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Stanford vs. USC: The Next Chapter in the 10-Year War


Forget Mayweather-McGregor, and all due respect to Canelo Álvarez vs. Gennady Golovkin, but the most hard-hitting bout of late summer 2017 just might be Stanford-USC, an annual series with rivalry bona fides.

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USC head coach Clay Helton perhaps put it best, saying, "You know you're in for a war" when facing Stanford.

Indeed, the annual pairing of longtime conference counterparts has become one of the premier rivalries out West, in part for the physical styles of play. Saturday at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum should be no exception. The Pac-12 Conference opener for both teams features two big, veteran offensive lines; multifaceted rushing attacks; and playmakers up and down the defenses, including some of the best linemen in the nation.

Similar philosophies and styles of play have produced some memorable results in recent years, with four single-possession decisions from 2010-14. The final results were just as competitive in that time, too, with USC winning back-to-back contests in 2013 and ‘14 after dropping four straight in the years preceding.

A three-game Stanford winning streak sets the scene for the 2017 edition, however, and this latest Cardinal run brings their record to 7-3 since the game; THAT game.

Until Howard stunned UNLV on Saturday night, it was the largest upset in college football history. Thirty-nine-point underdog Stanford went into the Coliseum and stunned USC, 24-23 on Oct. 6, 2007.

"On recruiting visits, it really marked the change in the era of Stanford football, and they really stressed that," running back Bryce Love said. "It's a classic."

Indeed, it's a game Stanford head coach David Shaw called "the beginning of the program."

It's one of two games with moments Shaw cited as his best from the series, pointing out the Mark Bradford game-winning touchdown pass in 2007, and the entirety of the ‘11 contest. Andrew Luck led the Cardinal to a 56-48, triple-overtime win.

"Both teams played extremely well," Shaw said. "Matt Barkley played really well. Andrew Luck played really well. Both defenses made plays."

Of perhaps no coincidence, 2007 and ‘11 are Shaw's first season as an assistant coach at Stanford, and his debut campaign as the Cardinal's head coach.

Helton's been a part of the series for a considerable length of time, noting this is his eighth year. He joined the USC staff in 2010, in the midst of an unprecedented era in Stanford dominance, but was on the sidelines for dramatic wins in 2013 and ‘14.

He's seeking his first victory in two tries as head coach against Stanford; a moment that would certainly add a new wrinkle to this budding rivalry.

Both Stanford and USC have rivals with which they are more closely associated: The two share Notre Dame as an annual non-conference opponent, while regional rivals Cal and UCLA typically occupy the traditional Rivalry Weekend date.

"I've been associated with Stanford football most of my life," said Shaw, a Cardinal alumnus who played on The Farm in the early 1990s, when the series was already approaching its 90th anniversary. "People forget, Stanford is USC's oldest rival. 

"For a long time, also, Stanford did well. Then, for a long stretch, USC dominated the rivalry," he added. "It's not a rivalry if one team doesn't win."

A single upset does not a rivalry make, though the animus between the programs was aided earlier in the pivotal 2007 campaign by a public war of words between former head coaches Pete Carroll and Jim Harbaugh, and Harbaugh uttering the infamous line, "We bow to no man."

Carroll and Harbaugh's confrontation at midfield of the 2009 encounter – another Cardinal win in the Coliseum – marked a fitting send-off for the last time they'd face on a college field.

Carroll's departure for the NFL the next year, and Harbaugh a year later have cooled tensions. With Shaw and Helton now at the helm, there's a mutual respect underlining the competitive nature of this series.

That will manifest Saturday in a strategic back-and-forth between two well-matched opponents. From the physicality – the Cardinal and Trojans boast some of the best linemen in the conference on both sides of the ball, with names like Harrison Phillips, David Bright, Nate Herbig, and Viane Talamaivao, Porter Gustin and Rasheem Gustin – to the outstanding running backs with Love and Ronald Jones II, all signs point to another classic.

And though this year's matchup warrants memories of 2007 given the 10-year anniversary, the aforementioned ‘11 date should remain in the back of people's minds.

Those were two teams that finished the regular season with double-digit win totals and played to a near-stalemate. Even the kickoff time aligns with the 2011 edition. 

"It's one of those games that went down into the twilight. You love those late evening games at the Coliseum; starts in daytime, ends at night time," Shaw said.

Yes, sometime in the second half of Saturday's encounter, the sun will descend into the Pacific and the torch over the Coliseum will burn bright in the Los Angeles night sky – just like the Stanford-USC rivalry burns on, stronger and better than ever.

— 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.

(Top photo courtesy of Getty Images)