Stanford vs. USC: Breaking Down Key Storylines in Pac-12 Clash

Scott PolacekFeatured ColumnistNovember 16, 2013

PALO ALTO, CA - NOVEMBER 07:  Stanford Cardinal heac coach David Shaw talks to his quarterback Kevin Hogan #8 during their game against the Oregon Ducks at Stanford Stadium on November 7, 2013 in Palo Alto, California.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

This week’s Saturday Night Football showdown will pit Pac-12 rivals USC and Stanford against each other in a game that will shift the course of the conference race.

Both programs are trending upward, with Stanford riding high after its upset over Oregon and USC in the midst of a three-game winning streak. Something will have to give in this prime-time clash. 

Let’s dig into the critical storylines.


Stanford’s Positioning

As important and entertaining as conference races are in the season’s final month, the BCS is the overarching storyline hovering over any game featuring a Top 10 team. Stanford currently checks in at No. 4 in the BCS, largely due to its five victories over ranked teams.

The Cardinal’s shocking loss to 4-5 Utah, which is even more bewildering after their dismantling of Oregon’s high-powered offense, is holding them back from national title position, but an upset or two down the stretch could change that. David Shaw and company will be looking for an impressive road win against USC to maintain their spot in the pecking order. 

Stanford may not control its own destiny in the BCS race, but it does in the Pac-12 North standings. However, one upset loss to the Trojans would put the Ducks back on top, while the Cardinal would see all the potential accolades they lined up for themselves disappear in the blink of an eye.


Ed Orgeron’s Resurgence

Ed Orgeron struggled mightily in three seasons at the helm for Mississippi (10-25 record), but he has breathed life into a USC program that was left for dead when Lane Kiffin was fired.

CORVALLIS, OR - NOVEMBER 01: Head coach Ed Orgeron of the USC Trojans celebrates after his team beat the Oregon State Beavers at Reser Stadium on November 1, 2013 in Corvallis, Oregon. USC won the game 31-14. (Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)
Steve Dykes/Getty Images

The Trojans are still very much alive in the Pac-12 South race after winning four of five since Orgeron took over. However, they absolutely need a victory over Stanford if they hope to sneak their way into the conference title game. 

Nobody legitimately considered Orgeron as a long-term answer at USC when he was given interim control, but if he somehow took this injury-ravaged and scholarship-saddled Trojans team that was something of a national punchline following Kiffin’s notorious firing to the Pac-12 title game, he would have to at least be in the discussion.


Tyler Gaffney vs. USC defense

The first thing that Stanford running back Tyler Gaffney has to do Saturday is ensure that his legs didn’t fall off last week after carrying the ball a team-record 45 times in the win over Oregon.

Assuming his legs are still in place, the 1,000-yard rusher will have his work cut out for him against USC’s defense. It is Stanford’s defense that receives recognition as one of the best in the nation—and how could it not after that performance against the high-octane Ducks?—but on a points given up per game basis, the Trojans are nearly equal (19.6 to Stanford's 19.4).

We aren’t exactly comparing apples to oranges here because Stanford has played a more difficult schedule thus far, but USC’s defense is nothing to sneeze at. It ranks in the top 20 nationally in points allowed and will be focusing on the Cardinal’s leading rusher. Gaffney versus the Trojans' defense could ultimately determine the outcome.