SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Stanford used its first meeting against Southern California back in September as a springboard to a successful season that carried the Cardinal to a Pac-12 North title and top 10 ranking.
A win in the rematch in the Pac-12 title game tonight will send No. 7 Stanford (10-2, No. 7 CFP) to an ever loftier spot — either a third Rose Bowl bid in four years or a possible berth in the College Football Playoff.
Few would have predicted that kind of success for the Cardinal back when they went into Los Angeles as an unranked team and beat then-No. 6 USC 41-31.
"That was really our first breakout of kind of getting things clicking on offense and we feel like we definitely improved tremendously and we're going to carry that confidence into (today's game)," quarterback Kevin Hogan said. "It definitely helps knowing that we have beaten a team before, but it's not going to cause us to relax at all."
That was the second of 11 straight games in which Stanford scored at least 30 points as Hogan and Heisman Trophy contender Christian McCaffrey have put the Cardinal in position for a possible playoff berth if either Clemson or Alabama is upset today in their conference title games.
The 24th-ranked Trojans (8-4, No. 20 CFP) thought they would be in that conversation before the loss to Stanford started a stretch of three losses in four games that contributed to the firing of coach Steve Sarkisian.
Clay Helton turned things around after taking over on an interim basis, leading USC to five wins in six games to make the conference title game and give him the full-time gig.
"We've come together as a team very well these last few weeks," USC quarterback Cody Kessler said. "We've had to really stick together to grind out this Pac-12 South championship, and I think the guys are better for it. I think it's made me a better player and a better leader, and I know a lot of the guys on this team have stepped up and become better players."
Here are some other things to watch in the Pac-12 championship game:
Despite having two losses, the Cardinal are still in the hunt for the four-team playoff. They can only get in, however, if either No. 1 Clemson loses to No. 8 North Carolina or No. 2 Alabama falls to No. 18 Florida. None of that will matter if Stanford doesn't win.
"Talkers talk and players play," coach David Shaw said. "I'm not on the committee, none of my players are on the committee. We have a football game to play and it's up to us to play our best game and find a way to win it."
In the trenches
In a conference filled with spread offenses, USC and Stanford both rely heavily on the power-running game. Shaw called these squads the only true power teams in the conference and the battle in the trenches will go a long way toward determining the winner.
"It is definitely a big man's game, going to come down to whoever can be more disciplined for all four quarters," USC defensive lineman Antwaun Woods said.
The Cardinal use a ball-control offense that is keyed by their success on third down. Stanford leads the Pac-12 and ranks fifth in the nation with a 50.9 percent conversion rate. The Cardinal converted 8 of 12 third downs in the first meeting with USC. But the Trojans have been stingy, allowing a Pac-12 best 34.4 percent conversion rate for the season.
The Cardinal have allowed six TDs of at least 40 yards the past three games as they have been susceptible to the breakaway speed of Oregon and Notre Dame. While Stanford should get cornerback Alijah Holder back from injury this week, Ronnie Harris is questionable with a sprained right ankle. That absence could be important against USC's big-play receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster and Adoree' Jackson.
"We have to limit the explosive plays," Shaw said. "I know USC is watching our last couple of games and getting excited."
The Cardinal won their last two games on the strength of their red zone play. They allowed Notre Dame and California to score touchdowns just twice on nine trips inside the 20, while Stanford got touchdowns on all seven trips. That proved to be the difference in those two wins.