What's left to play for

TUCSON, Ariz. -- Lane Kiffin was trying to tactfully dismiss a question about what the USC Trojans’ 39-36 loss to the Arizona Wildcats on Saturday did for the team’s national-championship hopes.

Did it hurt, he was asked, to lose the possibility of a much-anticipated title run with a loss like that?

"I don't even think like that," Kiffin said. "Every week's important, and we don't look ahead to that.

"Because, as you see now, that doesn't matter."

He's right. It sure doesn't matter anymore. USC is almost certainly eliminated from national title contention with its upset loss to the Wildcats at Arizona Stadium. It would take a myriad of crazy coincidences for the Trojans to get back into the mix, probably including three wins against two teams (Oregon, twice, and Notre Dame) currently ranked in the top four of the AP poll.

The best the Trojans likely can do is secure a Rose Bowl bid. And even that is no easy task.

Consider what a trip to Pasadena on New Year’s Day would require: USC would have to beat Arizona State and UCLA next month, plus either top Oregon at home next week and likely again Nov. 30 in the Pac-12 championship or beat the Ducks just once, in Eugene, in that conference title tilt. They have the talent to do that, yes. But do they have the discipline?

The Notre Dame game four weeks away won't affect whether the Trojans make conference noise late, but it'll surely be key to determining the overall success of USC's 2012 season.

"We've still got a lot to play for," secondary coach Marvin Sanders said after Saturday's game. "We're playing for the conference championship, still."

That's part of the problem. For USC, winning the Pac-12 title would be a potential letdown situation. How many coaches, players and fans would treat that as a success after starting the year as the AP No. 1?

Not too many, obviously. And that's the best-case scenario. The worst-case scenario would be a total implosion featuring five or more losses. Remember, every game USC will play the rest of the way is against a respectable opponent.

There aren't any guaranteed wins on the schedule.

Is there still reason to watch the rest of the year, to follow the Trojans intently? Without a doubt.

Marqise Lee's one of the most exciting amateur athletes in years. Public opinion of Matt Barkley seems to change drastically after every USC game, and it's fun to keep up with it all.

Barkley, in particular, seems to have the right perspective for the rest of this season. Forty or so minutes after his senior-season dreams came crashing down in the desert, he had re-adjusted his focus entirely.

"That's the beauty of football," Barkley said Saturday evening, down but clearly not out. "You experience some of the most exhilarating moments of your life, and you learn how to cope with some of these losses like this.

"Moving forward, we'll come out firing."

His words were spoken sharply, with easy-to-see intent.

Now he just has to get his teammates -- and his coach -- to buy in, too.