The next installment in the evolving Stanford-USC rivalry may well set the course for both programs and the Pac-12 for years to come.
Cardinal head coach David Shaw makes it no secret that the Stanford football program of today—the Rose Bowl-winning, BCS championship-contending program—was born in the Coliseum.
"The first thing that happened was that 2007 game against USC. I call that the beginning of the program," Shaw said in July. "[In] that one game, this lowly Stanford team, coming off a one-win season, [was] seen by everyone in the country."
What the nation saw was a 41-point underdog, coming off one of the worst seasons in program history and with a first-year leader, Jim Harbaugh, who had no prior Football Bowl Subdivision head coaching experience, shock the nation's premier program, 24-23.
To an extent, the tables are turned. Stanford is in pursuit of its fourth straight BCS bowl bid and second consecutive Pac-12 championship.
USC's situation entering Saturday's nationally televised game against No. 4 Stanford isn't entirely reminiscent of where the Cardinal were on that October night six years ago.
No, at 7-3 and just outside the Top 25, USC is hardly the David to this Stanford’s Goliath. Las Vegas oddsmakers have the Cardinal as three-point favorites, via Vegas Insider, and no one would be all that surprised if the Trojans scored the win—not with the way they've played since interim head coach Ed Orgeron replaced fired Lane Kiffin.
Shaw said Tuesday on the Pac-12 coaches call he recognizes the challenge the red-hot Trojans represent.
"In the seven years I've been here now...[four] of [the games against USC] have gone down to the wire," he said. Each of the last three games were decided by single digits, including an overtime classic in Los Angeles two years ago and Stanford's upset of a top-ranked USC team last year.
Those nail-biters, including the one-point decision in 2007, have made this one of the conference's most exciting rivalries. It had some additional kindling from the acrimonious relationship Harbaugh and former USC head coach Pete Carroll shared prior to the two ever facing off, after Harbaugh floated a rumor that Carroll was leaving USC in a year.
Carroll actually remained at USC three more seasons, which set the scene for this unforgettable moment:
Shaw and Orgeron, though branches stemming directly from the Harbaugh and Carroll coaching trees, certainly don't seem to harbor the same feelings. In fact, each had high praise for the other's work.
"I don't think anyone in the conference is surprised by how well they're playing," Shaw said. "They've got good schemes on both sides of the ball, they've got really good coaches and they have talent."
"Very powerful football team. Well-coached," Orgeron said of the Cardinal Tuesday. "Physical attitude...This is a very good football team."
The mutual admiration may come, at least in part, from how similarly the teams play.
The Trojans are in transition, and athletic director Pat Haden's closely guarded coaching search will dictate the program's direction for the coming years.
No matter Haden's decision, a win Saturday doesn't just put this USC team back in the conversation for a national ranking or in the thick of the Pac-12 South divisional race. It also sets the cornerstone for rebuilding the program into a national powerhouse.
Coincidentally, the 2007 loss created a crack in the Trojans' armor. It wasn't the end of the dynasty. USC went on to win that season's conference championship, and the next year's, as well. Both campaigns concluded with the Trojans decimating an overmatched opponent from the Big Ten in the Rose Bowl.
Other factors contributed to USC's gradual slide, including harsh NCAA sanctions. But something changed that night as Carroll, architect of a program that won seven consecutive conference championships and two national titles, alluded to in a Sports Illustrated interview that night:
Looking at the color red here on this table it just looks different to me today. It feels different today. Walking off the field, it felt different. In my mind I really don't know how to accept that. There's no place to put it. Whether it was the Texas game or any of these other games that we've had where they get you, I don't know where to put it. It doesn't fit the way I speak, the way I talk, the way I teach, there's no place for it. I'll find a way to leave it for awhile but I'll wear this forever.
Indeed, Carroll could wear it—quite literally, as Stanford commemorated the occasion on T-shirts.
Don't expect USC to print any shirts if it knocks the fourth-ranked Cardinal from their perch. But don't be surprised if an upset Saturday proves to be a pivotal moment in the restoration of the program.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
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