USC receiver Marqise Lee carries the ball on a reverse against Arizona State… (Stephen Dunn / Getty Images )
USC can clinch the Pac-12 Conference South Division title and a berth in the Pac-12 championship game if it defeats No. 17 UCLA on Saturday at the Rose Bowl.
Another victory next week — over third-ranked Notre Dame — might push the No. 21 Trojans into the top 10, and would provide momentum going into the conference title game, where a chance to conclude the season in the Rose Bowl would be at stake.
It's a rewarding scenario for a team that already has three losses.
Of course, an entirely different bit of history awaits the Trojans if they falter.
•USC opened the season ranked No. 1 by the Associated Press, and since the AP poll started in 1950, only four preseason No. 1s have lost more games than 7-3 USC already has. Notre Dame was 4-4-1 in 1950, Iowa 5-4 in 1961, Mississippi 5-5-1 in 1964 and Auburn 9-4 in 1984.
•Five teams that topped the preseason poll have finished unranked — Notre Dame, Iowa, Ohio State (6-3) in 1962, USC (7-3) in 1963 and Mississippi in 1964 — though rankings from 1962 to 1967 went only 10 deep.
So the Trojans are looking to avoid a history-making flop.
"I don't want to imagine that," receiver Robert Woods said of falling out of the top 25. "We definitely don't want to be that team."
Not that Coach Lane Kiffin is worried about it right now. "We're always focused on the day that we're at and the next game," he said Thursday. "So the last thing I think about is final rankings."
Before last week's victory over Arizona State, Kiffin expressed disappointment about the Trojans' performance. "With the players that we have, we should not be 6-3," he said, taking blame for losses against Stanford, Arizona and Oregon.
Last year, the Trojans finished the season by winning at Oregon and routing UCLA, 50-0, in their season finale. Expectations grew exponentially when quarterback Matt Barkley announced he would return for a final college season.
"We understand it — that's part of 'SC," Kiffin said this week. "That's part of L.A and we just deal with it."
So would a victory over UCLA make everything right? "We'll still have more losses than we would have thought or where our expectations were," Kiffin said. "But you can't go back and control the past."
USC's past includes a similar fall from preseason No. 1.
After finishing No. 1 in 1962 with a core of juniors, the Trojans were installed atop the AP poll before the 1963 season.
"Did we deserve to open the season No. 1?" former All-American end Hal Bedsole asked this week. "I would think that we did."
Bedsole, quarterback Pete Beathard, All-American linebacker Damon Bame and other players such as running back Willie Brown and offensive lineman Bill Fisk returned to a team that added sophomore running back Mike Garrett.
"This statement will startle a lot of folks, but we have better personnel than last year," then-coach John McKay said before the season. "But there's a lot of difference between being better and still winning as many games."
The Trojans won their opener at Colorado before returning home to face third-ranked Oklahoma.
The Sooners, under Coach Bud Wilkinson, arrived in the middle of a heat wave that reportedly produced on-field temperatures at the Coliseum higher than 110 degrees. The Trojans dropped numerous passes in a 17-12 loss.
"There's no use passing if you can't catch them," McKay said. "You might as well run a quarterback sneak and fall on the ground with the ball. I don't know how [Beathard] could have thrown better. But we kept putting him and the line in a bind by dropping the stinking passes."
The Trojans beat Michigan State by three points to climb back to No. 7 but lost at Notre Dame, 17-14.
Victories over No. 4 Ohio State and California failed to move the Trojans back into the top 10, and a loss at Washington made the Trojans 4-3 with three games remaining.
Victories over Stanford and Oregon State set the stage for a Nov. 23 game against UCLA.
But the assassination of President Kennedy on Nov. 22 sent the country into mourning and postponed the game until the following week.
The Trojans won, 26-6, to finish 7-3.
At that time there were no bowl scenarios. It was the Rose Bowl or nothing.
"We looked at 7-3 and thought, at worst, that should have been 9-1," said Bedsole, who will be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame next month. "Time has made that a little better, but at the time we fully expected," to go back to the Rose Bowl.
So do this year's Trojans.