Yes, the Trojans are 21.5 points favorites. Yes, they’re undefeated and ranked #8 with the best player in college football as their signal caller. Yes, the Buffaloes got utterly stampeded on against the Oregon Ducks last week 42-6, in a game that could have been a whole lot worse if Dan Lanning’s squad maintained their edge after halftime. And yes, here’s why USC should still be on high alert for Saturday’s Boulder bonanza.
USC vs Colorado – Trojans Should Be Weary Of Buffaloes
The game kicking off at the 9 AM PST start time poses a unique challenge to the Trojans’ routine and circadian rhythm. For a team heavily used to the afternoon, prime time, and PAC-12 after dark times slots, getting the competitive juices flowing so early requires non-trivial preparation. How the Trojans travel, what they eat, when they sleep, and why they pick certain practice agendas will need more meticulous attention than usual.
Medical experts talk about individuals’ bodies requiring one day of recovery for every hour of time difference traveled. With the mountain time zone and unusual kickoff, Trojan physiology is a performance factor.
There are two elements to discuss about beautiful Boulder, arguably the most breathtaking location to play a PAC-12 game. The first is altitude – this isn’t called the Mike High region of the country for nothing. Speed, endurance, and focus will all be tested when playing away from idyllic Los Angeles conditions. How the Trojans execute in the second half as their energy levels get tested, particularly if the game stays close, will be a significant watch item.
The second piece of the puzzle is that it’s simply a road game, and since Lincoln Riley’s debut road performance versus Stanford last year, the Trojans have looked rather uneven away from the friendly confines of the Coliseum. In the seven games since that convincing 41-28 victory over a 3-9 Cardinal team, USC has gone only 4-3 on the road since. Those four victories included three-point nail-biters versus Oregon State and UCLA, a triumph over Arizona that was a two-point game heading into the fourth quarter, and last week’s uninspiring performance versus the severely depleted Sun Devils, a one-score game with under 12 minutes left to play.
Every time the Trojans travel, unexpected drama seems to be a carry-on item.
Lincoln Riley talked at length last week about how teams, regardless of how they perform versus others, get up for USC and play their best game of the season to prove they belong with the Men of Troy. That’s a debatable phenomenon in the post-Carroll era, as the inverse seems to be more true. Namely, most PAC-12 teams with the exception of Oregon and Utah recently, seem in awe by the Trojan brand at kickoff and concede the game’s first 10-14 points out of sheer intimidation.
Not this Colorado squad – one whose quarterback Shadeur Sanders is making more in NIL this year than Caleb Williams is. Not these Buffaloes, whose head coach has more charisma, gravitas, and shine than Riley. Not these rabid and loyal fans, who are starting to get used to celebrity-filled sidelines and NFL legend pep talks in a way only the 2000s Trojans garnered. No fear here – USC will have to earn every point against Coach Prime & Co. through superior play on the field.
Will the Trojans respect the Buffaloes enough to put together a clean-sheet performance? A perplexing question given the Trojans’ first four games have been softer than the Denver Broncos’ defense. Nevada has now lost 14 in a row, Stanford has fallen short in eight of their last nine, and Arizona State barely had enough players to field a team. USC clearly didn’t respect the Sun Devils last Saturday night and it showed in their ball security, untimely penalties, and lethargic body language. Another such lackadaisical approach versus a more talented group in a significantly more hostile environment could be fatal.
Last week started to feel like last year. USC’s 18 missed tackles against ASU were as many as the previous two games combined. Giving up 28 points to a team that had been shut out in their previous 100 minutes of game time is unfathomable.
The individual talent on this defense has been a significant upgrade with the likes of Bear Alexander, Jamil Muhammad, and Solomon Byrd, leading the way. The problem is the Alex Grinch scheme of predetermining linebacker behavior based purely on opposing offenses’ formations is susceptible to massive gaps when teams invoke misdirection, audibles, and progressions.
Williams is so dominant offensively that USC effortlessly gets away with it against lesser competition, and may even be un-phased by it for the majority of their conference schedule. But lining up against the elite in possible CFP matchups requires at least some form of defensive calculus, not just basic arithmetic.
Are the Trojans better than Colorado? No doubt about it. Will the Trojans play better than Colorado? To be determined.