PREVIEW: Athletic USC vs. physical Stanford in Pac-12 Championship Game
Unlike the championship games in the other four major conferences, No. 10 USC and No. 12 Stanford will not have a berth in the College Football Playoff on the line when they meet in Friday night's Pac-12 title game at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif.
Even if the Trojans beat Stanford by a lopsided margin, it is difficult to come up with a scenario in which USC could climb into the top four of the final CFP rankings.
So the winner will have to be satisfied with a berth in one of the New Year's Six bowls, either the Fiesta, Peach or Cotton -- most likely the Fiesta.
USC already has beaten Stanford this season, a decisive 42-24 victory on Sept. 9 in Los Angeles in which the Trojans outgained Stanford 624-342 and had two players (Ronald Jones II and Stephen Carr) rush for more than 100 yards.
Carr has played little in the second half of the season because of a foot injury, but Jones has 1,346 rushing yards and averaged 168.5 yards over the final four games.
Trojans wide receiver Deontay Burnett, who has 73 receptions for 966 yards and nine touchdowns for the season, had nine catches for 121 yards and two touchdowns against the Cardinal.
"We've got to limit their explosive plays," Stanford coach David Shaw said. "We missed a lot of tackles in the first USC game."
USC (10-2, 8-1 Pac-12) is coming off a bye after playing 12 consecutive games while the Cardinal (9-3, 7-2) will have a short week to prepare following Saturday's 38-20 victory over Notre Dame.
"We were a tired and beat-up football team that needed the week off," Helton said.
The short week will limit the recovery time of Cardinal running back Bryce Love, who is second in the nation in rushing yards per game (168.0, less than a yard behind San Diego State's Rashaad Penny) but has been slowed during the last half of the season by ankle injuries. He rushed for 160 yards, including a 75-yard run, against the Trojans earlier this season.
The star for the Trojans remains quarterback Sam Darnold, rated the No. 3 overall pro prospect by NFLDraftScout.com. He threw nine interceptions in his first six games this season but only three in the last six. Darnold was 21 of 26 for 316 yards, with four touchdowns and two picks in the game against Stanford.
"The quarterback was as good as you can play the position," Shaw said.
However, the major difference between the meeting nearly three months ago and Friday's game is the Cardinal's quarterback -- redshirt freshman K.J. Costello. He did not play against the Trojans in September, taking over the starting job late in the season. He has made just five starts, but he was the starter in wins over then-No. 9 Washington, archrival Cal and then-No. 8 Notre Dame in the final three games.
"He's got fire. He's got passion," Shaw said. "He's got a strong am and he's accurate."
Costello had his best game Saturday, when he threw four touchdown passes with no picks in the 18-point win over the Fighting Irish.
"You're talking about a very hot football team," Helton said of Stanford. "Offensively, when we played them everything ran through Bryce and the offensive line. (But) lately K.J. has really done a good job. If you have a run game with a play-action game off it, it's difficult to defend."
Notre Dame pummeled USC 49-14 in South Bend, Ind., on Oct. 21, giving Irish coach Brian Kelly a perspective on the USC-Stanford meeting on Friday.
"Both of them are different styles," Kelly said after the loss to Stanford. "The physicality of Stanford versus the athleticism of USC.
"Both of them are fine football teams. I think it will be a great match. But it's a match of different styles offensively. I would venture to guess it will be the team that takes care of the football. The team that takes care of the football is probably going to win that game."
Kelly may be right, but in the first meeting, USC turned the ball over twice while the Cardinal did not commit a turnover.
One thing is certain: These teams know each other well. Shaw says that creates a danger of over-analysis.
"You have to avoid the Alice in Wonderland rabbit hole," he said.
Stanford has been the dominant team in the Pac-12 since the conference's expansion to 12 teams in 2011. The Cardinal has won the conference title game three times in the six years it has been contested. USC has yet to win a championship in that span, its only berth in the title game coming in 2015, when the Trojans lost to Stanford 41-22.
The Pac-12 North is 6-0 in Pac-12 championship games.