If you want to win the Pac-12, you've got to go through USC. That's the way it is, that's the way it always will be.
At least that's the case for Stanford, which had a four-game win streak against their Southern California counterparts snapped last fall. While the Cardinal still won the conference, the Trojans finally extracted their pound of flesh (and rushed the field afterward) after the quartet of painful losses.
The USC Trojans of 2014, now entering the Steve Sarkisian era, come to the Farm on September 6th for one of the critical games in the Pac-12 season. Thankfully we don't have to wait long.
2013 Record: 10-4, 6-3 Pac-12. Defeated Fresno State in the Las Vegas Bowl, 45-20.
2014 Expectations: The Trojans appear to be a consensus pick to finish slightly behind UCLA in the Pac-12 South. However, they return a lot of talent from last year's 10-win team, including starting quarterback Cody Kessler, crafty wideout Nelson Agholor, defensive tackle Leonard Williams, linebacker Hayes Pullard, and running back Tre Madden. In addition, USC has a very solid crew of defensive backs, the position group that gave Kevin Hogan fits a year ago in the Coliseum.
New head coach Steve Sarkisian returns to the spot where his coaching career took off, and the transition appears to have gone relatively smoothly. We'll have a better idea of what exactly Sarkisian will bring to the offense after game number one, but he installed a hurry-up no-huddle style that fit perfectly with Washington's personnel last year, and it may be a superb scheme for this SC offense. If you're looking for a sleeper capable of upsetting the apple cart and winning the conference, USC might be a popular pick. However, the Trojans still contain some unknowns at this point, given all the ups and downs they've endured over the past year and change.
Best player: Leonard Williams. The 6-foot-5, 300-pound defensive tackle was on a variety of 2nd & 3rd All-America teams last year due to his 74 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss and six sacks.
Based on what I saw on tape, he's a better player against the run than the pass, and he's just a lot of man to handle. He'll be a big test for Stanford's rebuilt offensive line. I imagine Mike Bloomgren will have to gameplan around him a bit.
However, he didn't play all that well against Stanford last season, notching only two solo tackles and hitting Kevin Hogan late to give away 15 yards. He was handled pretty well by just about every Stanford lineman last year - I don't think he beat anyone right across their face at any point - but Williams also insists that he played last year with a shoulder injury and is now fully healthy.
He's number 94 in your program:
Predictions vs Stanford: This game is the litmus test for two teams who seem universally picked to finish second in their respective divisions, and I'm having a hard time seeing it any way other than a one-possession game. Given the recent history between these two teams and the questions both squads face coming into the season, I wouldn't be surprised to see either team win this game. However, if Cody Kessler plays like he did against the Cardinal like he did last year - he looked like Andrew Luck in the first half - the Cardinal might have a tough time keeping up with the Trojans' pass game. On offense, Stanford will have to hope the offensive line gels quickly and can control the ground game.
100 words of inobjective, visceral, biased hate: Grimy pimp Steve Sarkisian and the perennially overrated Trojans should be compelling this season, but not because USC will be the biggest joke on the west coast again. (RIP Lane Kiffin era. I'll miss you.) They might be the sneaky favorite to win the Pac-12 South, but all that will be obscured by Sarkisian's blubbering, tear-stained press conferences after a close loss or two. I hope the Stanford-USC game this fall has one thing only: David Shaw going for two to cap off a 35-point victory while Sarkisian and the obnoxious USC faithful silently fume away the final seconds, boiling in their own self-hatred.