Pac-12's new normal: USC looking to upset No. 7 Stanford
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) Stanford as a comfortable favorite against Southern California doesn't even seem weird anymore. These days it is more notable when the Trojans beat the Cardinal than the other way around.
No school has won more Pac-12 football championships than USC (38, more than double second place), but Stanford has won three of the last four titles. Right now the Cardinal are the conference's standard-bearer and the Trojans are trying to chase them down.
USC (1-1) enters Saturday's game on the Farm as a nine-point underdog to the seventh-ranked Cardinal (1-0), looking for an upset to lift the program out of a malaise and bring some positive feelings to a team that has dealt with a ton of negativity.
Stanford has stepped on USC during its climb to the top of the Pac-12, using victories against the Trojans to lay the foundation for one of the best programs in the country. It started in 2007 with a startling upset of the Trojans as a 39-point underdog under Jim Harbaugh. Stanford then ripped off four straight victories against USC from 2009-12.
''Two talented teams who get after it, with a lot of mutual respect,'' Stanford coach David Shaw said. ''It's an emotional game every time.''
USC seemed to have restored order to the rivalry, which it leads 61-31-3 overall, with victories in 2013 and '14. Then the Cardinal swept the Trojans last season, including a rout in the Pac-12 championship game.
''It's not like they were just pounding us,'' USC safety Chris Hawkins said. ''In the second game, they physically beat us, but in the first game, if you look at the tape, we were giving it to them as much as they could handle.''
True, but let that settle in. USC was able to hang with Stanford. USC is not that far behind Stanford. This is the Pac-12's new normal.
Of course, the balance of power in college football can shift from week to week and a trend can become a blip quickly.
USC seems like a program that has been in crisis mode on and off the field since Texas' Vince Young crossed the goal line in the waning seconds of the 2006 Rose Bowl. The Trojans hoped Clay Helton, a longtime assistant promoted after coach Steve Sarkisian was fired last season, would provide a steadying influence this year. But he needs to win to do that and since USC removed the interim tag from Helton late last season, the Trojans are 1-3.
Things to know as Stanford attempts to keep the Trojans in its rearview mirror.
TWO QBS: Max Browne is the starter for USC and Ryan Burns is No. 1 for Stanford, but it is likely both backups will get some time. More likely with the Trojans, where Sam Darnold provides a different look with his ability to run. Keller Chryst, who was beat out by Burns in the preseason, doesn't necessarily change Stanford's approach, but Shaw has said he'll get his chances.
WILD CAFF: McCaffrey had 700 all-purpose yards in two games against USC last season, including 461 in the Pac-12 championship game. The Heisman runner-up was everywhere in that second meeting, with 207 yards rushing and 105 yards receiving.
''Usually you see a runner or you see a receiver,'' Helton said. ''When you have got the combination of both, you got to make a decision on what you are going to do. Are you going to load the box and play man coverage in 1-on-1 situations, or are you going to play back and play more zone coverage and all of a sudden they are running the ball with those big linemen.''
The 8 p.m. ET nationally televised game gives McCaffrey the chance to show his stuff to those early-to-bed Heisman voters.
SUPENSIONS: Suspended USC LB Osa Masina was charged with rape Thursday in his native Utah. He and suspended teammate Don Hill are also under investigation for sexual assault in a case near USC's campus.
TOUGH STRETCH: The Cardinal had last week off and are entering their toughest stretch of schedule. Trips to UCLA and No. 8 Washington are up next. After a home game against Washington State, Stanford goes to Notre Dame.
The Trojans, who bounced back from that Alabama beatdown by thumping Utah State at the Los Angeles Coliseum last week, are now facing back-to-back road games and short rest against two of the most physical teams in the Pac-12. The Trojans are at Utah next Friday.
Follow Ralph D. Russo at www.Twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP