LOS ANGELES (AP) — No. 13 Southern California's reward for being the only unbeaten team in the Pac-12 is a championship game that's just as weird as the rest of this college football season.
After clinching the South Division title and rallying past UCLA last weekend, the Trojans (5-0) spent two days of their short week preparing for Washington in the championship game before learning they would actually face Oregon (3-2), which didn't play last week and has more losses than three other Pac-12 teams.
What's more, the Ducks have been brutally tough on USC in recent years, winning every matchup but one between the schools since 2011. Oregon flattened the Trojans last year on the way to the conference title with a 32-point win that rattled coach Clay Helton's job security.
“It’s one of those weeks where you’ve got to embrace and love the grind,” Helton said. “This is what it’s all about.”
If Helton and his Trojans feel any resentment toward the process that landed them in this patchwork matchup Friday night at the Coliseum instead of being declared the conference's champion outright, they aren't sharing it. USC is playing its third game in 13 days against a well-rested opponent, but the Trojans are only thinking about the opportunity to earn a conference title and a January bowl game for the second time under Helton.
“When you face adversity, what defines you is when you overcome it,” USC offensive coordinator Graham Harrell said.
Although the Ducks are much more rested, they haven't had the easiest championship week, either: After their game against Washington last week was scrapped due to the Huskies' COVID problems, Oregon was tentatively matched up with Colorado in Los Angeles this weekend before getting pushed into the title game.
The Ducks are also on just the second two-game skid of coach Mario Cristobal's tenure, losing to Oregon State and California. Oregon hasn't won a game in nearly a month, but the league title game provides an opportunity for the powerhouse Ducks' first back-to-back Pac-12 championships since Chip Kelly won three straight from 2009-11.
“I think we've been rewarded with this for sticking to our protocols,” Oregon quarterback Tyler Shough said. “Obviously we would love to have those losses back, but every opportunity we can, we're going to take advantage of it. We're going to take advantage of it this week, and do it unapologetically. If we're in this opportunity, we might as well win it.”
If the Trojans stay unbeaten, they'll almost certainly get a berth in the Fiesta Bowl. If the Ducks continue their mastery over USC and the Pac-12, they'll throw one last wrench into the gears of this ramshackle conference season.
The Trojans have won the Pac-12 just once in their first five seasons under Helton, and they didn't exactly dominate the league this year despite their unbeaten record. USC made three late comebacks in its five victories, scoring the winning points in the final two minutes of each game. Quarterback Kedon Slovis has been outstanding in the fourth quarter, completing 75% of his throws with five TDs and no interceptions.
“We don’t go into any game thinking we never have a shot, even if we’re down,” USC receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown said. “It just shows how strong we are, and how much we’ve grown from last year. As a team, we just believe and we trust in each other."
Although Oregon prepared for Colorado on Monday, the Ducks had a pretty good idea they might be playing USC on Friday thanks to the condition of the Washington program. Although they studied the Buffaloes, they knew the Trojans were a strong possibility.
“I had already watched some USC film previously, so I think we had a little head start on it,” Shough said. “Everyone was super-excited, just because we know they’re a really good team. They’re undefeated right now, and we love the challenge.”
While Oregon had 43 lettermen back from last year's championship team and Rose Bowl winner, USC's last conference title was in 2017, which means most of the Trojans are playing for something new. St. Brown thinks that motivation could be important.
“Having come from not having a season at all to being in a Pac-12 championship (game) is awesome,” St. Brown said. “This is my first Pac-12 championship, so I'm excited to participate in this game.”
The North Division has won eight of the nine Pac-12 championship games, including three wins apiece for Oregon and Stanford. USC got the South's only league title since it expanded to 12 teams a decade ago, winning the game in 2017.
The Trojans are likely to be without leading rusher Vavae Malepeai, who sprained his knee last week against UCLA. USC is quite deep at tailback, so the injury won't hurt them as much as other teams: Markese Stepp is healthy and ready to take a leading role, while senior Stephen Carr and sophomore Kenan Christon are phenomenal athletes as well.
USC hasn't even relied on the running game much this season, with the Pac-12's lowest average yards rushing per game (109.2).
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