TEMPE, Ariz. -- While it's still early in the season according to the calendar, it's difficult not to feel USC's visit to Arizona State is a must-win game for both teams. Both teams had preseason aspirations to win the South Division. Both are 0-1 in Pac-12 play. Neither can afford to fall to 0-2.
The greatest pressure is on USC coach Lane Kiffin. He sits on the hottest seat in the nation. While USC's defense has been outstanding under new coordinator Clancy Pendergast, its offense has been horrendous. And Kiffin is in charge of the offense. The Trojans, despite the presence of All-American receiver and Biletnikoff winner Marqise Lee, have been unable to consistently throw the ball. More accurately, they've struggled to even be mediocre doing it.
Arizona State is probably going to try to make USC QB Cody Kessler win the game with his arm. The problem with that is the Sun Devils' run defense is not a strength. It's yielded 174 yards per game, which ranks 11th in the conference.
Then there's the Sun Devils offense, which surged in the fourth quarter last week at Stanford. But that only happened when ASU was hopelessly down 39-7 after three quarters. Still, quarterback Taylor Kelly and receiver Jaelen Strong made some plays downfield, something that was missing from the Sun Devils offense last year.
A downfield threat might open up the Sun Devils running game, which has been surprisingly mediocre thus far. They are averaging just 2.9 yards per carry. Sure, Wisconsin and Stanford offered up strong run defense. But the Sun Devils opened the season believing they could run on anyone.
USC's run defense, however, ranks tops in the conference and third in the nation. The going won't be any easier tonight.
The Trojans have owned this series. They are 12-1 against the Sun Devils since 2000, including a 38-17 win last year. But their last meeting in Sun Devil Stadium was a 43-22 Arizona State victory.
If USC can pull off the win, some of the anti-Kiffin chatter will die down. It then gets a week off to try to solve the offensive woes before playing host to Arizona on Thursday, Oct. 10.
If Arizona State wins, it positions itself well in the South race as it heads to Texas to take on Notre Dame. The Sun Devils then might look like UCLA's top competition in the division.
The bottom line is the winner will remain in good position to still realize its preseason goals. The loser will not.