College football is the same every year. We wait an entire offseason for it to arrive, often resorting to tactics like commenting on fan blogs to get us to the end of summer. Then, like a good night's sleep, it is over before you even realized it had begun.
This weekend marks the true end of season as various conferences hold their annual championship games. For the PAC 12, it is the fifth such game in the short existence of the series and the second straight to be held at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, CA. For the Power 5 teams playing this weekend, playoff implications are on the line both in terms of "qualification" and "positioning." For everybody else, there are certainly bowl considerations in addition to matters of pride at stake.
PAC 12 Championship Preview
USC vs Stanford (-4.5) - O/U 58.5
The PAC 12 features what might be its most compelling matchup since the inception of the game when USC takes on Stanford on Saturday night.
The Cardinal return to the game as the North Division champion for the third time - the most appearances of any team in the PAC. For USC, this will be just their first appearance. This despite the fact that they have technically won the South Division (on the field of play, that is) twice during the PAC 12 era.
Similarities between Stanford and USC abound. Both teams feature senior quarterbacks who are both efficient and accurate, they both sport top-of-the-conference offensive lines, they each feature offensive playmakers on end-of-year awards lists, and they each have defenses that are good but who have underperformed to expectations for most of the season.
Beyond the style of play similarities, these two teams are closely grouped together in the statistical rankings and have a recent history of playing one another to a standstill. F/+ rankings - a composite score of a couple of advanced statistical rankings - rate Stanford 10th overall in the nation and USC just a few spots behind them at #16 (interestingly, UW is #21 ahead of Oregon, Utah, UCLA and WSU). On the field, the past six games between USC and Stanford - a stretch that has involved four different head coaches - have finished in a margin of victory of ten points or less. In their game to open the PAC 12 schedule this season, the Cardinal came back to win from an 11-point deficit by scoring on three straight possessions to end the game and limiting the Trojans to just 60 total offensive plays for the game.
This weekend promises to be a different style of game for USC. Since Clay Helton took over for USC mid-season, he's maintained the same playbook but changed the emphasis from a short, horizontal style of play that emphasized QB Cody Kessler to a physical ground assault approach that features his dominating offensive line and the three-headed RB monster that is Justin Davis, Ronald Jones III and Tre Madden. With Marques Tuiasosopo promoted to QB coach and holding a bigger role in the playcalling, the Trojans have increasingly utilized the run to set up the pass and have re-introduced the concept of play-action into their offense. With stellar talents such as Juju Smith-Schuster, Adoree' Jackson and Darreus Rogers to work with, the passing game is more of a threat with the big play than at any other time this season.
The Cardinal will be looking to simply slow down the Trojans offense. Statistically speaking, this defense is a weakness of the team. They rank just 65th in the nation in overall defensive efficiency (defensive FEI) and just sixth in the PAC 12 in yards surrendered per play. The linebacking corps, led by seniors Blake Martinez and Kevin Anderson, are the strength of the unit and they will be counted on to hod the line against USC's rushing attack. However, they will be handicapped by a Stanford D-Line that is not deep at all and a secondary that plays a very conservative style. Stanford, in fact, is very prone to giving up long, sustained drives, ranking 121st in the NCAA in drives surrendered of 10 plays or more. The Trojans are going to drive the ball, but whether or not they score in the red zone remains to be seen.
On the flip side, the Cardinal will play that same scenario against the Trojans as they will look to string together long drives that feature accurate passes to the tight end corps led by Austin Hooper, scrambles by QB Kevin Hogan, and a combo attack from Heisman candidate Christian McCaffrey. All of this is set up by a Stanford offensive line that is the best in the PAC and one that should have a good amount of success against a good-not-great USC D-Line that features talents like Antwuan Woods and Claude Pelon. The Cardinal have been about efficient offense all year. They are the absolute tops in the nation when it comes to sustaining scoring drives and they rank fourth in the nation in terms of the percentage of their offensive possessions that results in drives of 10 plays or more. Their goal is to get the ball, score often, and then limit their opponents' chances.
USC is similar to Stanford on a defensive basis. Though their scholarship ranks have swollen to 80 players, they are still not a deep team on the defensive side. They do feature some absolute playmakers with players like Woods, Jackson, and LB Su'a Cravens to lean on. However, this is a young defense that is also more mistake-prone than their Stanford counterparts, particularly in a young secondary that features somewhat raw talents such as freshman Iman Marshall and sophomore John Plattenburg. Embattled DC Justin Wilcox will have his hands full in getting his young team prepared to play this weekend.
Many folks have dismissed USC this season thanks in large part to what they perceived as chaos surrounding the Steve Sarkisian dismissal. Truth be told, this team is playing at a very high level. The "chaos" that was perceived was more a media-fed myth than a reality as Helton came in, took control of a difficult situation and has coaxed a high level of production from his team. As I noted above, the advanced and traditional stats bear this out. When these misconceptions of what baggage USC brings or doesn't bring to the table are stripped away, we are left with a very compelling matchup.
I'm leaning towards USC here. I think the Trojans have a few advantages here. First, they have a few more players capable of breaking off big plays than the Cardinal - particularly on the defensive side where guys like Adoree' Jackson and Su'a Cravens can score off turnovers.
Second, I think that the Trojans have more momentum coming into the game thanks in part to their depth and in part to the circumstances related to the elevation of Helton as Head Coach. Stanford has had a run of very hard games the last few weeks - Oregon, UCLA and Notre Dame were all physical and draining affairs. On top of that they are facing off against a big, strong Trojan team that, schematically, will be unfamiliar to them based just on their first matchup. The Trojans will have the element of familiarity in their favor and we all know how hard it is beat the same team two years in a row.
This preview is the championship Pickin' the PAC preview of my season. I'm taking it to the very end with the Trojans in a close one.
Gekko's Pick: USC 35, Stanford 31 (take the points, take the OVER)
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