Conference play has historically meant trouble for the Colorado Buffaloes, and that's exemplified by a humbling 0-13 record against the USC Trojans. Worse yet, only three of those losses have come by single-digits. Colorado will get another chance to finally get into the win column against USC when the two teams meet in Boulder on Friday night.
Colorado has been one of the Pac-12's least successful schools since joining the conference in 2011. The Buffaloes have just one season with more than five victories, so their 2016 Pac-12 South championship campaign stands out like a sore thumb. In fact, you have to go back to 2001 to find a Colorado team with double-digit victories. Since that '01 season, the Buffs have had a grand total of five seasons with five or more victories. We aren’t talking about a program that puts its best foot forward on game day.
USC, likewise, is not in an envious position. They enter the game coming off a beatdown of Arizona. The biggest bright spot for the Trojans in 2019 has been true freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis, who was mentored by Pro Football Hall of Famer Kurt Warner. The mentoring shows, as Slovis is able to process the field and dissect coverages better than most folks at this point in their growth. Slovis may be even better than blue-chip recruit JT Daniels, whose injury allowed Slovis the chance to be the starter. Aside from having a Hall of Fame quarterback develop your process since he was a high school sophomore, Slovis now has the added benefit of offensive coordinator Graham Harrell's tutelage.
The Trojans have had a rough season so far, and it's only half over. They lost Daniels for the year, Slovis for several games due to a concussion, and a litany of other players to various injuries that have all impacted USC's ability to play any form of consistent football. The injury report from the Arizona game reads like a war journal. The Trojans lost starter after starter after starter. All of it will impact their ability to put out a consistent offense on the field.
Aside from their passing offense, not much else is working for USC. The quarterback development is there; it’s the lack of a rushing offense and consistency at quarterback that have plagued the Trojans. The only reason USC had a 100-yard rusher against Arizona is that speedster Kenan Christon ripped off two long touchdown runs — one from 55 yards out and another from 30.
Every game in the Pac-12 is important, even with the Buffs already at the bottom of the conference and the Trojans near the top. A USC loss would put a nail in the coffin of their Pac-12 conference title game hopes, while a win for the Buffaloes would give them an enormous amount of confidence heading into the toughest part of their schedule.
USC at Colorado
Kickoff: Friday, Oct. 25 at 9 p.m. ET
Spread: USC -13
When USC Has the Ball
The Trojans could be without their three leading rushers for Friday night's game as injuries have devastated their backfield. Leading rusher Vavae Malepeai is out indefinitely after undergoing knee surgery. No. 2 Markese Stepp will need surgery to repair a torn ligament in his ankle from an injury he suffered last week and could miss up to five weeks. Carr also sustained a hamstring strain in that game and his status for Friday night is uncertain. Those three are responsible for nearly 93 percent of USC's production on the ground this season.
That leaves true freshman Kenan Christon as the last man standing. The good news is that the San Diego native is coming off a 100-yard effort (on just eight carries) against Arizona. It was his first appearance of the season and the Trojans will need more from him as the running game hasn't done enough to force defenses to change the way they game plan against USC's offense. Right now, most teams are content to drop eight back to defend the pass considering the Trojans are averaging a little more than 150 rushing yards per game, which ranks them eighth in the Pac-12.
Even with the extra defensive attention, Kedon Slovis appears to have the quarterback position figured out. It's going to be a real competition next year when JT Daniels returns from a torn ACL, as Slovis has taken the tutelage from Kurt Warner and parlayed that into tremendous success under center. This is a young man who has a bright future. He's growing with the game and using offensive coordinator Graham Harrell as a fabulous resource as he continues to mature and grow.
There is a ton of talent at the wideout spot if the Trojans can stay healthy. Amon-Ra St. Brown hasn't seen the kind of success he had last year, but a rotating door at QB and injuries have prevented him from developing. Tyler Vaughns and Michael Pittmann Jr. have thrived since selecting USC. Both receivers came to Los Angeles to grow, and there can be no doubt that they have. If the supporting cast continues to thrive and grow, the Trojans are going to have an embarrassment of riches.
When Colorado Has the Ball
Colorado is coming off a very rough game. A 31-point loss to Washington State and a 53 percent completion rate with two interceptions from quarterback Steven Montez led to an extremely large Cougar victory. Wide receiver Laviska Shenault Jr., their biggest play-maker on offense, only had 46 yards on four catches. While running back Alex Fontenot gave them 105 yards on only 11 carries, it wasn’t enough with the rest of the offense failing to give the Buffaloes enough to compete with an explosive Cougar Air Raid offense.
Mel Tucker was hired to give Colorado an identity, and thus far their identity is losing. The Buffs are No. 124 in the nation in total defense, giving up a total of 482 yards per game and 34.9 points per game. If the Buffs can up the offensive output from 26.6 points per game and adjust their failings on defense, they can give the Trojans a problem. They have the talent to produce, they’re just not doing it right now.
When the Buffs are facing third down, they have to cash them in. The Trojans have had an issue getting teams off the field on third down; they’ve given up 38 third-down conversions through seven games. The other issue for the Trojans has been giving up penalties. They are tied for No. 86 in the nation for penalties per game and No. 110 in the nation for penalty yards per game, giving up almost 70 yards per game.
Since joining the Pac-12, Colorado has yet to beat the Trojans. Most of their losses come by an average of 20 points, and they give up an average of 39 points to the Trojans. Only two of their games have been within five points since 2010. Hell, even a 5-7 Trojan team beat them by 11 last year. It’s been tough sledding for Colorado against USC, and this year isn’t likely to end much differently. The Buffs are currently sitting at No. 124 in the nation in total defense. Expect USC to come away with another big victory.
Prediction: USC 48, Colorado 22
— Written by Josh Webb, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @FightOnTwist.