Pac-12 Football: Matt Barkley and 5 Players to Watch in Stanford-USC Showdown
Ranked sixth in the most recent BCS standings, the Stanford Cardinal are still on the outside of the title picture looking in.
Despite rolling up the score on then-No. 25 Washington 65-21 last week at the Farm, Stanford seemingly cannot get any respect.
The Cardinal are undefeated with a Heisman front runner in Andrew Luck guiding one of the best offenses in the nation, and yet they still failed to crack the top five.
This weekend, they face a USC team in Los Angeles that is still marred by NCAA sanctions. The 6-1 Trojans may be one of the better teams in the Pac-12 South, but you won't see them in any postseason play. Matt Barkley's success this year has been even quieter than Luck's because of SC's postseason ban.
USC is in need of a marquee win against top-tier opposition to help recruiting efforts, and Stanford fits that bill nicely. With ESPN College GameDay heading to the Coliseum, the eyes of a nation will be watching two of the Pac-12's premier sides go at it.
Everyone knows about Luck, but here are five other players to watch as well.
Robert Woods, WR, USC
One of the best receivers in the country, Robert Woods has been and will be Matt Barkley's favorite target come game time. Woods is second in the nation with just over 10 receptions per game and has shown no signs of slowing down.
Still only a sophomore, Woods is currently on pace to break USC's single-season reception and receiving yardage records. After seven games, Woods has caught 72 balls for 902 yards and eight touchdowns.
At 6'1'', the young Woods should provide the Stanford secondary with matchup problems. While he is almost certainly going to be double-teamed, Woods's use even as a decoy should provide Barkley with other open targets.
If Woods has a big day downfield, USC will be well positioned for an upset.
Stepfan Taylor, RB, Stanford
Key to Andrew Luck's dominance through the air has been the constant threat of Stanford running the ball effectively. If defenses cannot leave the box unattended to cover down field, Luck can more easily find open receivers.
It's a credit to how balanced Stanford is offensively that Stepfan Taylor is one of the most dangerous rushers in the conference, and yet he only touches the ball about 16 times per game.
Taylor is third in the Pac-12, averaging 99.6 rushing yards per game. He has scored when needed as well, making six house calls this season so far.
Containing Taylor will be critical for USC if they have any hope of slowing down the vaunted Stanford offense. If Luck and Taylor both have big days, it will be a long contest for SC.
Dion Bailey, LB, USC
While at times the defense has looked inexperienced, USC is slowly but surely filling that knowledge gap with the continued development of young players like redshirt freshman Dion Bailey.
Bailey has been crucial to USC's ability to stop the run in recent games. Ranked fourth in the Pac-12 with 54 tackles, two picks and a pair of sacks, Bailey has been everywhere inside Monte Kiffin's defense.
At 6'0'' and 200 pounds, the Lakewood, CA native has troubled offensive lines all season long. Just 19 years old, Bailey has a tremendous future ahead of him, should his production stay consistent.
If the Trojans have any hope of hampering the Cardinal offensively, it will be because of Bailey and Co. jumping gaps and pressuring Luck into bad decisions.
USC's young defense was able to handle the big game atmosphere at South Bend last week, so don't expect nerves to be a huge factor in their performance.
Coby Fleener, TE, Stanford
One of the most striking things about Stanford's aerial attack is how relatively little they use their wide receivers. Andrew Luck is fifth in the conference with 269.7 passing yards per game, yet no Cardinal WR cracks the top 10 in any major receiving category.
Instead of receivers, Luck loves to use his athletic tight ends to make plays over shorter linebackers. One such athlete is Coby Fleener, a redshirt senior who leads his team in touchdown receptions with seven. Fleener has the legs to go up and get jump balls and the frame to block effectively when asked to.
Stanford's conference-best 53.4 percent conversion rate on third down is thanks in large part to the sure-handed targets provided by Fleener and the rest of the Cardinal tight end core. They've excelled in the red zone as well, catching 13 of Stanford's 21 receiving touchdowns.
As a five-year veteran, look for Fleener to translate that experience gap between himself and the opposing USC linebackers into success over the middle.
Matt Barkley, QB, USC
While most of the quarterback spotlight will be fixed on Andrew Luck come kickoff, don't forget about Matt Barkley.
The Trojans' man under center has completed 68.2 percent of his passes for just over 2,000 yards and 19 touchdowns, while only throwing four picks.
While Luck is virtually unmatched in Pac-12 passing efficiency, Barkley has been close behind. As Marc Tyler and the running game stopped and started so many times this season, Barkley's arm has been a constant for Lane Kiffin's offense.
In his third year as a starter, Barkley's play has been overshadowed by bowl bans and scholarship cuts, depriving the nation of a chance to admire the player Pete Carroll was once so infatuated with. If he had played at USC during a different time, he could have had Heisman buzz.
Instead, Barkley and USC are left with posing regular-season matchups as title games. While Saturday's showdown in Los Angeles might be the title game the Pac-12 deserves, it is not the one they'll get.
If Barkley can get in rhythm early, he could very well go toe-to-toe with Luck. From the neutral perspective, this is one subplot I can't wait to witness unfold.
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