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Pac-12 Championship Game Preview and Prediction: Stanford vs. USC

Clay Helton

Clay Helton

When asked earlier this season if the USC-Stanford series had developed into a rivalry, Cardinal head coach David Shaw gave his endorsement. The ingredients are all there: The first game between the two was played in 1905, two decades before USC began either of its rivalries with UCLA or Notre Dame.

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In recent years, the series has also taken on a contentious and competitive look. Stanford's win at the Coliseum in 2007 was the largest upset in college football history until Howard beat UNLV earlier this season. In 2009, the Cardinal's rout of the Trojans ended with the notorious mid-field exchange between Pete Carroll and Jim Harbaugh. Five meetings between 2010-14 were decided by a single possession.

And now, for the second time in three years, Stanford and USC play for the Pac-12 championship.

USC represents the South Division, as anticipated per preseason projections. Stanford's fourth time representing the North in six seasons may not have come as a surprise, given the Cardinal's success under Shaw. But after falling to 1-2 to start the season — including a 42-24 loss at USC — dismissing Stanford was all too easy.

Winning eight of nine to close out the season, including a pivotal victory over defending Pac-12 champion Washington, changed the dynamic of the conference landscape. And now, familiar foes meet again.

Pac-12 Championship: Stanford vs. USC

Kickoff: Friday, Dec. 1 at 8 p.m. ET

Where: Levi's Stadium (Santa Clara, Calif.)

TV Channel: ESPN

Spread: USC -3.5 

Three Things to Watch

1. Playmaking passes (one way or the other)

USC head coach Clay Helton cited the emergence of potentially difference-making wide receivers as central to the Trojans' offensive prowess in the latter-half of the season, with Tyler Vaughns and Michael Pittman Jr. joining 2017 Rose Bowl Game hero Deontay Burnett to give quarterback Sam Darnold a cachet of dynamic pass-catchers.

"They've got the personnel to make every play an explosive play," Shaw said.

In the same vein, the Stanford defense is well-equipped to turn passing plays into a game-changer. The Cardinal have 16 interceptions on the season, tied for 10th-most in the FBS. Justin Reid made one of his five interceptions against USC on Sept. 9; Alijah Holder (will miss this game because of a leg injury) also got to Darnold for a pick in the last meeting.

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With Quenton Meeks in the secondary, as well, Stanford boasts one of the best corps of defensive backs to counter USC's wide receivers.

2. Top-flight running backs

Two of the top five rushers in the Pac-12 and top 13 in the nation pace both offenses in the Pac-12 Championship Game. Stanford running back Bryce Love leads the FBS and is a Heisman Trophy contender with 2,027 yards. When Stanford and USC met in September, Love broke off a 75-yard touchdown rush.

Stanford Cardinal RB Bryce Love

Countering Love, USC rolls with Ronald Jones II. Jones has 16 touchdowns on the ground to Love's 19, and comes into this game with 1,346 yards. He needs only nine yards to pass O.J. Simpson as the program's fifth all-time leading rusher, having eclipsed LenDale White, Reggie Bush and Mike Garrett on Nov. 11.

"Ronald Jones runs through contact, and he's got a great ability get vertical and run through arm tackles," Stanford head coach David Shaw said.

3. Third-quarter momentum shifts

Performance in third quarters have been pivotal in recent Stanford and USC games. In the last Pac-12 Championship Game meeting, a Kevin Hogan touchdown and Solomon Thomas fumble return for a score transformed a USC lead into a two-score Cardinal lead. That same season, Stanford roared out of the locker room to take control in a 10-point win at the Coliseum.

USC returned the favor in this year's meeting in Los Angeles, shutting down the Cardinal and imposing a physical style that allowed the Trojans to extend their lead to three scores in the early third quarter.

The significance of third quarters in this series speak to the coaching adjustments made at halftime, as well as the physical grinding game plan both seek to employ. The first signs in a war of attrition between the lines begin to show in the second half. 

Final Analysis

Stanford has been much improved since the Sept. 9 meeting USC dominated. The addition of K.J. Costello at quarterback and the development of pass catchers like tight end Dalton Schultz and wide receiver J.J. Arcega-Whiteside give the Cardinal a passing attack to offset Bryce Love's outstanding ground production.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: USC

The improvements USC made throughout the season are perhaps less evident. The Trojans had to endure a mid-season dip with injuries mounting on both the offensive and defensive lines. However, quarterback Sam Darnold cutting down on turnovers with the rise of young wide receivers has made for a more dangerous offense. Running back Stephen Carr, who gashed the Cardinal for 119 rushes on just 11 carries in September, has made his return. Carr saw more action in the regular-season finale against UCLA.

While Stanford's strides suggest a much closer contest than the three-score differential in Los Angeles early this season, a week off to get healthy should have the Trojans ready to claim their first conference championship since 2008.

Prediction: USC 35, Stanford 31

— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Kensing is publisher of Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.