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USC vs. Stanford Prediction: Trojans' Open Pac-12 Play on the Road Against Cardinal

USC's pending Big Ten exit means this is the final installment of conference rivalry with Stanford.

Among the more consequential rivalries in Pac-12 football for the past decade and change has been the Stanford-USC series.

Even in a season of disappointment such as what both the Cardinal and Trojans endured in 2021, the game's outcome carried significance: USC head coach Clay Helton was fired after Stanford's romp in the Coliseum last September.

Of course, that paved the way for Lincoln Riley's hire, a wave of high-profile transfers to Los Angeles, and the return of lofty expectations around Heritage Hall. With Caleb Williams and Jordan Addison hooking up for a pair of touchdown passes in the Trojans' 66-14 blowout of Rice in Week 1, the enthusiasm about this new-look team appears justified.

Expectations ahead of Stanford's 2022 were significantly lower after a dismal 2021, but the Cardinal have often been at their best against USC when playing the role of spoiler.

Related: College Football Predictions for Every Game in Week 2

Midnight approaches on this rivalry before USC exits for the Big Ten. Can Stanford rise to the occasion and deliver another classic in the waning days of a relationship dating back to 1905? 

No. 10 USC at Stanford

Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 10 at 7:30 p.m. ET
TV: ABC
Live Stream: fuboTV (Start your free trial)
Spread: USC -8.5
Tickets: As low as $46 on SITickets.com*

When USC Has the Ball

Riley's spin on the Air Raid offense revitalized Oklahoma upon his hire as offensive coordinator, then produced a pair of Heisman Trophy winners and a few more finalists once he replaced the Hall of Famer Bob Stoops as head coach.

While USC's previous attempt to implement the Air Raid under the Helton regime never quite soared as anticipated, very early returns in the Riley era are promising. Williams was dynamic against an admittedly overmatched Rice side, spreading the ball among a diverse and talented receiving corps.

Addison, the reigning Biletnikoff Award winner, didn't disappoint in his debut, and another Oklahoma transplant in Mario Williams is an exciting burner for the Trojans.

Caleb Williams' mobility forces opponents to play a dangerous guessing game, as USC can unleash a truly effective RPO look. The skill positions are absolutely stacked, but the uncertainty looming as the Trojans open Pac-12 play is the stability up front.

Beyond tackle Andrew Voorhees, USC's offensive line is largely unknown. While Stanford's defensive front may not be what it was during the Cardinal's run of championships last decade, it's a veteran group with edge rushers Stephen Herron and Aeneas DiCosmo and tackles Tobin Phillips and Anthony Franklin all having some noteworthy experience.

When Stanford Has the Ball

When Bryce Love became Stanford's fourth different Heisman finalist in eight years at the conclusion of the 2017 season, it marked an unofficial start to the Cardinal enduring some lean years offensively.

Signs of trouble were evident before the 2018 campaign, most notably when Christian McCaffrey missed time in 2016, but Stanford's dip to the bottom rungs of the Pac-12 across a variety of offensive statistical categories underscored the dramatic turnaround for the worse the program was experiencing. Most notably, offensive line play — once the hallmark of Stanford football — struggled mightily amid a bevy of injuries.

The 2022 unit is experienced and perhaps the most promising it's looked in a half-decade and has a likely NFL player operating behind it with Tanner McKee. And after finishing around the cellar for rushing yardage the last few years, the Cardinal gained 169 yards at six yards per pop in Week 1.

Optimism around that stat should be guarded: Stanford faced Colgate out of the Patriot League, and E.J. Smith gained 87 of them on a single play.

Still, Stanford should be much improved on that side of the ball compared to a year ago. How much USC improved defensively from last season, now under the guidance of coordinator Alex Grinch, will shape Saturday's prime-time affair.

Final Analysis

The USC defense rallied from a sluggish start against Rice to dominate in the second half, most notably in generating turnovers. Don't count on McKee giving away two interceptions, let alone three pick-sixes like the Trojans garnered against Stanford assistant Mike Bloomgren's Owls.

Stanford's built to test some of the uncertainties in the USC lineup but ultimately could struggle to keep pace with the outstanding skill-position players that make up an overhauled Trojans roster.

Prediction: USC 34, Stanford 27

Podcast: Complete Week 2 Preview, Predictions and Picks Against the Spread

— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @KyleKensing and subscribe to his newsletter, The Press Break

*Price as of publication.