As I was wandering through the Stanford Bookstore a few years ago during Reunion Weekend, I heard an odd conversation between a mother -- presumably a fellow alum -- and her young daughter. The daughter was looking at a Big Game checkers set, and she asked why the other pieces in the set all had Cal logos. The mother's answer baffled me.
"Well, some people think that UC Berkeley is Stanford's rival, but our real rival is USC."
It took every ounce of self-restraint I had not to correct the mother and explain to her all about Axes and John Hopkins, but there was a part of me that understood. While the Cal football program has been circling the drain for the last few years, Big Game victories come with relief, not joy.
Wins over USC, however, have been delicious, and aside from the house-burning in 2009 (which was delicious in its own special way), the games have been phenomenal theater. Stanford fans delighted in trumpeting the Cardinal's four-game winning streak in the series by referring to USC as "Under Stanford Control," but the reality was that the three games between 2010 and 2012 could easily have gone the Trojans' way, just as the Cardinal could easily have won last year.
Making the series even more intriguing has been the similarities between the two teams. As the rest of the conference turned to uptempo spread offenses, Stanford and USC clung stubbornly to their pro-style roots, and their defenses were both built on punishing front sevens that battered opposing quarterbacks and running backs into submission. The Stanford-USC series showcased college football the way it used to be.
The arrival of head coach Steve Sarkisian, however, has changed all that. The Trojan offense has left the huddle behind, and the early reports are either thrilling or terrifying, depending on your perspective. Even as the vultures were circling around the program as team captain Josh Shaw's heroic rescue of his nephew was exposed as a fabrication, an ESPN anchor referred to the university as "a clown college," and a backup running back called his coach a racist all within the space of a week, the Trojans brushed all that dirt of their shoulders and came out blazing in last week's opener.
The USC offense piled up 52 points against Fresno State while running a Pac-12-record 103 plays, tallying 37 first downs and a frightening 701 total yards. A week ago I felt like this was an almost certain win for Stanford, but that performance reminded me of what I should've known all along: this is USC.
Aside from the Sarkisian hire, one of the biggest changes within the program involves the outside perception of quarterback Cody Kessler. When the Cardinal lost to the Trojans in mid November last year, the defensive game plan seemed to make sense: bottle up the running game and force Kessler to make plays to win the game. Kessler responded with the best game of his life, completing 25 of 27 passes for 288 yards and a touchdown.
Since then, he seems to have become even more comfortable. In his last two games (the 2013 bowl game and last week's opener) Kessler has combined for 739 yards and eight touchdowns. Sure, thanks to a scheduling quirk both games were against the porous Fresno State defense, but those numbers would be impressive against anyone.
How he fares against the 2014 Stanford defense, of course, remains to be seen, and that will be one of the determining factors of Saturday's game. This will sound familiar to Stanford fans, but I'll say it anyway. The best way to slow down Kessler and the USC offense will be to keep them on the sidelines. If the Stanford offense can put together some long drives -- and I believe it can -- Kessler and company might have a hard time finding the rhythm they enjoyed against Fresno State.
In addition to that, the Trojan roster still hasn't completely recovered from their recent NCAA sanctions, and some recent injuries have thinned their already thin ranks a bit more. That lack of depth will prove costly in the latter stages of a warm afternoon in Stanford Stadium, and I expect Stanford to control the fourth quarter en route to a 34-17 victory.
But what does the other side think? To find out I touched base with the crew at Reign Of Troy, and editor Alicia De Artola was kind enough to answer a bunch of my questions. (You can read my answers to their Stanford questions by clicking here.) For all you've ever wanted to know about the Trojans, read on!