Unless you were in The Godfather: Part II, you probably weren't a part of a great sequel. On Saturday night, Stanford will face off against USC for a 2nd time this season at Levi's Stadium for the Pac-12 Championship. Now most sequels can't back up the first but you can always compare and contrast what has happened since.
Back in mid-September, Stanford was preparing to take on USC, which was ranked 6th at the time, down at the Coliseum. Stanford was coming into the game 1-1 with the win against a lowly UCF who ended up going 0-12 this season. The loss was a 6-point affair against a "decent" Northwestern team back in Evanston who ended up 10-2 just like Stanford. USC was coming off of two blowout victories against two junior college teams and the media loved it. Stanford was supposed to get mauled by the GREAT USC but instead put up 41 points and upset the Trojans. That game happened less than three months ago and yet a whole lot has changed for both programs.
Stanford would go on to put up a fireworks stand in Palo Alto as they scored 30 or more in every game but the Northwestern loss, 40 or more 5 times, and hit the 50 burger twice in consecutive weeks. The abysmal offense that showed up at Northwestern clearly stayed there as Stanford came home with a future runner-up in the Heisman voting in Christian McCaffrey; Trust me, in the alternate 2015, McCaffrey is the only one invited to New York but in the real 2015, we live in an SEC world. Kevin Hogan also came back from the Northwestern game with a chip on his shoulder but many folks at Stanford would say he came home with the entire Tostitos factory on his shoulders. Hogan would respond the way a 5th year senior should respond and that is with accuracy, completions, touchdowns, and most importantly WINS.
Stanford would go on to finish on top of the conference with Oregon for most points per game, McCaffrey would go on to lead the conference in rushing yards per game and all-purpose yards and Hogan would go on to lead the Pac-12 in many categories but the one that sticks out most is 34 wins going into a 3rd conference championship game. Now neither McCaffrey nor Hogan could have been as successful if it weren't for two all-conference lineman in Kyle Murphy and Joshua Garnett. Garnett has shown why he deserves to be picked in the first round of the 2016 NFL draft and why he is up for many awards at the end of the season; I used my DeLorean to see if he won but the SEC police cited me so I guess we'll have to wait and see.
Stanford's defensive mindset of bend but don't break has worked even if it is very frustrating to watch. The Stanford defense has only given up 30 points 4 times in a score-a-minute conference. The special teams have been special so far and my award for most improved player is Conrad Ukropina. If you watched the Spring Game, just nod your head at how far Ukropina has come. He had the go-ahead kick against Washington State and also had the game-winner against Notre Dame last Saturday. That kick preserved a small sliver of hope that Stanford could achieve more than a Rose Bowl berth with a victory on Saturday.
Now we briefly look at USC and what has changed since that fateful day against Stanford. USC had Steve Sarkisian and clearly he had bigger issues to deal with. After a 17-12 loss at home to Washington, Sark was fired and replaced by Clay Helton. Now USC would only go 5-2 the rest of the way but one of those losses was to Notre Dame, which is a nonconference loss. USC was then fortunate enough that Utah and UCLA crumbled under pressure and was able to redeem themselves with a chance to go to the Rose Bowl. Cody Kessler has played better, the run game has improved, and Adoree' Jackson has turned into the phenomenal player most people thought he was going to be. USC has a chance to use that Notre Dame loss the same way Stanford did back in 2012 as the starting point for their Rose Bowl run.
Before we get into predictions, let's look at what I said before the September meeting about coaching.
"This game starts with the two head coaches. Although I am not a big fan of how David Shaw can coach a game, he needs to coach Saturday like his official record states (43-13 with 2 conference championships) and treat Steve Sarkisian like his official record shows (45-33 with ZERO double digit win seasons). David Shaw needs to look across that field on Saturday like Jim Harbaugh used to look at Pete Carroll; ZERO FEAR. It's okay to get pumped up for a big game David; this is a BIG GAME and a very important one for you as a head coach."
This statement hasn't changed. If you plug-in the updated record of David Shaw and new coach Clay Helton, you have a 52-14 coach with 2 conference championships and playing for a third on Saturday vs. a coach that is 6-2 (counting his prior interim stint) with his biggest victory coming against UCLA last Saturday. David Shaw needs to look over at that sideline and see that he is coaching against someone who was just named the full-time coach. Helton is not on David Shaw's level and he needs to coach that way. Meanwhile, Kevin Hogan needs to look over at Cody Kessler and tell him who has been the better quarterback in their college careers. Christian McCaffrey needs to look at Adoree' Jackson how a great player looks at a very good one.
Stanford is favored by 4 or 3.5 depending on where you look but in the last four meetings, the favorite has lost outright. The last 6 games have been decided by 33 points. That's less than a touchdown per game so to say that this game will come down to the wire again is almost a sure bet. USC will not overlook Stanford and Stanford will not overlook USC. This is the ONLY game that matters for Stanford and USC. It might go down as the most important game between these schools. USC has better athletes and always will but that hasn't brought Stanford's success to a halt. Stanford recruited big-time kids for big games just like this and it's the INTELLIGENCE of the Stanford athletes that will overcome the USC speed and strength and Stanford will win the penalty battle, the turnover battle, and ultimately the conference championship battle. If this were Godfather: part II, Stanford would be Michael while USC ends up like Fredo; sleeping with the fishes in a minor bowl game.