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USC's bowl chances may ride on Utah game

College FootballFootballSportsUSC TrojansUtah UtesStanford CardinalPacific-12 Conference

USC players have dealt with plenty of distractions during the last four weeks.

Lane Kiffin was fired as coach, interim Coach Ed Orgeron took over and teammates continued to fall because of injuries suffered during and after a loss at Notre Dame.

Not exactly ideal circumstances to consider potential bowl-game scenarios. But on Saturday against Utah, the Trojans play what might turn out to be the most pivotal game in deciding their postseason fate.

USC has a 13-game schedule, so the Trojans must finish at least 7-6 to be considered automatically bowl-eligible.

The Trojans are 4-3, with games remaining against Utah, Oregon State, California, No. 8 Stanford, Colorado and No. 12 UCLA.

USC probably will be favored to win at California and at Colorado and be an underdog at Oregon State and at home against Stanford and UCLA. If those games play out as expected, the Trojans would be 6-6.

That makes the Utah game crucial.

The Pac-12 Conference has agreements with the Rose, Alamo, Holiday, Sun, Fight Hunger, Las Vegas and New Mexico bowls. USC is projected to play in the New Mexico Bowl on Dec. 21 in Albuquerque, according to the forecast of Jerry Palm of CBSSports.com.

Trojans players said bowl games and the various scenarios were not their main concern. "Not at all," junior linebacker Hayes Pullard said. "There's still a lot of ball left, so we just have to keep moving."

Said junior center Marcus Martin: "You can't worry about the bowl game till the bowl game comes."

NCAA sanctions prevented USC from playing in bowl games in 2010 and 2011.

The Trojans started the 2012 season as the top-ranked team in the nation, with hopes of playing in the Bowl Championship Series title game. Instead, they finished the regular season 7-5, earning a Sun Bowl matchup against Georgia Tech at El Paso.

USC lost, 21-7.

The Trojans, who are 1-2 against Pac-12 competition, faces a formidable challenge against Utah, which is 4-3 overall, 1-3 in Pac-12 play.

The Utes, under Coach Kyle Whittingham, started the season with victories over Utah State and Weber State, and then lost to Oregon State, 51-48, in overtime. Utah rebounded with a victory over Brigham Young, but then could not overcome six interceptions in a 34-27 loss to UCLA.

Utah upset then-No. 5 Stanford, 27-21, before losing to Arizona, 35-24.

Whittingham said USC still has a mystique.

"There's still a certain aura about just the name. Southern Cal Trojans," Whittingham told reporters this week. "That's still a name brand and one of the most storied programs in the country. But I don't think that's bothered us the last two times we've played them."

USC defeated Utah, 23-14, at the Coliseum in 2011. The Trojans won, 38-28, last season at Salt Lake City.

With multiple starters sidelined because of injuries, USC is expected to play numerous freshmen and walk-ons.

Linebackers Quinton Powell and Michael Hutchings are among the freshmen who could play expanded roles. "It's time for them to step up," Pullard said, "and not be freshmen anymore."

Sophomore defensive lineman Leonard Williams said the Trojans have recovered and learned from last week's 14-10 loss at Notre Dame and are ready to move forward.

But they are not looking ahead to bowl games.

"Stuff like that, it's always going to be in the back of everybody's mind," he said. "But at the same time we have got to take it one game at a time."

gary.klein@latimes.com

Twitter: @latimesklein

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College FootballFootballSportsUSC TrojansUtah UtesStanford CardinalPacific-12 Conference
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