LOS ANGELES — Stanford, Oregon and their returning Heisman Trophy finalists await. Trips to Arizona State and Notre Dame will be high-profile tests.
But Saturday's game against Utah could be USC's most important of the season, a tipping point for all that follows.
A victory keeps the Trojans confident, unbeaten and on course against a schedule of opponents that — with the exception of a November date at Eugene, Ore., — is not overly foreboding.
A loss to a Mountain West Conference import in the inaugural Pacific 12 Conference game could send the Trojans sideways, further erode the program's standing among college football's elite and put Coach Lane Kiffin and USC administrators under intense pressure.
It took fans at the Coliseum less than two quarters to voice their displeasure with Kiffin during last week's opener against Minnesota. His decision to forsake almost certain extra-point kicks in favor of consecutive failed two-point tries elicited boos — and set up the Trojans for near defeat.
The unimpressive 19-17 victory over a Big Ten Conference doormat led to previously No. 25 USC falling out of the Associated Press poll.
Now comes Utah, a program only a few years removed from a Sugar Bowl victory over Alabama that completed an unbeaten 2008 season.
The Utes, under Coach Kyle Whittingham and a staff that includes former USC offensive coordinator Norm Chow and offensive line coach Tim Davis, are not expected to wither.
"There's going to be no intimidation factor," Kiffin said. "Any time that you play like we did last week and let a team hang around the way we did — that doesn't intimidate people."
A crowd larger than the announced 68,273 for Minnesota is expected Saturday. But a loss by the Trojans could send attendance spiraling.
USC has not lost at home in September since 2001, when Kansas State beat the Trojans. That season ended with a loss to Utah in the Las Vegas Bowl.
Kiffin spoke to players this week about college and NFL teams that finished the regular season unbeaten. The message: No letdown in Game 2.
"Anyone can come out and be really excited for the first game and the home opener," senior linebacker Chris Galippo said. "How you perform in the second week is really a big deal."
USC's offense is hoping to avoid a repeat of last season's second game. The Trojans scored 49 points in the opener at Hawaii but managed only 17 against Virginia.
"We do want to come out firing," said quarterback Matt Barkley, who completed a school-record 34 passes against Minnesota, three for touchdowns. "Not that this game is elevated over others, but we do want to make a statement."
Utah is expected to take measures to slow Trojans receiver Robert Woods. The sophomore caught a school-record 17 passes and scored all three touchdowns in the opener.
"If he catches 17 against us, I don't like our chances," Whittingham said. "I don't think anyone can take him out of a game, but we can't let him go off like he did."
USC's offense could get a boost from the return of tailback Marc Tyler, the Trojans' leading rusher in 2010. The senior, suspended for the opener, was reinstated this week and provides the Trojans with a proven runner, especially in short-yardage situations.
"We just don't know anything about how's he's going to be, having no preseason (scrimmages) for when he's really getting hit," Kiffin said. "So we'll have to watch for that."
The Trojans also are hoping that familiarity with Chow's offensive philosophy will help them against a Utah team that defeated Montana State, 27-10, in its opener.
"It is easier from a coach's standpoint, not having as many unknowns," Kiffin said. "But then again, too, there's a school of thought that they've had all off-season to practice different stuff and didn't feel they needed to show it in the opener."
(c)2011 the Los Angeles Times