The Pac-12 is in a pretty precarious position. The conference has two teams jockeying for a potential College Football Playoff berth and a bunch that could end those hopes and create chaos in the divisional races. While neither USC nor California is likely to win its division, that doesn't mean there's nothing left to play for, which makes Saturday night's meeting critical for both.
The Trojans (6-4, 5-2 Pac-12) can be the fly in the ointment for Utah, as they trail the Utes by just a game in the loss column and own the head-to-head tiebreaker. As for this game, USC is looking to reestablish dominance over a team it hadn't lost to in 15 years prior to last season. The Golden Bears (5-4, 2-4) still need one win to become bowl eligible and are out to prove to everyone that last year's 15-14 victory in Los Angeles was no fluke.
USC has a new athletic director (Mike Bohn) with direct ties to former Ohio State and Florida head coach Urban Meyer, and that’s going to follow Trojans head coach Clay Helton around until the end of the year. Even though Helton has his team bowl eligible with an outside shot of winning the division, everyone knows the pressure is on for him to impress his new boss the rest of the way.
It's been a struggle for Cal this year, but perhaps the Golden Bears can build off of last week's convincing win over Washington State to finish strong. Injuries have left their mark, especially at quarterback, but starter Chase Garbers is expected to return and could get the nod on Saturday. Backup Devon Modster got the job done last week, throwing for 230 yards and three touchdowns and adding another 43 yards and a score on the ground. Either way, it was a good sign for an offense that has struggled this season.
Saturday night's game is all about jockeying for bowl positioning but also a chance for both head coaches to show their bosses that things are going in the right direction for their respective program. However, it's fair to say that Justin Wilcox isn't under anywhere near the degree of scrutiny that Helton is. Can the Men of Troy rise to the occasion for their embattled head coach once again, or will Cal claim its first winning streak in this series in nearly 20 years?
USC at California
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 16 at 11 p.m. ET
Spread: Cal -6.5
When USC Has the Ball
If the Trojans hope to secure victory on Saturday, quarterback Kedon Slovis will have to be mistake-free. Turnovers hurt the Trojans last year against the Bears, and Slovis has had some issues with them leading into Saturday’s game. When Slovis is on, he’s hard to stop with the weapons at his disposal. If he’s able to take advantage of that talent, he should be able to stress a defense that has given up just nine touchdown passes this season.
Part of the equation for USC is running back Kenan Christon. The speedy true freshman has taken over after a rash of injuries hit the Trojans' backfield. USC has even had to turn to wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown in the running game on occasion. Ideally St. Brown can do his damage as a receiver, where he is joined by Michael Pittman, Tyler Vaughns, and freshman Drake London to give Slovis plenty of capable options to throw to. Any one of these wideouts possesses big-play ability, so the matchup between them and Cal's stout secondary should be fun to watch.
When California Has the Ball
For Cal, the recipe on offense is easy — keep it simple. Whether Chase Garbers or Devon Modster gets the start at quarterback remains to be seen, but whoever it is needs an assist from running back Christopher Brown Jr. to help move the chains and put some scoring drives together.
The Bears also will need to make some plays through the air, but this is not an offense known for its passing prowess. The leading receiver is Jordan Duncan, who has 282 yards on 18 catches. For comparison, USC's Amon-Ra St. Brown had 173 yards by himself last week. Adding to the challenge for Cal's offense is the pressure the Trojans can apply. While USC is in the middle of the Pac-12 pack in a lot of categories, the Trojans are tied for second with 25 sacks.
The history of this rivalry has been rather one-sided. Cal notched their 30th win vs. USC last year, while the Trojans are looking for No. 70 on Saturday night. USC appears to have a distinct talent advantage over the Bears, especially if a couple of key injured players are able to return this week. Cal has a solid defense, but the Trojans have too many playmakers for the Bears to handle. It won't be a blowout, but USC should get the job done and notch its seventh win of the season.
Prediction: USC 26, Cal 17
— Written by Josh Webb, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @FightOnTwist.