Stanford (1-1) at No. 6 USC (2-0)
Michael Peterson: USC 35, Stanford 20
Stanford looked really, really good against UCF. The defense was elite and the offense showed off all the bells and whistles that we expected it to have. However, it must be remembered that Stanford’s performance came against a team that lost at home to Florida International, traveled all the way across the country to play at 10:30 p.m. Eastern Time and used a true freshman at quarterback after its best offensive player was lost to injury in the first quarter.
USC, though itself untested after beating Arkansas State and Idaho, poses an infinitely more difficult matchup. Heisman candidate Cody Kessler and USC’s bevy of uber-talented receivers will challenge the inexperienced secondary and USC’s mammoth offensive line will wear down Brennan Scarlett, Aziz Shittu and Solomon Thomas, as the three defensive linemen will be asked to play big minutes against the Trojans. On offense, Stanford should be able to move the ball, but its inability to score touchdowns in the red zone — it’s still just 2-for-7 in that department on the season — will keep it lagging behind USC.
Stanford absolutely could win this game; USC is no stranger to losing to Stanford despite being the big favorite, thanks to the upsets of 2007, 2009 and 2012. My pick is more of a belief in the talent of USC than a knock to the ability of Stanford.
Andrew Mather: Stanford 27, USC 21
I’m just gonna to go straight out and say it: I think USC is one of the most overrated, or at minimum most unproven, teams in the country. As good as Cody Kessler’s numbers were last season, they came with help from a 1,500-yard running back, a 1,300-yard receiver, and a schedule that didn’t require face-offs against the elite defenses of Washington and Oregon. Yet if you view the 22-year-old from Bakersfield as anything less than a superhuman, all you have is a team that was lucky to go 9-4 in 2014 that lost two first-round draft picks and a truly spectacular ball-carrier. I’ll believe that amounts to an unbeatable football squad when I see it.
The test for Stanford will again be whether its offensive line can improve on the play of last week. While the Cardinal bigs deserve some leeway for facing up against what was probably the best overall unit for UCF, the results were still, at best, problematic. Stanford utterly failed to establish the run – no back came even close to three yards per attempt if you exclude his longest carry – and the number of obvious penalties against even the most experienced linemen was not encouraging. I think these guys will gain a good deal of motivation for the season at large from the UCF game, but a failure to correct some of these errors in time could prove disastrous if the Cardinal can’t return to their possession-centric style and USC is given more time to wear down the young Stanford defense.
I expect David Shaw will have a few more tricks up his sleeve to get Kevin Hogan and the offense rolling and, if he’s successful, I believe that Lance Anderson’s boys are good enough to keep Stanford on top. If last season’s results are any indication, an above-average defense can hold back USC. Now it’s time to see if Stanford has one.
Winston Shi: USC 28, Stanford 13
Can Stanford take on the Trojans? I’m sunnier about Stanford’s defensive line than I was last week, as some players who weren’t on the depth chart made meaningful contributions to a strong defensive effort. I do think it’s hard to draw any concrete lessons from the season so far besides the multi-year storylines of offensive weakness and defensive graduations: Michael already listed all the reasons why Stanford fans shouldn’t overreact to the Cardinal’s thrashing of UCF last week.
I think Stanford’s going to lose. I don’t think it’s going to be a particularly close game, either. It’s just that kind of year. But I don’t think Stanford’s going to get embarrassed. The Northwestern game wasn’t exactly one of these games where a superior Stanford team choked away a victory; Stanford deserved to lose that game. But Stanford’s biggest problem in the last few seasons has been inconsistency, and specifically the kind that involves playing down to its opponents. When Stanford is focused, even in difficult seasons, it can kick Oregon all over the field or run UCLA out of its own stadium. Stanford will fight hard against USC because USC commands any program’s respect.
Vihan Lakshman: USC 27, Stanford 17
The last five meetings between Stanford and USC have been decided by a single score, and I expect this game to be just as compelling and tight as its predecessors. However, the Cardinal will be hard-pressed to keep up with the Trojans’ deeply talented skill players and mammoth offensive line for four quarters. With Nate Lohn officially ruled out for Saturday, Aziz Shittu, Brennan Scarlett and Solomon Thomas will almost certainly be tasked with going the full 60 minutes. In addition, Stanford’s inexperienced secondary faces the unenviable task of covering a USC receiving corps significantly more dangerous than anything the Cardinal have seen thus far. We also saw Stanford’s offense struggle against a talented Northwestern secondary that took away the deep ball, and Adoree’ Jackson and company are cut from a very similar cloth. The Cardinal keep it close behind another stellar defensive performance, but run out of gas down the stretch as their lack of depth up front finally catches up.
Do-Hyoung Park: Stanford 24, USC 23
Much has been made of the seemingly unstoppable juggernaut that USC is this year, and honestly, for all of the reasons above, it makes sense to pick the Trojans in a blowout win. But this Stanford team brings a lot of experienced leadership to the table on both sides of the ball, and this Stanford-USC matchup always plays a lot closer than anybody expects for whatever intangible reason that always seems to flare up for big matchups like this. I hate to cite “intangibles” and “gut feelings” in predictions like this, but I don’t have a better explanation for why I feel like this game is going to be a Stanford win. Any team can beat any other team on any day (2007 Stanford, anyone?), and I just have a feeling that after two cupcake tests, USC will come out flat against its first real challenge.
I think Stanford is going to play incredibly inspired football, and if USC has any weakness, it’s on the lines (five sacks given up to Arkansas State), which is one of Stanford’s presumptive strong points. If Stanford can handle the tempo, particularly on the defensive line, I think the talent actually matches up well for the Cardinal. The secondary needs to take smart routes, Hogan needs to be mobile to keep the chains moving, Stanford needs to stretch the field laterally and Shaw slyly said in practice that he has more in store for Bryce Love. Conrad Ukropina hits a 50-yarder as time expires to win the game. Stranger things have happened.
I’m also not a superstitious guy, but my friend Olivia has a shower caddy that she put a USC “Beat Stanford” pin on for whatever reason before the 2013 loss. It’s been on there since (through the inexplicable 2014 loss), but it mysteriously broke and fell off in the last few days. Now, I’m not saying that there’s a correlation or anything, but all I’m saying is that it might be Touchdown Jesus sending us a smoke signal or something. It could be a sign. Okay, okay, I’ll stop now.