The seventh-ranked Stanford Cardinal have excelled in the role as the hunter the last four years, winning three Pac-12 championship games. But now the Cardinal begin conference play as the hunted when they host the University of Southern California at Stanford Stadium in Palo Alto, Calif., on Saturday night.
Stanford (1-0) was the preseason favorite to repeat as Pac-12 champs, the first time the Cardinal have been favored under David Shaw. A big reason for that is the return of running back Christian McCaffrey, a Heisman Trophy finalist who set an NCAA FBS record with 3,864 all-purpose yards as a sophomore.
The Cardinal opened their season in their signature old-school way: a run-heavy, relatively low-scoring contest. McCaffrey had 22 carries for 126 yards and two touchdowns in a 26-13 win over Kansas State on Sept. 2 at Stanford Stadium. Stanford also got a big game from first-year starting quarterback Ryan Burns who completed over 75 percent of his passes.
"He started off very fast, was in great rhythm," Shaw said of Burns. "He made great decisions. We got great protection."
Stanford jumped to a 17-point lead before struggling to hold on. The Cardinal amassed just 30 second half yards before McCaffrey broke off a 41-yard TD jaunt.
"Not clean, not pretty in the second half, but we played hard," Shaw said. "We showed heart at the end."
USC (1-1), meanwhile, recovered from an ugly 52-6 opening loss to No. 1 Alabama by thumping Utah State 45-7 on Saturday at the Coliseum. Like the Cardinal, the Trojans feature a new starting quarterback in junior Max Browne, and freshman Sam Darnold has seen time as well, adding two touchdown passes.
"We needed that," Trojans wide receiver Darreus Rogers. "It's big to build our confidence back up."
Stanford is beginning a brutal three-week stretch that includes playing at UCLA on Sept. 24 and then trekking to No. 8 Washington on Sept. 29.
The Cardinal won't get any sympathy from the Trojans when it comes to tough schedules, though.
After opening the season with the embarrassing 46-point loss to the Crimson Tide in Arlington, Texas, the Trojans righted he ship with a 45-7 win over Utah State last Saturday, giving coach Clay Helton his first victory in four tries since the "interim" label was dropped from his title late last season. Following the Pac-12 title game rematch with Stanford, USC hits the road again for a game at Utah on Sept. 23. Those are probably the two biggest physical tests you can get in the Pac-12.
USC played Stanford twice last season, losing 41-31 at home early in the regular season and 41-22 in the Pac-12 Championship Game. The Cardinal outrushed the Trojans by a combined 457-325.
"We're going to have to take it up to a whole other level, myself included," said running back Justin Davis.
Said Helton: "They are the Pac-12 champs. We have a huge challenge."
Helton has often talked about USC being less "Hollywood." Less flash and more substance, especially when it comes to establishing a running game and being physical. Basically, he wants USC to be more like Stanford.
The matchup doesn't lack for flash, though. USC has wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, running backs Ronald Jones II and Justin Davis, and cornerback/returner Adoree' Jackson. Those are special, flashy talents.
The Cardinal, of course, have McCaffrey. The junior had a staggering 461 all-purpose yards in the Pac-12 Championship game -- 207 rushing, 105 receiving, 120 on kick returns and 29 on punt returns. He had "only" 249 all-purpose yards in the regular-season meeting against USC.
So far this season, the Trojans have had two extremes -- the loss to Alabama and a dominating performance against Utah State. Did either result tell the truth about the real state of USC?
"There's a lot of cleaning up to do before we play Stanford," Helton said. "I understand that as a coach."
USC leads the all-time series 60-31-3, but Stanford has won six of the last eight meetings including 41-22 in the 2015 Pac-12 Championship Game. The Trojans vacated a 2015 victory due to an NCAA penalty.