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USC hopes Colorado matchup is the start of a run that leads to Pac-12 title game

USC hopes Colorado matchup is the start of a run that leads to Pac-12 title game
USC coach Clay Helton talks to an official during the first half of a game against Texas on Sept. 15. (Eric Gay / Associated Press)

Thursday night, the USC athletic department’s official Twitter account attempted to set the stage for the weekend:

“Coming out of the bye,” @USC_Athletics said, “the Trojans have 7 games remaining this season, starting with Saturday’s showdown against undefeated Colorado.”

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Funny, but the school’s starting quarterback and head coach had a different number in their heads earlier in the week.

“Now we’re back for an eight-week run,” JT Daniels said.

Just in case, to make sure the crowd assembled around him didn’t think he miscounted, Daniels added a minute later, “I feel really ready for the next eight weeks.”

And Clay Helton, in discussing Daniels having rested his arm during the week off, asserted that “we have eight games here. This will probably be the most balls he’s thrown in his entire life in a season.”

Daniels and Helton, the two men under the most pressure Saturday for USC, didn’t need to say more than that to make their point about the expectation against the Buffaloes, ranked No. 19 and 5-0 on the season. They expect to win, take control of the Pac-12 South race and get to play in that eighth game, the Pac-12 championship Nov. 30 in Santa Clara.

And why wouldn’t they be confident? Sure, the only consistent component to this USC season thus far has been its uneven nature. If something goes well for the Trojans, the safe bet is to assume disaster is around the corner, and vice versa. But the fact remains that USC is 18-0 at the Coliseum under Helton, who is 14-1 against the South Division since taking over as interim head coach in 2015.

The Trojans also derive confidence from the schedule they’ve faced thus far. USC’s opponents are a combined 19-9. Texas has surged to the No. 9 ranking in the nation, and Stanford and Washington State sit just on the edge of the top 25.

In comparison, Colorado has stayed unbeaten by playing opponents who have a combined 6-21 record.

“One of the beauties of having our schedule is you always have to be in a playoff, championship mentality,” Helton said, “and it makes you ready for these games. It doesn’t matter if it’s Stanford, Texas, a Washington State, on the road versus an Arizona, every game just feels like it’s the Super Bowl, and our kids are used to that now. Now you’re coming in and playing for first place.”

A USC loss would be potentially debilitating. The Buffaloes would then have a two-game lead with the head-to-head tiebreak, leaving the Trojans with no margin for error the rest of the way and putting them in a position of needing Colorado to lose at least three times down the stretch.

This Colorado team appears capable of coming into the Coliseum and sending Helton’s program reeling. Quarterback Steven Montez is tied for the lead nationally in completion percentage at 75.2 and is ninth in passer rating. He can hand the ball off to Travon McMillian, a graduate transfer from Virginia Tech, who is fourth in the Pac-12 with 105.6 yards rushing per game. Montez has the ultimate gift in being able to throw to Laviska Shenault, who leads the nation with 10 receptions and 141.6 receiving yards per game.

That USC’s defense may have to play against this offense without senior inside linebacker Cameron Smith, who has two times as many tackles as any other Trojan with 47, is worrisome. Helton said Thursday that Smith is “50-50 at best” with a mild hamstring strain.

But fellow senior linebacker Porter Gustin said USC has the right mentality to get the job done.

“We have a lot to prove and we know that,” Gustin said. “We feel that way, and I think everybody is playing with a chip on their shoulder. We just haven’t come together as a team and been able to play a full game yet. Them being ranked is great, but either way we’re coming out this week ready to play.”

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If USC can do that, the Trojans believe it will be them playing an “eighth” game and not the Buffaloes.

“At the end of the day, that’s what we’re playing for,” USC cornerback Isaiah Langley said. “So every South game is going to be for the championship. Whether we like it or not, everyone’s going to come in here and try to kick our butts. That’s their championship. We look forward to playing our opponents.”

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