To gauge what is arguably the most important date on USC's 2014 schedule, one must rewind to September 2012.
The Trojans were ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press Top 25 Poll to open the year, the reward for a surprising 10-win campaign the season before and result of substantial buzz from the returning players.
But in Week 3 of that season, USC ran into the buzz saw that was the Stanford defense in a 21-14 defeat—the first of six in a season that turned Lane Kiffin from up-and-coming coach to occupier of college football's hottest seat in short order.
The 2014 Trojans will not be voted No. 1 in any preseason poll—they may not even be the most highly ranked team in their own city. Yet the arrival of new head coach Steve Sarkisian, a conference-leading recruiting class and several key players returning to the fold from a 10-win season make for a buzzworthy campaign.
A Week 2 trip to Stanford could fuel the excitement but could also expose weaknesses like it did two years ago.
The good news for USC is that, unlike in 2012, the Stanford series is no longer an albatross the Trojans are obligated to shed.
Fast forward from September 2012 to November 16, 2013. With Kiffin out and Ed Orgeron leading the Trojans as interim head coach, the highest point of a remarkable in-season turnaround came when Stanford visited the Coliseum and left with a 20-17 loss.
Losses in five of six matchups from 2007 through 2012 (including four straight between 2009 and 2012) were indicative of the power shift in the Pac-12.
As kicker Andre Heidari's 47-yard field goal attempt sailed through the uprights with just 19 seconds remaining, the Trojans struck a measure of vindication for the previous year's failures.
One USC win did not turn the tide back its way—Stanford went on to win its second consecutive Pac-12 championship despite the loss—but the victory did send a spark through the program and fanbase.
"This is definitely the most electrifying game I've played in at the Coliseum in my career," safety Dion Bailey said after the win, per USA Today.
A second win over the reigning Pac-12 champion would crank up that electricity another few notches, particularly for Sarkisian. To do so on The Farm, where USC has not won since its last conference championship-winning season in 2008, would be huge for both the new coaching staff and the program's pursuit of returning to the top of the conference.
But beating the Cardinal a second straight season is a tall task.
Bailey is gone, one of five USC early entries into May's NFL draft. Sarkisian inherited a roster in a state of some flux and still thinned by NCAA-imposed scholarship limitations.
While quarterback Cody Kessler, wide receiver Nelson Agholor and running backs Tre Madden and Buck Allen return to anchor the offense with Hayes Pullard, Leonard Williams and Su'a Cravens keying the defense, USC will have new contributors playing integral roles in the early-season visit to Stanford.
USC could have a number of first-year players in prominent roles, with Stanford being their first collegiate road trip. Five-star prospects John "JuJu" Smith and Adoree' Jackson are expected to be immediate contributors, and early enrolled offensive lineman Toa Lobendahn is practicing with the first string, as Scout.com's Lindsey Thiry notes.
Seeing Stanford early in the slate could be a positive for the youngsters. Though they'll still be adapting to the speed of the college game, and the Cardinal will be undergoing their own changes. Stanford loses half of its starting defense, and coordinator Derek Mason is gone to Vanderbilt.
The budding USC-Stanford rivalry also gets additional fuel from the preexisting Sarkisian-Shaw rivalry. Sarkisian's Huskies were responsible for a Cardinal loss in 2012 that helped keep them out of the BCS Championship picture.
Last year's 31-28 Stanford win turned testy when, in a postgame radio interview, Sarkisian alluded to the possibility of Stanford players feigning injury to slow the Huskies' hurry-up offense.
Shaw fired back the following week, and with that, an intense coaching rivalry was born. That their former colleagues at each school already have one of the more contentious relationships in football—Jim Harbaugh at Stanford for Shaw and Pete Carroll at USC for Sarkisian—the tension is all the more intriguing.
Certainly this is a fascinating introduction into Pac-12 play for the Sarkisian era, and a true test for the Trojans' 2014 ambitions.
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