Saturday will see another chapter in the early season USC vs. Stanford rivalry. Both teams enter with the opportunity to prove themselves.
For the fifth time in six seasons, the USC vs. Stanford rivalry will open the Pac-12 slate in early September. It’s the result of the conference’s nine-game schedule and championship game, along with both teams having to play Notre Dame every October and November.
But if the hotly contested rivalry has proven anything, the early matchup is more of a barometer of play, than a traditional season-defining game.
The past two years, Stanford’s Week 3 victories had little effect on the Trojans’ season. USC won the Pac-12 South despite the opening loss in 2015, and last September’s 27-10 beatdown meant nothing for the Cardinal in the long run, while not preventing the Trojans from ending the season in Pasadena.
“Ultimately, does that game mean as much?,” Stanford defensive lineman Harrison Phillips asked himself at Pac-12 Media Days. “I’d say from last year no, because we beat them and they ended up going to the Rose Bowl and winning the Rose Bowl. But it is a good way to evaluate.”
That evaluation is key, especially for two teams with different levels of offseason hype, and coming off decidedly different season-opening wins over Group of Five teams.
For Stanford, who rolled over hapless Rice 62-7 in Week 0, facing the Trojans is a chance to prove themselves after losing the likes of Christian McCaffrey and Solomon Thomas.
“It gives us a good feel early on [and] where we stand against the Pac-12 South teams,” Phillips said. “It really is a test of what improvements did we make.”
The Trojans have an eerily similar, yet different sense of the early matchup.
On the one hand, it’s a chance for USC to continue to work out the September kinks, something they learned they needed the hard way last year, when Troy started 1-3 with tough losses to Alabama, Stanford and Utah.
For a team with national title aspirations, such a rough start isn’t going to land them in the College Football Playoff. It’s why head coach Clay Helton has preached starting fast in 2017, despite another daunting first-month slate featuring multiple ranked teams.
Stanford in Week 2 serves as a virtual road block between the desired quick start and the all-too-familiar yet often-necessary early setback.
“It helps get us rolling or fix what we need to fix,” USC linebacker Cameron Smith said. “You know what they’re going to bring each year, and I think it’s beneficial for us to compare ourselves where we’re at against a team like Stanford.”
Yet despite the early season struggles with the Cardinal —USC has never ever beaten them in September at the Coliseum— there’s a sense among the Trojans that now is the best chance to get a crack at the Pac-12 North juggernauts.
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“I’d rather play them early because then they don’t get a rhythm themselves,” Trojan defensive back Chris Hawkins said. “I’d rather play them while they’re not really in a groove. They’re coming off of a bye week.”
Even with the lacking history, it could be sage advice, since Stanford was in that boat a year ago. They beat the Trojans before Sam Darnold and Clancy Pendergast’s resurgent USC defense carried the team to a nine-game winning streak.
But fall into the trap. Don’t think for a second that David Shaw’s Stanford program lacks its fangs in September.
Two years ago, the Cardinal entered the Coliseum as a 10-point underdog after an embarrassing six-point showing in Week 1 at Northwestern. They scored 41 points in Christian McCaffrey’s coming out party.
Worry about the November night train, and you’ll get the September steamroller.
Luckily for both teams, this rivalry has become more about building each the late-season powerhouse, than just starting the Pac-12 season on the right foot.
Who will get the most out of Saturday’s game? We might not find out until December.