STANFORD CARDINAL (9-3)
vs. USC TROJANS (10-2)
Levi’s Stadium – Santa Clara, CA
Kickoff: Friday, 8:00 p.m. ET
Line: USC -3, Total: 58.5
Can Stanford hang with the Trojans this time around?
Stanford didn't need to beat Notre Dame last week to make the Pac-12 Championship Game this coming Friday—they didn't control their destiny at all. The Cardinal needed Washington to take down Washington State in the Apple Cup, and they did, and Stanford will meet USC in Santa Clara for the conference title game on Friday night. But that didn't stop Stanford from getting arguably its most impressive win of the season thus far, a decisive 38-20 victory over the visiting Fighting Irish. USC had the weekend off after finishing its regular season a week prior with a narrow 28-23 win over UCLA, its fourth straight win after getting blown out in South Bend earlier this season. The Trojans will hope for a repeat of their Week 2 showdown with Stanford, a 42-24 victory that had them looking like a national title contender at the time. While a two-loss team could very well sneak into the College Football Playoff, it won't be USC this season. But a Rose Bowl berth is no small consolation and, as QB Sam Darnold learned last season, a strong late-season surge can do wonders for a player's draft stock. David Shaw's Stanford teams are 40-20 ATS on six days' or fewer rest, and 23-7 ATS in road games under that same scenario. At USC, Clay Helton's teams are 6-1 ATS when they've won six or seven of their last eight games.
If something happens to Baker Mayfield—if he exposes himself to the opposing sideline on the 50-yard line, or something like that—Stanford RB Bryce Love is next in line for the Heisman Trophy this season. He's second in the nation with 1,848 rushing yards, and could very well hit 2,000 for the season by the time the clock hits 0:00 in the fourth quarter on Friday night—or, hell, even the second quarter. A strong Notre Dame front-seven couldn't contain him, allowing 125 yards on 20 carries to the star junior. He was even better against USC early this season, racking up 160 yards on the ground on only 17 carries. He's been hobbled a bit by an ankle injury, but has gone over 100 yards in each of the Cardinal's last three games regardless. Stanford fans have come to take his production as a given, and it was far more surprising when QB K.J.Costello nearly doubled his touchdown total on the year with four TD passes against Notre Dame. Costello only wrestled the starting job away from incumbent QB Keller Chryst at the beginning of November, and his 14-of-22, 176-yard night against the Irish represented his best game this season. Chryst wasn't bad against USC earlier this year—he threw two touchdowns and didn't turn the ball over—but a more dynamic performance from Costello this time around would give the Cardinal offense a boost that could maybe push it over the edge. WRs JJ Arcega-Whiteside (633 yards) and Trenton Irwin (436) each caught touchdowns against Notre Dame, as did TEs Kaden Smith (334) and Dalton Schultz (196). Arcega-Whiteside is the playmaker of the receiving corps.
This season, USC QB Sam Darnold has participated in the timeless Trojan tradition of seeing one's draft stock diminish after returning to school. Of course, he had no choice but to return after his redshirt freshman campaign, and in retrospect the hype around him was excessive. And in his 2017 season, he's had far more good games than bad. The problem is, everyone else was expecting "great." His stats paled in comparison to that of crosstown rival Josh Rosen in the Trojans' win over UCLA—264 yards to Rosen's 421, zero TDs to Rosen's three—but he ultimately outdueled his flashy counterpart by engineering a 90-yard fourth-quarter drive for what would prove to be the winning touchdown. He had his best game of the year against Stanford in Week 2, completing 21 of 26 passes for 316 yards and four touchdowns in a performance that was only marred by a pair of interceptions. RB Ronald Jones II was underrated entering the year, and he's been overlooked in an excellent season in which he's rushed for 1,346 yards, good for fifth in the Pac-12 and 16th in the country. His 16 touchdowns on the ground put him even with Love in that department. He was a tank against UCLA, helping the Trojans control the pace of the game with 28 carries for 122 yards and two touchdowns. It was reminiscent of his early season performance against Stanford, in which he rushed for 116 yards and two scores on 23 carries. He's carried the ball at least 25 times in three straight games, so the week off entering Friday's title game ought to have given him some much-needed rest. With 73 catches for 966 yards and nine touchdowns on the season, USC WR Deontay Burnett is unquestionably one of the nation's elite wideouts. Freshman WR Tyler Vaughns (664 yards, 4 TDs) has been beyond a pleasant surprise and senior WR Steven Mitchell Jr. (578 yards, 4 TDs) has been another reliable secondary option for Darnold. Burnett and Mitchell each caught two touchdowns against the Cardinal in September.