SALT LAKE CITY —
The 2012 Utah football season finds itself at a crossroads in just the first week of October, with the USC Trojans set to come to town Thursday night.
That first sentence isn't meant to imply that the season is done unless the Utes prevail in front of a sold-out Rice-Eccles Stadium and national television audience. Rather, it's meant to say that the preseason goals set by Kyle Whittingham's football team — namely winning the Pac-12 South — may be impossible to reach without a win.
The Utes have had 10 days to figure out what went wrong in Tempe against Arizona State. If that loss was simply a matter of coming out flat or improperly scheming against a good offensive game plan, then the issues may be fixable. But if that 37-7 loss to Sparky was about superior speed and talent, then Utah might be in a world of hurt against USC.
Other than Oregon, there isn't a program in the Pac-12 — or maybe even west of the Mississippi — that has more raw talent than Lane Kiffin's team. You've probably heard or seen the stat about Kyle Whittingham teams being 6-1 coming off bye weeks during his tenure as head coach, which speaks to his ability to prepare and motivate his teams.
Looking a bit deeper, though, you'll see that none of those six wins were against a team the caliber of USC: Wyoming and Colorado State (twice each), New Mexico and Iowa State. I've done some looking back and I'm pretty certain none of those teams had a future top-five NFL pick at quarterback (Matt Barkley) or a roster full of future NFL standouts. One more thing to consider: USC also had a bye last weekend and will come into Salt Lake City rested and ready.
Up to this point, I don't think I've painted a very promising picture for Utah's chance against the Trojans, but I'm just trying to keep things real and in perspective. That said, can Utah pull off an upset Thursday night? Absolutely. But the margin for error is extremely thin. I've identified three key areas that the Utes must win in order to give themselves a chance.
The Utah offensive line must play its best 60 minutes of the season, both run and pass blocking. This might be a difficult task given that two of the five starters on Thursday night will be youngsters — redshirt freshman Siaosi Aiono, who will be making his first collegiate start, and true freshman Jeremiah Poutasi, making his third career start. They will be facing a smaller but extremely athletic front four for USC, led by the Pac-12 sacks leader Morgan Breslin.
Make Matt Barkley uncomfortable. Whether it's pressure, sacks or just giving the USC quarterback multiple looks, its imperative he doesn't feel settled in the pocket. Both Barkley and Kiffin made mention this week of the different looks that Utah gave the Men of Troy a year ago at the Coliseum. Barkley is too good and too savvy to play him straight up. Whittingham and defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake will have to be creative.
Keep it close and keep the crowd into it. There is very little doubt that Utah feeds off the energy in Rice-Eccles Stadium. You can make a case that the reason the Utes beat BYU was related to the decibel levels in the stadium. There aren't many places in the Pac-12 where the crowd plays a role in the game, but Rice-Eccles is one of those places. A close game and the standing-room-only crowd might make a difference again.
Despite all the hand-wringing after last week's loss to Arizona State, all of Utah's preseason goals are still within reach — but only with their best effort of the season against USC.
Bill Riley is the co-host of the Bill and Hans Show weekdays from 2-6 p.m on ESPN 700 AM. You can follow Bill on Twitter @espn700bill.