LOS ANGELES -- Southern California needs help.
Considering the seventh-ranked Trojans have won five straight games, including three shutouts, that might sound odd. But USC can't play for a national championship, or even reach the Rose Bowl, without some outside intervention.
California has far more control over its destiny. Four wins to finish the season would put the Golden Bears in the Rose Bowl for the first time in 50 years.
Sounds great for No. 21 Cal, until this is added: The Golden Bears (6-2, 4-1 Pac-10) play surging USC (7-1, 5-1) Saturday at the Los Angeles Coliseum.
"It's a huge challenge, but our players will be excited to play," Bears coach Jeff Tedford said. "I think everybody sees SC as the team to beat in the conference. It's difficult, but I don't think there's any doubt that if you're successful recruiting and you stay healthy, then you can compete.
"We've been up-and-down. I don't think we've put together a complete game yet."
USC is 24-0 in November games since Pete Carroll became coach in 2001, and has won four straight and six of seven over the Bears.
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More important is the Trojans' recent history. Since losing 27-21 as 25-point favorites at Oregon State, the Trojans have outscored the opposition 214-20.
USC leads the nation in total defense (211.63 yards per game) and scoring defense (7.1 points). The Trojans have allowed just seven touchdowns this season -- four by Oregon State and three by their other seven opponents combined. Carroll has called this defense the best he's had at this stage of a season.
"Every year, SC has a good defense," Cal center Alex Mack said. "It's not any more uncomfortable than it normally is. It's an opportunity for me to go against some good players and show what I can do."
Mack will certainly be tested trying to block the likes of defensive lineman Fili Moala and linebackers Brian Cushing, Rey Maualuga and Kaluka Maiava.
"This game is kind of our season, whether or not it's the Pac-10 championship," Mack said.
The Bears can clinch a berth in the Rose Bowl by beating USC, Oregon State, Stanford and Washington.
"This is a big-time Pac-10 matchup," said USC quarterback Mark Sanchez, the Pac-10 leader in passing efficiency (163.3). "They lead the nation in interceptions. They're going to be a formidable opponent."
Unranked Oregon State (5-3, 4-1) also controls its destiny in the Rose Bowl race, knowing it will play in Pasadena on New Year's Day for the first time in 44 years by beating UCLA, Cal, Arizona and Oregon.
In the national title race, USC is seventh in the BCS standings. Several teams would have to lose for the Trojans to have a shot at reaching the BCS title game in Miami.
Carroll said he's not thinking about that.
"We have to win this football game," he said. "We've learned over the years that's the only way you can go about this, to maximize your chance to focus properly. There's a lot of games to be played. We're going to keep on cranking and see if we can get something done here."
USC is ranked behind three one-loss teams in the BCS standings, and with the Pac-10 down this season it's hard for the Trojans to make up ground, no matter how impressively they win. Beating Cal convincingly, however, could provide a boost.
"Our conference isn't as strong this year," Trojans defensive end Kyle Moore acknowledged. "We know we shouldn't have lost that game earlier in the season. All we can do is keep winning."
Both teams have been successful offensively with balanced attacks; the Trojans have averaged 204.1 yards rushing and 256.0 yards passing in scoring 40.25 points per game, while the Bears have gained 171.8 yards rushing and 230.2 yards passing in scoring an average of 36.38 points.
"This is such a well-balanced football team we're playing that we're going to have to hit it on all cylinders here, including the special teams, in every way," Carroll said.
Kevin Riley and Nate Longshore have combined to pass for 1,832 yards and 18 touchdowns with seven interceptions while splitting time at quarterback, and Jahvid Best is averaging 105.1 yards rushing per game.
Riley suffered a mild concussion in Cal's 26-16 victory over Oregon last weekend, putting his status for Saturday's game in question. He returned to practice Wednesday, but Tedford might wait until game-time before naming a starter.
Defensively, Cal's 17 interceptions are tied with North Carolina for the most in the country.
"They're a physical group on the defensive side of the ball," USC fullback Stanley Havili said. "I think they're hungry. They've lost a couple games they shouldn't have lost."