Championship Week: Previewing The Conference Championship Games



in Santa Clara, California

Kickoff: 7:45 p.m. ET/4:45 p.m. PT


Las Vegas Line: Stanford -4.5

Stanford-USC has been the Pac-12’s most intriguing series in the last decade, save maybe Stanford-Oregon.

Stanford’s win in the Coliseum in 2007 is arguably the most detrimental blow delivered to USC’s dynasty last decade. Sure, the Trojans lost other conference matchups amid its run of seven straight league titles, but the Cardinal’s completion of the “Biggest Upset in History” emboldened the Pac as a whole. After the 2008 season, teams recognized USC’s vulnerability and exploited it.

The Cardinal have repeatedly been a thorn in the Trojans’ side. In 2012, Stanford began its march to the first conference championship of the Harbaugh-Shaw era by unseating preseason No. 1 USC. The season prior, an overtime clash in the Coliseum denied the Trojans an opportunity at a split national title — and admit it, 11-1 USC with wins over Stanford and Oregon would have had a pretty damn compelling case to be voted the Associated Press champion.

USC’s returned the favor, though. In 2013, the Trojans’ November victory ostensibly kept Stanford out of the BCS Championship Game. This year’s another prime opportunity for the Trojans to ruin the Cardinal’s postseason outlook, as Stanford clings to the possibility of sneaking into the College Football Playoff with some Championship Weekend chaos.

More than likely, however, the prize awaiting Saturday’s is the Rose Bowl. The Rose Bowl was the conference’s top honor for almost a century before the BCS, and is still an illustrious honor in the Playoff era.

Stanford’s 41-31 win in the Coliseum in September felt more lopsided than the final score indicates, even if USC came just seconds away from holding a halftime lead. The Trojan run defense was hard-pressed to slow Christian McCaffrey, and quarterback Kevin Hogan abused the USC secondary with the size mismatches Devon Cajuste and Austin Hooper created.

Those advantages are no different this time. Two key differences in USC’s philosophy since Clay Helton replaced Steve Sarkisian, however, are that the Trojans are more committed to establishing the run offensively, and are blitzing with purpose on the defensive side.

USC’s platoon backfield will be used to set up for Cody Kessler going play-action and attacking Stanford’s secondary, the most vulnerable part of the Cardinal defense. If JuJu Smith-Schuster can get loose, watch out.

The Trojans have the capacity to put up points, but can they slow Stanford’s sneaky-explosive offense? Defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox has to find ways to get his pass-rushers like Claude Pelon and Scott Felix to Hogan without compromising the run defense. Blitzing Su’a Cravens, who will matchup with Hooper, will also be a challenge.

Despite the smash-mouth identity each of these teams wants to establish, this one could be high-scoring. That style ironically favors Stanford.