SQ Pac-12 Championship Preview
On Saturday night at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, California; the Pac-12 will crown its champion when the No. 20 USC Trojans (8-4, South) and the No. 7 Stanford Cardinal (10-2, North) face off for a shot at the Rose Bowl, and maybe even more, depending on who you're rooting for. If all hell breaks lose on Saturday and teams like Clemson and Alabama are upset, Stanford still has a slim chance of making the College Football Playoff. But before any of that they need to take out a USC team that has been playing very good football over the last month or so. This game isn't exactly a de facto CFP quarterfinal like the Big Ten Championship will be, but that doesn't mean there wont be plenty on the line in this intriguing clash at the home of the 49ers.
I mean, no matter how you look at it, it's got to be better than watching Blaine Gabbert throwing a three-yard slant to Anquan Boldin.
Rematch: Saturday's tilt will actually be the second time this season that the Cardinal and the Trojans will square off. Despite being decided underdogs and on the road, Stanford won the teams' first contest back in mid-September, 41-31, a game that propelled the two teams in very different directions. Following the victory, Stanford won eight of their next nine games, while USC dropped two of their next three. The Trojans fired head coach Steve Sarkisian amid controversy, promoting offensive coordinator Clay Helton to interim head coach. Almost three months after their initial meeting, these two teams mostly have the same pieces in place but this still feels like a different game.
Clay Helton's Chance: No, it wont be Chip Kelly vs. David Shaw, or Jon Gruden vs. David Shaw, or even Pete Carroll vs. David Shaw. Just this past week, USC decided to remove Helton's interim tag, which means he will be calling the shots for the Trojans for the foreseeable future. After the disaster and controversy to start the season, USC rebounded under Helton and went 5-2 down the stretch. It's a bold move by the Trojans to name Helton permanent head coach, and perhaps they should have waited till after the season. After all, if previous seasons are any indication, USC players only seem motivated when they are playing for an interim coach.
Containing McCaffrey: 216 total yards is all that stands between Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey and history. Barring injury, McCaffrey is likely to break Barry Sanders' record of 3,250 single-season all-purpose yards. McCaffrey, who gets the ball by way of the run, pass, and return game, racked up 249 total yards in the two teams' last meeting, but was held out of the end zone. It is almost inevitable that McCaffrey will get his yards on Saturday because of the way Stanford gets him the ball, but if the Trojans have any shot at being the Pac-12 champions they will have to limit his big plays.
0-4: Teams representing the South in the Pac-12 championship are winless in four tries since the conference's inaugural championship game in 2011. North Division winner Stanford is 2-0 in previous championship games, winning in 2012 and 2013. This will be USC's first appearance in the Pac-12 championship, with UCLA, Arizona State, and Arizona winning the South in the past four seasons.
39:29-20:31: Stanford dominated time of possession last time out between these two despite USC not committing any turnovers. The Trojans had the ball so little compared to the Cardinal because they couldn't get them off the field in critical situations, as Stanford was eight for twelve on third down conversions. Despite losing the game by ten points, USC was only outgained by 47 yards.
14.4 miles: That is the distance between Stanford's campus in Palo Alto and Levi Stadium in Santa Clara where the game will be played. That is about a 20 minute bus ride for the Cardinal while the Trojans in Los Angeles are situated approximately 350 miles away. Will Stanford be able to generate a home field advantage on Saturday? Or will USC fans make the trip to what is supposed to be a neutral field? The Trojans haven't played great on the road this year, losing twice and playing nearly every game close besides a blowout win in Tempe against ASU.
Stanford: Kevin Hogan has put together a very solid senior season, with 27 total touchdowns, 2,794 total yards, and only seven interceptions. Last time around against the Trojans, Hogan hit 18-23 passes for 279 yards and two touchdowns, despite suffering an ankle injury in the game. Despite being overshadowed by McCaffrey, Hogan has delivered steady and productive play, and been very good in clutch situations for the Cardinal this season. Having the most wins of any quarterback all-time at Stanford is no small feat, but Hogan will still need to play lights-out on Saturday if Stanford wants a shot at the CFP.
USC: It would be easy to pick Cody Kessler as the key player on the Trojans' side, as this game might very well come down to which quarterback outduels the other, but USC will really need to make plays on defense in order to win this game. Freshman cornerback Iman Marshall has has been a star in the defensive backfield for USC this season; he leads the Trojans in pass breakups with seven, is tied for the team lead in interceptions with three, and is third in total tackles. The entire Trojan defensive backfield will need to play better this time around if USC wants to play in the Rose Bowl, as last time these two met, Hogan and the Cardinal receivers were easily the better side.
Early in the second quarter of this season's first matchup between these two, USC was winning 21-10 and looked like they were going to roll to an easy victory over Stanford. The Cardinal responded by outscoring the Trojans 34-10 the rest of the way, with Hogan making big plays with his arms and legs and the Stanford offensive line controlling the line of scrimmage.
This time around, I think things will be different. If USC can just make a few plays on defense—whether a turnover, some third-down stops, sacks, etc.—they will win the game. Stanford's defense is a shell of its former self and has struggled all season, ranking 50th in the country in total defense. The Trojans certainly have the weapons to expose it with Kessler, wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, and running back Ronald Jones, just to name a few. The Cardinal have escaped with a couple of close victories over the last month, but I don't see it happening here. USC pulls off the upset.
Final Score: USC 34, Stanford 27