The USC Trojans are presently on the outside looking in when it comes to the postseason entering Saturday's game against the Arizona Wildcats. No, we're not talking about the College Football Playoff or a New Year's Six bowl game, we're talking about any bowl game at all.
The Trojans have to come up with three wins in their final five games to become bowl eligible. Those wins must come against Arizona, Arizona State, Cal, UCLA, and BYU. Any other year, USC (and its fans) might look at that schedule and laugh at the notion of missing out on a bowl game. This is not that year.
Not only are the Trojans in the midst of coaching transition, but interim head coach Donte Williams has also already shown that he may be in over his head.
If USC loses to Arizona, a team with zero wins, it seems all but a forgone conclusion that the Trojans will miss out on a bowl game. I mean, if you can't beat Arizona, what chance does USC have against teams like Arizona State, UCLA, or BYU? Cal also is probably salivating at the thought of playing this Trojans team, and the last time the Golden Bears beat USC, it netted their head coach an extension.
On the other sideline, first-year Wildcats head coach Jedd Fisch can show the promise that boosters believed he had by beating the Trojans on Saturday. Despite the 0-7 record, Arizona has had a couple of close calls, including last week's 21-16 home loss to Washington that saw the Wildcats blow a nine-point, fourth-quarter lead.
Arizona at USC
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 30 at 7 p.m. ET
Spread: USC -20.5
When Arizona Has the Ball
The Wildcats have lost 19 in a row, so there's no reason to not expect Fisch and offensive coordinator Brennan Carroll (son of Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll) to throw anything and everything they have in their playbook against USC. The problem is that Arizona's quarterback room has been depleted by injury with Jordan McCloud and Gunner Cruz both lost for the season. That leaves Will Plummer, who has thrown more than twice as many interceptions (five) as touchdown passes (two), and wide receiver-turned-Wildcat (no pun intended) quarterback Jamarye Joiner. The different looks under center may keep the Trojans' defense off-balance, but this is an offense that's averaging 14.3 points and 337.6 yards per game.
Because of the quarterback situation, the running game will have to literally carry the load. Northwestern transfer Drake Anderson and Michael Wiley have combined for nearly half the team's carries (121 of 248), but they are averaging a collective 3.5 yards per carry with just one rushing touchdown. They may have some success against a USC defense that's in the middle of the Pac-12 in rushing yards allowed per game (151.3) but has surrendered 13 touchdowns on the ground in seven games. Only Stanford has given up more (17).
When USC Has the Ball
If the Trojans want to turn things around, they need to bench Kedon Slovis and install Jaxson Dart as the starting quarterback. Slovis has had more than enough opportunities to claim the job, and it's becoming pretty clear that he may have peaked as a freshman. Maybe his development has been stunted by a lack of chemistry with offensive coordinator Graham Harrell or the result of all the turmoil that has taken place amidst the coaching staff (or a combination of the two), but Dart's dual-threat skill set appears to be a better fit given the current state of affairs.
Wide receiver Drake London and running back Keaontay Ingram also have been sparks for this offense. Dart may allow Harrell the ability to try and stretch the field more with London and Tahj Washington on the receiving end. This in turn could open up running lanes for Ingram and Vavae Malepeai. It's easy to forget that this is a really talented team, way too talented to be playing this badly. This is an opportunity for Williams and the staff to turn things around and finish on a high note knowing full well that wholesale changes are coming after the season.
It also doesn't hurt that Arizona is last in the Pac-12 in scoring defense, giving up 30.4 points per game, although the Wildcats are third in total defense (357.6 ypg) and second in passing yards allowed per game (176.4). Part of the reason for the discrepancy is a minus-11 turnover margin driven by a dearth of takeaways (five) and a bunch of interceptions thrown by their own quarterbacks (13).
Not only does USC look like a ship lost at sea without a rudder, but interim head coach Donte Williams also looks completely outmatched most games. His postgame presser after the loss to Notre Dame only served to highlight just how out of his depth he is. Per Ryan Kartje of the Orange County Register, "Donte Williams said Saturday that it didn't matter that USC had two weeks to prepare for Notre Dame because 'teams still make mistakes.'"
But then on Sunday, when reporters pressed him on why Notre Dame was able to find the success USC could not, he completely doubled back and excused it by saying Notre Dame had two weeks to prepare for USC and it gave the Fighting Irish an edge.
Some of the Trojans' issues over the past few seasons can be attributed to a coaching deficit and an inability to make the necessary adjustments. Arizona is winless, but the Wildcats at least have the guy they want (for now) calling the shots. That's not the case for USC. Even though he's only an interim, Williams' lack of experience leading a team is showing. Don't be surprised if Arizona takes advantage of this on Saturday night.
Prediction: Arizona 37, USC 33
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— Written by Josh Webb, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @FightOnTwist.