USC dominated Stanford 42-24 back on Sept. 10 at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in what was the Pac-12 opener for both teams. The Trojans entered the game sixth in the AP Top 25, and was widely considered the conference favorite and a College Football Playoff contender at the time. Losses to Washington State and Notre Dame derailed those title hopes, but an undefeated run through the Pac-12 South means USC (10-2, 8-1) is still in line to win its first conference crown since 2008.
Of course, the Trojans must beat the Cardinal a second time to win the title. Stanford (9-3, 7-2), who also lost to San Diego State and Washington State, climbed back into the North Division race thanks to a 30-22 win over Washington on Nov. 10. After three straight wins and six in their final seven games, the Cardinal clinched their spot in the Pac-12 Championship Game thanks to a loss by the Cougars to the Huskies in the Apple Cup a week ago.
There was no disputing which team was better when they met earlier this season. But that was way back in Week 2. So what has changed and will it matter this time around?
5 Reasons Why Stanford Will Win the Pac-12 Championship Game
1. Common opponents
A lot has happened since USC hosted Stanford earlier this year, including several games against common opponents. Both teams lost to Washington State, both survived scares against Utah (the pair beat the Utes by a combined four points), and both picked up victories over UCLA, Arizona State and Cal. However, there’s one major difference between the two teams – their results against Notre Dame.
The Trojans travelled to South Bend clinging on the periphery of the national title race, and left with their tails between their legs after the Fighting Irish absolutely hammered them 49-14 on Oct. 21. Notre Dame racked up 377 rushing yards – 143 more yards than any other team gained against USC – while averaging a whopping 8.0 yards per carry. The Trojans surrendered a total of 497 yards, the second most on the season, while their offense managed just 336 yards, including only 76 on the ground. USC was outgained by 161 yards and finished with a minus-three turnover ratio, its worst margin of the season.
Stanford took its turn against the Irish just one week ago, and picked up a 38-20 victory at home. The Cardinal won the turnover battle 3-0, which helped overcome a 415-328 disadvantage in total yardage. However, Stanford limited Notre Dame to 154 rushing yards and 3.5 yards per carry. Quarterback Brandon Wimbush and running back Josh Adams, each of whom surpassed 100 yards on the ground against the Trojans and scored five rushing TDs between them, combined for 111 rushing yards and neither scored.
2. Head coach David Shaw
USC head coach Clay Helton earned a well-deserved victory over Stanford earlier this year, but is just 1-2 against the Cardinal as a head coach. Helton and the Trojans lost to Stanford 41-22 in the 2015 Pac-12 Championship Game when he was the interim head coach, and the Cardinal won 27-10 in Palo Alto in ‘16 after he earned the full-time job, making Helton 0-2 against his Stanford counterpart outside of Los Angeles.
In addition to the head-to-head history, Shaw (right) is widely regarded as one of the top head coaches in college football. The Cardinal didn’t miss a beat when he replaced Jim Harbaugh following the 2010 season, and Shaw has compiled a stellar 73-20 record in his seven seasons at the helm. Shaw, a three-time conference Coach of the Year whose smart and talented teams operate under the slogan “Intellectual Brutality,” also is well-versed in big games. He is 7-3 all-time in postseason contests, including a 3-0 mark in the Pac-12 Championship Game – having beaten each title game opponent in a rematch.
3. Running back Bryce Love
The Heisman Trophy is college football’s greatest individual honor, and a very rare few players are invited to New York each year as finalists. Though Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield is now the heavy favorite, Love (above, right) deserves a trip to the Big Apple.
In his first season as a starter after replacing former Heisman finalist Christian McCaffrey, Love ranks second nationally with 1,848 rushing yards and an average of 168 yards per game. Though he’s slowed down in recent weeks because of an ankle injury, Love has run for 100 yards or more in all but one of his 11 games played. Last week, he picked up 125 rushing yards on 20 carries against Notre Dame. The 5-foot-10, 196-pound junior is an explosive playmaker with the ability to score any time he touches the ball. Love enters this game averaging 8.6 yards per carry and with 16 rushing touchdowns.
Simply put, Love is the most valuable player for a Stanford offense that has averaged 394.1 yards of total offense per game and 6.55 yards per play. He missed the Oregon State game due to injury, and the Cardinal barely escaped with a 15-14 road win against the lowly Beavers after finishing with a season-low 81 rushing yards. USC also knows Love’s value: he carried the ball 17 times against the Trojans earlier this year, and gained 160 yards, including a 75-yard touchdown gallop.
4. Quarterback K.J. Costello
One of the biggest changes Stanford has made since the Week 2 matchup with USC is at quarterback. Keller Chryst started under center in the loss to the Trojans, and put up a decent performance in the box score: 15-for-28 passing, 172 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. However, Chryst struggled to move the offense consistently through the middle part of the season. Shaw made the decision to start Costello against Washington State, and has stuck with the redshirt freshman in the three games since. It paid off, as Costello threw for a career-high 211 yards against Washington the following week, and he set a new career mark with four TD passes last week against Notre Dame.
Costello saw limited action early in the season, but was most impressive against UCLA and Arizona State, completing 65.1 percent of his passes for 296 yards and three touchdowns without an interception. The Cardinal lost Costello’s first start, and the 6-foot-5, 217-pound signal-caller was just 9-for-20 for 105 yards and an interception against the Cougars, but he’s rebounded nicely since. Overall, Costello has completed 99 of 162 pass attempts (61.1 percent) for 1,169 yards and nine touchdowns with just two interceptions. He also has three rushing touchdowns.
Stanford has won the turnover battle nine times this season, and the Cardinal are 8-1 in those games. The only loss? To USC. Despite the lopsided final score, Stanford forced two Sam Darnold interceptions without coughing up the football all game. A similar win in the turnover department could be a huge step towards a victory on Friday night.
Likewise, the Cardinal offense has committed the fewest turnovers in the Pac-12 (10) and has thrown the fewest interceptions in the league (6) this season, which is very important because the defense – often one of the best in the nation – has taken a big step back this year. In fact, Stanford has posted the worst statistics of the Shaw era in rushing defense (170.3 ypg), yards per carry (4.57), total defense (390.3 ypg), and yards allowed per play (5.75). USC gashed the Cardinal for 623 total yards – a well-balanced 307 on the ground and 316 through the air – while averaging 8.42 yards per snap. It was the worst performance for a Stanford defense since Shaw took over.
Fortunately, the Cardinal have forced 24 turnovers, including 16 interceptions, giving them a sparkling plus-14 turnover margin, which leads the Pac-12 and ranks fourth in the country. Stanford proved capable of giving Darnold trouble by picking him off twice in the first meeting, and the QB has shown himself to be turnover-prone all season, throwing 10 additional picks across his 11 other games.
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, a member of the Athlon Contributors Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.