the players gravitate toward him. He is a player’s coach and knows how to get that extra inch out of his players.
4. Nov. 10 Cal
Justin Wilcox is still looking for a way to get the Cal program going in the right direction. A bright start with wins over North Carolina, BYU, and FCS opponent Idaho State was immediately snuffed out with losses to Oregon, Arizona and UCLA. It’s entirely possible the Bears win just one more game, and that's this Saturday against Oregon State. Washington, Washington State, USC, Stanford and Colorado still await and all of these teams appear to be significantly better than Cal at the moment.
5. Nov. 17 at UCLA
The Chip Kelly era was not supposed to start off like this. The Bruins were expected to go through a bit of a transition, but not one that resulted in a 1-5 start and included losses to Cincinnati and Fresno State. The Bruins always make the Battle for the Victory Bowl interesting and Kelly knows a thing or two about USC rivalries. This game may be one of the more exciting, but the present state of the Bruins is all they can be judged by and they have one win.
6. Nov. 3 at Oregon State
Just like there's no debate as to which team is at the top of this list, there is no question the Beavers are at the bottom. Jonathan Smith is laying the groundwork for the future, but the present has been more of the same for Oregon State. The only win thus far came against FCS opponent Southern Utah. The Beavers aren't going to just roll over, but they also are clearly the worst team in the Pac-12.
— Written by Josh Webb, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @FightOnTwist.