As big a crossroads as it gets

If they measured college football coaches' approval ratings, Lane Kiffin's would be at an all-time high right now.

He just beat Notre Dame for the first time as a heavy underdog to get to 6-1 in his second season at the helm of the Trojans. His team's hosting College GameDay all day and the 5 p.m. PT matchup with the No. 4 Stanford Cardinal has been the talk of the country this week.

But, for better or for worse, all of that will change Saturday.

Based on what happens at the Coliseum tonight, Kiffin's approval rating -- or just the way he's viewed by the USC fan base -- is going to change dramatically. Win, and he's got a top-12 team in the country and the entire Trojan Family behind him. Lose, and he's back out of the Top 25 and hearing last season's grumbles all over again. This game -- this pregame feel -- is as big a crossroads as you can get in the regular season.

In high-stakes college football, the second loss of a given season is usually the most telling. Few teams' seasons can be considered disasters with only one loss on the schedule, and even two is typically acceptable for most programs around the country. But three -- three is nearing mediocrity in many fans' eyes.

Why is that relevant here? Most would say that, at this point in the season, the Trojans have one more sure loss on their schedule in Oregon next month in Eugene. That game is a lot less winnable than this one, on the surface. If it were today, the Ducks would probably be double-digit favorites. You can't count on USC winning, obviously.

Finishing 10-2 would be a success. 9-3? It depends on your viewpoint. So, then, to preserve the inarguable success of the 2011 season, Kiffin needs to beat Stanford.

It's a little early to assume, but it really is that simple.

And it's not like USC doesn't have a chance to win this game. The teams nearly played to a tie year ago in Palo Alto, and both appear to have improved by comparable margins since that time.

Andrew Luck is great, but so is Matt Barkley, and the Cardinal don't have another skill-position player the caliber of Robert Woods. USC's defense has played its best two games under Kiffin in the Trojans' last two games.

Kiffin has the experience advantage, too, on Cardinal coach David Shaw. Looking at it on paper, the game really does match up quite well for USC's second-year head coach. There are no obvious issues for the Trojans heading into it.

Now he just has to win.