Sunday September 18th, 2016

For most of USC’s storied history, a road matchup with Stanford would have inspired little more than a brief postgame glance at the box score to confirm a Trojans rout. A Saturday night bout between the two programs in 2016 prompted a radically different set of expectations. Stanford, the reigning Pac-12 champion, was a heavy favorite against a USC team led by a first-year coach. The Cardinal’s win amounted to a resounding affirmation of the present state of affairs in the Pac-12. Stanford is very good. USC is, um, trying to be. 

Christian McCaffrey sprung free for a long receiving touchdown in the first quarter and ran for another score in the second, and top wideout Michael Rector reeled in a deep pass for a score in the third to open up a 17-point lead as Stanford cruised to a 27–10 victory

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Here are three thoughts on what transpired in Palo Alto: 

1. This is obvious, but it must be said

McCaffrey came in second in the Heisman Trophy voting last season despite breaking Barry Sanders’s record for all-purpose yardage, finishing as the only player in the FBS with team-high marks in receiving and rushing yardage and leading Stanford to the Rose Bowl. There were other achievements that made McCaffrey’s season one of the best any running back in any conference has submitted in recent memory, but in the end, it wasn’t enough: McCaffrey fell short when it came to college football’s highest honor. This is not to suggest the player who did win it, Alabama’s Derrick Henry, did not deserve it, but to draw attention to the fact that mind-numbingly consistent production and a bevy of highlights will not, in themselves, win the award that continues to inhabit such a lofty perch in the national discussion. McCaffrey was awesome, but apparently not enough voters thought so.

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It was not the first time that fate befell a Cardinal; Toby Gerhart and Andrew Luck (twice) also checked in as Heisman No. 2s. It could happen to McCaffrey again if he doesn’t receive the attention he deserves, and his region—as well as the kickoff time burden that presents—won’t help him toward that end. Which is why it’s important, while plainly obvious, to note when McCaffrey delivers a performance that reinforces his status as one of the nation’s most outstanding players. He did that on Saturday against USC.

McCaffrey logged 165 rushing yards on 5.5 YPC and hauled in 73 receiving yards, but the image that should stick with voters was this 56-yard dash in the first quarter. Fault the USC defense for shoddy coverage, but expect plenty of more frames like that—McCaffrey galloping at full speed, a large swath of open space in his path, defenders scrambling just to get within diving distance of him—before the Heisman ceremony in early December. McCaffrey proved he was great in 2015; he’s doing it again this season.

2. USC’s schedule is unforgiving

Two weeks after being routed by the best team in the country on a neutral field, USC faced the best team in the Pac-12 on the road. It was a brutal opening to a season in which the Trojans, crippled for years by scholarship reductions and coaching instability, were expected to reestablish themselves as a legitimate force, if not the force, in a conference with an unclear pecking order. USC’s record is more a reflection of the difficulty of its schedule than its quality of play; even a vintage Trojans squad would have been swimming in the deep end against the Alabama destruction machine and a Cardinal outfit fronted by a defensive-gameplan-warping superstar. The problem for coach Clay Helton and Co. is that things don’t really get that much easier from here. Next week USC travels to Rice-Eccles Stadium to face a tough Utah squad on short rest. Two weeks later, it hosts an improved Colorado team that put a scare into Big Ten heavyweight Michigan on Saturday. In early November, there’s a home meeting with Oregon. And that’s all before the rigorous closing stretch, a three-week lineup of at Washington, at UCLA and Notre Dame.

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Looking ahead to November at this point of the season is counterproductive; Trojans supporters, coming to grips with a 1–2 mark in the middle of September, will take no solace in what lies in store for their favorite program. Yet the challenge should not obscure the opportunity USC has to notch a very realistic goal. No team has surfaced as an obvious kingpin in the Pac-12 South. Even after two defeats in its first three games, that mantle is very much on the table for USC. It’s up to Helton to get his team past a demoralizing start, with the knowledge that the Trojans really could meet Stanford again in the conference title game. There are things to work out—the quarterback situation, penalties, a lack of touches for JuJu Smith—but USC still has a lot to play for.  

3. Don’t bury the Pac-12 yet

We’re only in year three of the College Football Playoff, but one of the more predictable themes of the preseason CFP chatter is exclusion—namely, which Power Five league will get left on the outside looking in? In 2016, the Pac-12 earned that distinction from a large portion of the national college football punditry. A combination of a brutal scheduling arrangement and a dearth of so-called elite squads seemingly placed the West Coast-based league in a vulnerable position. A series of high-profile non-conference flops from Oklahoma, TCU and Oklahoma State may have shifted the onus to the Big 12, but it remains true that the Pac-12 faces a difficult path to placing a team in the final four, particularly in light of AAC darling Houston’s wins over the Sooners and Cincinnati. At the risk of writing off Washington, now 3–0 after destroying Portland State on Saturday, Stanford seems like the league’s best candidate. And through two games, the Cardinal definitely have the look of a CFP-caliber squad.

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There’s McCaffrey, a supernova with no rival in his combination of versatility and explosiveness; a serviceable quarterback to complement him in veteran Ryan Burns; and a stout defense with playmakers on all three levels. The Cardinal have played only two games, but watching them methodically pound the Trojans, it was hard not to think that they’ll be in the mix come selection Sunday. Is it too soon to start thinking about the playoff? Probably. But given the carnage incurred at the upper reaches of other leagues to date—including, but not limited to, the Big 12 (here’s to you, LSU and Florida State)—Stanford’s comfortable submission of two Power Five opponents, one a popular preseason pick to win the Pac-12 South, cannot be ignored. The Cardinal will be tested from now until Thanksgiving, including bouts against the Huskies, Washington State, Notre Dame and Oregon. But this is encouraging stuff. Stanford’s rolling.

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