Related: Arizona-USC: Five things to watch
Relevancy is waiting again for Arizona.
That was coach Rich Rodriguez’s buzzword before the Wildcats upset then-No. 18 Oklahoma State in September. National relevancy was achieved for a couple of weeks before it slipped away with three consecutive losses, including late, tight setbacks to Oregon State and Stanford.
Arizona is back again today, invigorated by last Saturday’s 52-17 victory over Washington and ready to take on 10th-ranked USC.
Based on the recruiting “stars,” there is quite a talent gap, but it’s almost always that way against USC, and the gap hasn’t been that evident on the field recently. The past five Arizona-USC games have been decided by a touchdown or less, including a 21-17 UA win in 2009.
“Once you get on the field with them, you shouldn’t think of them as higher than you,” said Arizona sophomore receiver Austin Hill.
“You should go out there and play against them like they’re anyone else. I shouldn’t see anyone all starry-eyed. Everyone should be focused and ready to go.”
Arizona is 4-3 overall and 1-3 in the Pac-12 South. The Trojans are 6-1 and 4-1, hanging around the fringes of the national championship discussion, sitting ninth in the BCS standings. USC will need a little bit of help from teams above them, but the Trojans will have a superb resume if they can run the table.
To do so, would mean wins over Oregon, Notre Dame and possibly Oregon (or Oregon State or Stanford) in the national title game. It would also mean wins over Arizona, Arizona State and UCLA — all good teams.
USC, on paper, is still the team that earned the No. 1 spot in the AP preseason poll. Rodriguez picked the Trojans No. 1 on his ballot for the preseason USA Today coaches poll.
“I think they have the most talented team in the country coming back,” Rodriguez told TucsonCitizen.com. “And I’m not just saying that because we’re playing them. I really believe that.”
The Trojans offense is better than its numbers — 34.9 points and 421.3 yards per game. Those averages rank 34th and 47th nationally, which is nice, but it almost seems a waste on a unit that has quarterback Matt Barkley, receivers Marqise Lee and Robert Woods, and running backs Silas Redd and Curtis McNeal.
Barkley is the Pac-12 career leader with 102 touchdown passes. Woods is the USC record-holder for receptions with 220. Lee, a sophomore, likely will break that record next season if Woods leaves early for the NFL. McNeal and Redd, a Penn State transfer, were each 1,000-yard rushers last season.
Critics have criticized USC coach Lane Kiffin for a sometimes bland and conservative game plan, but the fireworks are still there. He just has to light the match.
Said Rodriguez of Barkley: “He’ll likely be the first pick in the NFL draft. We’re facing one of the all-time greats.”
Barkley, in last season’s 48-41 over Arizona, completed 32 of 39 passes for a career-high 468 yards and four touchdowns.
“To me, he should be one of the leading contenders for the Heisman still,” Rodriguez said.
Arizona’s offense is averaging 548.7 yards per game — 127 more than USC. That’s all because of tempo, and then some. The Trojans, who actually take the time to huddle and run a pro-style offense, gain more yards per play — 6.72 to 6.26 for Arizona.
The Wildcats run 87.7 plays per game (the third-highest mark in the country) and lead the nation with 31.1 first downs per game. They could tax a thin USC defense with their pace if they can come close to hitting those averages.
“They are really good and they’re very dangerous,” Kiffin said of Arizona. “They are just absolutely lighting people up.”
To beat USC, Arizona likely will have to do via a shootout. It’s capable of doing so, despite the disparity on how each team’s players were rated out of high school.
Rodriguez asked his guys after Tuesday’s practice how many were offered scholarships by USC.
“I think three of them raised their hand, and two of them were probably lying,” Rodriguez said. “It doesn’t matter now. I told them I’m biased, but I think they’re in a better place.”