So there you have it, Stanford fans: Amidst the chaotic mess that was the Pac-12 South this season, the USC Trojans won the division, just like all of the experts and their mothers were predicting before the season.
Well, except for the part where they lost to Stanford… and then to Washington… and then twice more for good measure, losing their head coach somewhere along the line as well. It wouldn’t be USC football without all of the requisite drama and baggage that came along with it, but to their credit, this time the Trojans finished the season 5-0 against their opponents in the Pac-12 South despite all of the distractions and media cacophony that tagged along for the ride.
This year’s edition of the “University of Spoiled Children” media circus was absolutely eye-opening and entertaining for Pat Haden’s continued indecision and unpopularity, sure, but to me, it felt completely different from the analogous situation two years ago (ft. Lane Kiffin), and unfortunately, this time, I think that the Trojans might have come out of the drama all the better for it.
In 2013, Ed Orgeron’s success down the stretch after he replaced the stiff, aloof Kiffinator was due in large part to the spirit that he revitalized the team with using his players-first mentality and his rustic Southern charm, and in many ways, this year’s situation with the player-favorite Clay Helton has been incredibly analogous. At least from an outside perspective, it really looks like USC’s players have their swagger and their identity back — I hate to deal with intangibles like that, but they absolutely seem to have an added bounce in their step.
That’s due in large part to what Helton has done for the Trojans that Orgeron did not two years ago: While Orgeron just righted the ship, Helton has already begun to steer the Trojan cruiser in his own direction by bringing USC’s old, smashmouth, power football identity back to great success.
And that’s why you should absolutely be terrified of USC for this Saturday’s game: They’re playing with nothing to lose, and for a coach that they love that is finally utilizing his overwhelming talent in an advantageous manner to great success. This is a very, very different USC team from the one that Stanford beat up at the Coliseum two months ago.
Particularly in last week’s blowout of crosstown rival UCLA, the Trojans ran their offense through stud running back Ronald Jones, and if they commit to using their monstrous behemoths on the offensive line to maul Stanford’s front seven instead of trying to win the game with an inconsistent Cody Kessler on Saturday, I’m not sure Stanford’s battered front seven can hold up to the full force of angry Trojan man-child linemen tunneling a path for their stud running back.
USC’s offensive line has suffered some key injuries over the last few weeks, but the Trojans have had consistently elite recruiting to the point where, like Notre Dame, they can essentially be plug-and-play. Given Stanford’s exhaustion on the defensive line, especially after huge running games by Oregon and Notre Dame, if the Trojans try to run instead of forcing the issue with Kessler, the Cardinal could be running on fumes sooner rather than later.
And even if the Cardinal keep USC’s running game in check, the Trojans still have an Adoree’ Jackson and a terrifying JuJu Smith-Schuster, even when injured, to take advantage of Stanford’s particularly porous bend-but-don’t-break secondary, especially if Alijah Holder and Ronnie Harris aren’t back by Saturday.
That should scare you.
It’s always absurdly difficult to beat the same team twice in one season (except UCLA, for reasons that remain mysterious to me but I’ll accept all the same), particularly with USC, which has enough superstar talent to keep things interesting even when the team schematically isn’t playing up to its standard.
The players are on the highest of emotional highs right now after hiring the coach that they’ve played their hearts out for over the last few weeks, and they’re going to be out for blood against the team that ousted them from the playoff conversation so unceremoniously that week in September.
Stanford hasn’t been playing its best football over the last few weeks, especially on defense, and Notre Dame almost made the Cardinal pay dearly for it. The Ducks did. USC arguably has more talent than either of those teams, and this isn’t a good matchup on paper for the Cardinal.
The last time this happened, Stanford had its national title hopes derailed by USC in 2013. The stars seem to be aligning again now, two years later.
The media narrative would be crazy if, at the end, the Trojans ended up winning the Pac-12 anyway. Let’s derail the hype train before it begins — I know you wouldn’t be able to stand months of offseason “ARE THE TROJANS BACK??!?!?” talk.
Give Do-Hyoung Park suggestions for how to get over a (potential) loss to USC at dhpark ‘at’ stanford.edu.