Saturday's showdown at Stanford Stadium marks the 99th game between the two programs all-time, and the third installment in the past 12 months. The two played in December's Pac-12 Championship Game, and USC's 31-28 win was the sixth single-possession decision since 2010.
Both teams sport top-20 rankings in their (first?) meeting of 2018, and another tightly contested classic could be in the works in the Pac-12 opener.
USC at Stanford
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 8 at 8:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Stanford -4.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Not a secondary option
All the buzz preceding Stanford's 2018 season focused on running back Bryce Love — and with good reason. After all, it's not often a rusher with more than 2,100 yards and a trip to New York for the Heisman ceremony returns to college football the following season. And he's a pre-med student to boot.
The Stanford running back's story is a great one, but Week 1 proved that there's much more to love about the Cardinal offense. Quarterback K.J. Costello continued on the positive upswing that began in 2017, passing for 332 yards to seven different targets against San Diego State. Standing tall among the seven: wide receiver JJ Arcega-Whiteside, whose 226 yards equaled the Week 1 high across FBS.
"He's a different body type; a really big man," said USC head coach Clay Helton of Arcega-Whiteside. "He has tremendous high-ball skills. San Diego State was committed to stacking the box ... really putting their corners on an island. And when you have JJ out there, I thought they did a great job of just putting the ball and giving him a chance to make a ball."
Arcega-Whiteside's ability to go up for passes presents problems, and could prove especially so for a USC secondary undergoing some turmoil. Cornerback Jack Jones was dismissed before the season, and with Ykili Ross' decision to transfer and with Bubba Bolden currently out of the lineup, there's less depth and experience for that unit. As important as slowing Love might be, USC's play against the deep-ball threats might be the most pivotal defensive effort of Saturday's game.
2. Winning in the trenches
Stanford and USC have combined to win four of the past six Pac-12 championships. It's no coincidence that both programs have boasted some of the best talent in the conference on both lines.
Head coach David Shaw raved at July's Pac-12 media day about the experience and depth on Stanford's offensive line. The front five faces a test against an outstanding USC defensive front seven that includes defensive end Porter Gustin. Gustin roared back from injury that sidelined him much of 2017, recording a sack and recovering a fumble in Week 1.
On the flip side, USC's young offensive line faces some questions. Veteran Toa Lobendahn's status is uncertain, which could leave the Trojans vulnerable — particularly in attempting to establish the run, which will be vital to keep freshman quarterback JT Daniels from being under too much duress.
3. Game 2 for Daniels
True freshman quarterback JT Daniels finished his college debut with 282 yards passing and a couple of impressive deep balls, including a 43-yard touchdown connection with Amon-Ra St. Brown that electrified the Coliseum crowd in USC's 43-21 win over UNLV.
Though Daniels played confidently in his debut, there was an initial feeling-out period. USC did not score a touchdown until the late second quarter after falling behind the visiting Rebels. The Trojans offense has little time for an adjustment period against Stanford.
At the same time, USC is still replacing 2017 standout running back Ronald Jones II. Aca'Cedric Ware had an impressive 100-yard performance against UNLV on just 10 carries; the Trojans need a similar performance to keep the Stanford defense honest and afford Daniels time to operate in the passing game.
The new layer to the offense Stanford showed off against a stout San Diego State defense was the most balanced look the Cardinal had showed since the 2015 season. That also happened to be Stanford's last Pac-12 championship-winning season.
The threat of a consistent and dangerous passing attack will prevent defenses from stuffing the box against Bryce Love, as San Diego State attempted to do. USC defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast will have to decide between loading up on Love or eliminating the big-play passing threat.
It's that balance from Stanford that should be enough to keep USC off balance. The Trojans are loaded with veteran defensive talent, and the offense is loaded with young potential. However, JT Daniels' learning curve gets considerably steeper in a game with a championship environment.