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USC Trojans vs. Stanford Cardinal Preview and Prediction

Christian McCaffrey

Christian McCaffrey

USC seemingly had the formula figured out. After losing four straight to Stanford from 2009-12 — and 5-of-6 dating back to '07 — the Trojans held the Cardinal to a combined 27 points in a pair of USC wins.

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The formula was scrapped in 2015, when Stanford beat USC twice by a combined 29 points.

Now on the losing side of a streak, USC visits The Farm in Week 3 trying to avoid a 1-2 hole on the campaign, and an 0-1 start in Pac-12 play. Stanford comes off a 15-day hiatus, getting a bye in Week 2 after a season-opening win over Kansas State.

The Cardinal began their defense of a Pac-12 title for the third time in four years impressively enough, building a double-digit lead in the first half against Kansas State and holding off the Wildcats in the final 30 minutes. Head coach David Shaw still has some questions for his squad — questions USC must try to exploit to score an important win in the league opener.

USC at Stanford

Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 17 at 8 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ABC
Line: Stanford -8.5

Three Things to Watch

1. Containing McCaffrey

Watching the Heisman Trophy runner-up seems too obvious an inclusion, but Christian McCaffrey will play a central role in this game's outcome.

McCaffrey eviscerated the USC defense in last December's Pac-12 Championship Game for 207 yards rushing, 105 yards receiving, 120 yards in kickoff returns and touchdowns three different ways (pass, reception, rush). His multifaceted style exposed glaring issues in the USC defense, then coordinated by Justin Wilcox, operating out of a 3-4 base.

The return of coordinator Clancy Pendergast with a more aggressive, 5-2 base could be feast or famine against the explosive McCaffrey. Stanford's star running back can expect to see more white jerseys in the backfield, but whiffing in the backfield could leave USC susceptible to big gains.

If the Pac-12 title game wasn't evidence enough, McCaffrey proved in Week 1 that all he needs is a couple of those big gains to completely turn a game. He scored two, long touchdowns that ostensibly doomed K-State.

Related: College Football's 12 Best Position Battles to Watch in Week 3

2. The Third Phase

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USC head coach Clay Helton offered high praise for special teams coordinator John Braxter after the Trojans' blowout of Utah State, and with good reason. USC was stellar in that phase, opening the game with a punt block and later getting a 77-yard punt return touchdown from speedster Adoree' Jackson. Baxter's overseen some of the nation's best special teams in recent years and the 2016 USC unit follows that trend.

With Stanford playing Ryan Burns, a still largely unproven quarterback, the Cardinal must avoid playing on long fields as much as possible. That means the Trojans must limit returns, which USC did admirably in the punting game last season when it saw Stanford. But limiting McCaffrey's kickoff return opportunities is equally vital.

The same goes for Stanford with Jackson. The Trojan burner is dangerous in the open field, as Utah State learned, and Stanford saw that last season as it surrendered 23.6 yards per return in the Pac-12 Championship Game.

In a contest that has so frequently gone down to the wire — every installment from 2009-14 was decided by one score — a single special teams play might make the difference.

3. Under Pressure

Quarterbacks Burns and Max Browne have all of three collegiate starts between them. Two went well; Burns looked perfectly adequate in Week 1, while Browne rebounded from a tough opener vs. Alabama to throw for 186 yards and two touchdowns against Utah State.

Burns has yet to see consistent pressure from a truly aggressive defense, which he should expect from the new-look Trojans. USC brought the blitz on Utah State's Kent Myers to the tune of two sacks, and got to the quarterbacks three times against Alabama.

Browne, conversely, has some experience with heavy pressure — it didn't go according to plan. Alabama's ability to tee off may have established the blueprint for attacking the Trojan offense. With Stanford consistently boasting one of the best defensive fronts in college football, this year led by Solomon Thomas, expect to see a regular blitz unleashed Saturday.

Helton's decision to demote tackle Chuma Edoga from starter, after he was ejected early in the Utah State game for shoving an official, leaves a big question mark at left tackle. Chad Wheeler has fought to return from injury. Right tackle Zach Banner has experience on the left side, but moving him over creates a void on the right side.

Final Analysis

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USC's dominant performance in Week 2 begged the question: Is the real USC the squad that blew out Utah State, or the team that lost a 46-point decision to Alabama? The answer is likely neither. While the Trojans are not as bad as Week 1 might suggest, the Crimson Tide posed a serious matchup issue.

Stanford presents a similar problem.

USC's offensive line concerns come at an inopportune time, facing off against arguably the best defensive line in the Pac-12. Stanford's ability to win at the point of attack should dictate the tempo and limit the Trojans' scoring opportunities. While I picked USC in the preseason, enough evidence since the start of the season suggests the Trojans just do not matchup well enough to end the losing skid. The Cardinal make it three straight.

Prediction: Stanford 27, USC 21

— 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.