After a winter of anticipation, a spring of competition and a summer training camp marked by injury and developing intrigue, USC's quarterback race comes down to the next five days.
And more could be at stake than who will start against San Jose State in the Sept. 5 opener at the Coliseum: ownership of the position for the next three years.
Regardless of which quarterback Coach Pete Carroll taps, sophomore Aaron Corp or freshman Matt Barkley (we'll get to Mitch Mustain later, even if the Trojans coaches won't), the winner will be positioned to keep college football's most glamorous job until he heads to the NFL.
That's the way it happens at USC under Carroll.
Ask Mark Sanchez.
It was Sanchez who created the current situation by bolting to the NFL, a move Carroll criticized.
Sanchez, like John David Booty before him, was forced to wait three years before taking over as the Trojans' starter. Yet one season, highlighted by a spectacular Rose Bowl, was all Sanchez needed before heading off to NFL riches.
That probably won't happen with Corp this season. He has never started a game and has three seasons of eligibility remaining. And Barkley won't be draft eligible until after the 2011 season.
So this week's practices and Saturday's mock game at the Coliseum could go a long way toward determining both players' career arcs.
Today, when the Trojans resume practice after a two-day break, all eyes will be on Corp.
The third-year sophomore intends to show that his injured left leg is sufficiently sound for him to reclaim the job he won during the spring.
A cracked fibula, suffered on the third day of summer training camp, changed everything.
Suddenly, the door opened wide for Barkley.
But a curious thing happened after Corp was forced to step aside. He seemed to stand taller. In limited drills last week, his passes looked more crisp. Now the question is whether he can play at full speed this week.
Carroll and quarterbacks coach Jeremy Bates still might opt for Barkley, who has made no bones about his desire to win the job. The former Santa Ana Mater Dei High star took nearly every first-team snap in Corp's absence. He was mostly solid, and at times spectacular, but also made a few questionable decisions.
In a scrimmage last week before a crowd of about 2,000 at the Coliseum, Barkley was five-for-18 passing. "He had a little bit of high school in him," Bates said. That outing left plenty of fans wondering how the 18-year-old would react in front of a home crowd of 90,000, let alone more than 102,000 next month at Ohio State.
Last Saturday, Barkley regrouped some and was a more efficient seven for 13 in a scrimmage, numbers that would have been even better if not for several dropped passes. But Barkley also had a long pass intercepted in the end zone, a ball he said he "just kind of threw up there."
No one can argue that Barkley is the most prepared freshman quarterback to enter USC under Carroll. His decision to graduate from high school early so he could participate in spring practice would have put him on the fast track even if Sanchez had returned for his final season of eligibility.
In that scenario, Barkley would have redshirted and battled Corp and Mustain for the job next spring.
Instead, he is on the verge of becoming the first true freshman quarterback to start a season opener for the Trojans.
Carroll said last week that he was not averse to changing starters after the first game or thereafter "if we were switching for the right reasons."
One thing seems certain: Barring injury to or extremely poor play by Corp and Barkley, Mustain does not figure into the mix as a starter.
The redshirt junior, who was 8-0 as a freshman starter for Arkansas, might have the best college resume but he got only a few first-team snaps after Corp was hurt. He has played well as of late, perhaps because he has more than two years in USC's system, just as was required of Matt Leinart, Booty and Sanchez.
But this week, it's all about Corp and Barkley. And while Saturday's event is billed as a mock game, for the quarterbacks it's a lot more.