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11 APR 2015: Stanford Cardinal head coach David Shaw instructs Cardinal quarterback Ryan Burns during the annual Spring Football Game at Stanford Stadium in Palo Alto, CA.

Stanford can make a Pac-12 statement versus USC

Tommy LaPorte/Icon Sportswire

Stanford has a chance to make a statement this weekend against USC.

The Cardinal, ranked No. 7 in the AP Poll and 1-0 on the season after a 26-13 win over Kansas State, are the favorites to win the Pac-12 this year.

To the average college football observer that may seem like a pretty obvious fact — Stanford has been among the best programs in the nation ever since Jim Harbaugh walked its sidelines. Dig deeper, though, and the fact that the Cardinal are considered favorites is actually a huge deal.

The Pac-12 has been doing a preseason poll for 56 seasons. This season was the first time, ever, that Stanford was picked to win the Pac-12 football championship.

Expectations are high for the Cardinal, and rightfully so. This weekend’s matchup against the Trojans gives them a prime-time opportunity to prove the believers right.

Yes, perhaps USC is heading into this game as damaged goods. The Trojans were also expected to be a Pac-12 contender — the very same preseason poll predicted the Trojans to finish second in the Pac-12 South, though five votes were cast for USC being the eventual champion — but Week 1 gave USC’s supporters pause.

Nick Saban’s defending national champion Alabama Crimson Tide absolutely destroyed USC on a neutral field, 52-6. New starting quarterback Max Browne completed only 14-of-29 passes for 101 yards, no touchdowns and one interception. Alabama also shut down USC’s rushing offense, allowing just 64 rushing yards from the Trojans.

It was an underwhelming and disappointing start for USC. The Trojans did bounce back in Week 2 against the Utah State Aggies at home, but the strength of that win is almost nonexistent. That’s a game USC was expected to win and win big. The Trojans responded with a 45-7 rout, though Browne was picked off once more — his second interception in as many games.

Though USC is a flawed program heading into this game, the optics of a Stanford win would still be big for the Cardinal.

Though struggling, the Trojans are still a Pac-12 blue blood and a draw for fans, media and recruits. Many eyes will be on this game, and that’s helped by the fact that it will be aired on ABC in the prime-time slot.

There’s also the history between these two programs to consider. Stanford and USC have been playing each other since 1905. Last season, they met twice.

Stanford won the first matchup, 41-31, in Los Angeles. The Trojans were ranked No. 6 at the time, but fell to No. 19 after the loss. The rematch between the two rivals came in the Pac-12 Championship Game. The Cardinal (ranked No. 7) once again beat USC (ranked No. 20), this time by the score of 41-22.

December 05, 2015: Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey (5) catches the ball and runs in for a 28 yard touchdown during the second half of an NCAA Pac-12 Championship football game between Stanford and USC at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, CA. (Photograph by Roy K. Miller/Icon Sportswire)

(Photograph by Roy K. Miller/Icon Sportswire)

Heisman contender Christian McCaffrey broke Barry Sanders’ NCAA single-season all-purpose yardage record in the second quarter of the game. He notched 207 yards and a touchdown rushing, four receptions and a touchdown through the air, five kick returns for 120 yards and one pass for 11 yards and a touchdown.

It was an iconic Heisman moment for McCaffrey, but many of Stanford’s moments have come against the Trojans. Stanford has won six of the last eight meetings between the two schools.

Earlier this week, USC head coach Clay Helton told Zach Helfand of the Los Angeles Times that Stanford is what his program is trying to be. Stanford head coach David Shaw took the compliment, but he in no way downplayed the rivalry between the two Pac-12 powers.

“Our programs have a lot of mutual respect,” Shaw said. “I take that as a compliment. But I also know that it’s not completely literal. He individually has his own background. Along with (offensive coordinator) Tee Martin, their desires for what they see for their team is very unique to USC, and unique to their traditions as well.

“This has been a physical matchup. This has been an emotional matchup. These have been very tight, close games. I take those sentiments with respect that goes both ways.”

This game will be the Pac-12’s first conference game of the year. Stanford can make a physical and emotional statement: It’s the cream of the crop in the Pac-12. Those who picked the Cardinal to win the conference made a good decision back at Pac-12 Media Days.

A win over USC may not have the meaning of the last matchup between the two programs, but make no mistake: It’s still a huge game.

Stanford can make a Pac-12 statement versus USC

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