The stakes couldn't be higher for Stanford against USC this Saturday

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

A win for either team shifts the balance of power in the Pac-12 - but this game may define Stanford's season

In the Pac-10 - and now in the Pac-12 - USC has always stood in the way, like the Colossus of Rhodes.

Even at their worst, they're still a force to be respected and feared. And that's especially true for the Stanford Cardinal this weekend - the team that is looking to become the new Colossus of the conference.

With College Gameday in Los Angeles, all eyes are tuned to see if Stanford can keep it up after stomping Oregon a week ago and further secure their spot as the preeminent force in the Pac-12. Naturally, though, it won't be easy. Five straight wins over USC will not come at a discounted price.

The Trojans have turned from one of the bigger gags in college football into a team that is earning top 25 votes again. On top of that, their season comes down to handling the Cardinal at home - a team they've lost to four years in a row.

It sets the stakes for the most important game of the year for both teams. If Stanford wins, its football staff might want to get a jump on pruning some Roses. If USC wins, it finally gets that Stanford monkey off its back, regains widespread respectability, and gives themselves a chance at the Rose Bowl.

So what's been the key for the Trojans' turnaround since parting ways with Lane Kiffin? Obviously a motivational speech from Ray Lewis. (I don't know what it says about this world that Ed Orgeron is copying Johnny Dawkins' motivational techniques.)

On a more serious note, a team that was aspiring to be a chicken with its head cut off has now won four of its last five games based on a stout defense and big plays on O. In the last three weeks, USC has five touchdowns of 40 or more yards, and they've forced seven turnovers. Overall, the Trojans are 19th in college football in scoring defense, giving up only 19.6 points per game.

Sure, they haven't done it against a collection of world-beaters (their best win is probably over Oregon State) but they're one of the few teams in the Pac-12 capable of competing pound-for-pound against Stanford along the line of scrimmage, and they're starting to take advantage of it. If USC wants to win the game, they'll have to lean on their run game and use their excellent front seven to stifle the Cardinal's runners and force Kevin Hogan to throw on the run - things that they're entirely capable of.

On the other hand, the 2013 season pretty much comes down to this game for Stanford. Win, and all you have is a home game against Cal to capture the Pac-12 North. (I know it's Big Game, but I don't think I'm exactly stretching the boundaries to say that Stanford should beat Cal, and handily.)

Stanford's plan to beat USC should look much the same: control the line of scrimmage, and you win the game. After the Oregon game, that looks entirely achievable, but perhaps the best thing that could happen to Stanford is getting 10 days off between the Oregon game and this one - assuring there's little chance of a hangover from last Thursday's win.

Meanwhile, it's worth mentioning that the Cardinal beat #2 USC last year then lost to Washington after a bye week, so there's still a whisper of a lingering question for David Shaw as well: Can he make sure his team keeps its focus after another earth-shaking win? Beat USC and you quell that voice.

And like in 2012, it's a simple path for Stanford after the win over Oregon: keep winning and the Rose Bowl is yours.

One way or another, one team is going to seize the spotlight and some much-needed momentum headed down the stretch - the only question is if it will be the old colossus or the new one.

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