Stanford has won three straight matchups against the powerhouse Trojans. To win four straight against USC for the first time ever, they'll have to do it with QB Josh Nunes behind center. Star passer Andrew Luck, who anchored three seasons of Cardinal's success, is now a member of the Indianapolis Colts.
Plenty of USC fans are predicting a blow-out of the 21st-ranked Stanford squad. While it's certainly a possibility, there are several ways that Stanford can make this a game. Let's take a look at a couple of things the Trojans should gear up for in this gridiron battle of two elite Pac-12 rivals.
Worry No. 1: Will the Offensive Line Open Up Holes for Silas Redd?
The injury to C Khaled Holmes is not a good start when it comes to answering this question in the positive.
Holmes is the spiritual leader of this unit, and he left last week's matchup against Syracuse with a leg injury. Whether or not he plays, USC will need to improve its performance along the line this week. They looked overmatched for long stretches in Week 2, and need to do a strong job of opening holes for Silas Redd and the Trojan runners if they hope to control this game.
That will be key to opening up passing lanes for QB Matt Barkley, one of the biggest stars in college football right now. If they can get the run game going, they'll open up play-action and be able to thrash the Cardinal defense.
Worry No. 2: Can the D Get Off the Field?
As both a fan of and regular correspondent covering the NFL's New England Patriots, I understand the frustration that comes from watching your team consistently fail to get off the field on third down.
This year, the Trojan D has allowed opposing offenses to convert 45 percent of their third-downs (per teamrankings.com). They're ranked a middling 83rd in that category, which isn't a good stat for a second-ranked team.
The Trojans' inability to stop third-down drives in the second half made last week's match-up against Syracuse more of a nail-biter than it had to be. USC will have to step up and make plays on those crucial downs if they hope to win the time-of-possession battle and give their defense a rest.
Thankfully for USC, they'll no longer have to worry about Andrew Luck (he of the 52-percent third-down conversion rate last season). Instead they'll get to take on Nunes and his offense's 28-percent rate on third downs.
It looks like this matchup is one between an easily stoppable force and an eminently move-able object, as they say.
Worry No. 3: Can the Trojans Win a Nail-biter?
Stanford has won back-to-back close match-ups against USC, thanks to Andrew Luck.
Now that Luck has departed to the NFL, USC has a big advantage at the most important position—quarterback.
With Luck out of the picture, can Matt Barkley and the Trojans make the plays necessary to win a tight game against Stanford?
I think this game will come down to the fourth quarter, but I think this time, the Trojans have the better playmakers on both sides of the ball (including a vicious secondary that already has four interceptions) and they'll be able to take this game.
Still, it bears watching, given the recent history between these two teams.
Prediction: USC 34, Stanford 27