Where the crossroads led

USC dropped just one spot in the Associated Press poll following Saturday's 56-48 loss to No. 4 Stanford in triple overtime, from No. 20 to 21, a sign of just how much national viewers respected the Trojans' performance in a losing effort.

We wrote pre-game that the game would be a crossroads for Lane Kiffin and USC. Win, and the Trojans would go one way, skying up to inarguable success this season. Lose, and they'd trend significantly downward and be in danger of losing some fan support once again.

Well, we were wrong. They took the in-between route.

Kiffin's Trojans put up such a fight against Andrew Luck and the Cardinal that the outcome doesn't necessarily take them in a given direction from here. They'll face Colorado in five days, and they obviously need to win that comfortably to keep up the momentum, but they'll likely be ranked higher after beating the Buffaloes than they were entering the Stanford game, which is saying something.

What did USC prove in Saturday's four-hour tour de force on the Coliseum field?

For one, the Trojans' defense has improved from last season and the start of last year. Luck's numbers were nice and Stanford ended up with 186 yards rushing, but the Cardinal did not dominate the game on the offensive side like they've dominated every other game they played this season. Stepfan Taylor and the other backs only finished with a lot of yards because they ran the ball so many times -- Stanford got less than four yards per rush on average.

For two, USC quarterback Matt Barkley can compete with Luck on any given day. He's not as good as the Stanford signal-caller by any means and he's nowhere near the pro prospect that Luck is, but he's close to as effective at this level. Taking away the runs, Barkley wasn't that far off from matching Luck throw-for-throw on Saturday. The stats show that.

And, for three, this school isn't as far off from the height of the Pete Carroll era as it sometimes seems. The Coliseum crowd on Saturday reminded many of those days, and the excitement level was certainly up to that precedent at many key moments. It's not hard to imagine an atmosphere like that showing up for one or two USC home games for the next several years, and that's one of the biggest keys to USC returning to the glory days of the past.

The Trojans should win comfortably against Colorado and should also be able to handle Keith Price and Washington and then UCLA two weeks later. It's hard to predict what will happen in Eugene in between those games, because Oregon is so different from everybody else in college football, but even if USC loses that game, a 9-3 season this year will now probably be looked at as a slight success.

If that were to happen, all three teams USC lost to this season -- Arizona State, Stanford and the Ducks -- would likely finish the season in the top-25.

That's a pretty good sign of success.