Saturday's matchup between ASU and USC-- the Trojans' second conference meeting of the season but first on the road-- will count as the Trojans' first real test of 2011.
"These players are another step. Great speed, I mean it really is unbelievable," Trojan head coach Lane Kiffin said. "To go through the injuries that they've gone through, over the last six months, and to still watch the film and it still looks like they're the best guys in the country it's phenomenal."
Most fans and critics who knew about USC's talent expected them to stand where they do now: 3-0 against good but not great opponents, all won on their home turf.
Now these players will travel. They won't sleep in the nearby team hotel on Friday night. They won't have their routine laid out for them on game day. While some of these players have been to ASU before, most of this young group hasn't. Most probably haven't even been to the state of Arizona before. Four of the five freshmen projected to start Saturday live within 20 miles of USC.
"You go into these environments. It's about composure, it's about not letting that get your emotions up. You can't get into any of that stuff, whether it's fans or players, whether it's noise, no matter what it is. Over the years, [USC] has been the best program in the world at doing it," Kiffin said.
The two teams have a lot riding on this game; both are battling to control the Pac-12 South division and USC is battling to maintain its undefeated record. And while Arizona State is coming off a loss to Illinois, they have yet to play a conference game. The Trojans expect it to be a battle.
"This is a great defense we're facing. They got obviously Vontaze [Burfict] in the middle and they definitely are going to get after us. Especially with them coming off a loss, they're going to be looking to get after us," offensive tackle Matt Kalil said.
As it has been all season long, USC's offensive line will undoubtedly be the Trojans' biggest uncertainty, facing these speedy Sun Devils, especially middle linebacker Burfict, a projected first-rounder in next year's NFL Draft.
"When I played against him [in high school], we always wanted to watch out for number seven because he'll kind of do his own thing sometimes too," Barkley said of Burfict. "He'll kind of blitz on his own sometimes or do whatever he wants so you kind of have to keep an eye out for him, definitely. But you can't be focused on him 100 percent."
Just as Barkley remembers Burfict's instincts, he clearly recalls his last game against ASU. And while the memory is bright, it isn't too fond.
"That was probably one of the worst football games I've ever been apart of, just overall," he said. "[We're] definitely looking to [get better], I've improved in a lot of ways, you guys have seen me improve so we'll be a lot more prepared in a lot of areas to handle their defense."
If Burfict can exploit the young linemen in Marcus Martin, John Martinez or Kevin Graf, Barkley's low sack count (2)—second in the nation when paired with nine or more touchdowns—could be in jeopardy.
"Any freshman starting on the offensive line you know is doing some great things. And he's taken some big leaps, he has his bumps in the road but it's something we can work on," Kalil said of Crenshaw High product Martin.
The good news: these linemen are improving week to week. Their core of Kalil, Martin, Khlaed Holmes, Martinez and Graf seems set. And with good chemistry comes great trust.
"As an offensive line as a whole just meshing together, with all those new starters and the young guys that are coming in and it's just about getting the on the right page and I think we've done that," Kalil said. "I think we've took tremendous strides from week one."
Those strides will be on display for all to see in Arizona State's House of Heat. USC coaches just hope their players wait until the snap to make them.