Not a lot of people saw it coming, USC’s 21-14 defeat to Stanford Saturday as an 8-point favorite. This was the game in which Matt Barkley would finally get a pound of flesh for those three losses in 2009-11, the one that it all lined up for the Trojans. He’s a senior, and Stanford’s Josh Nunes is a guy who was making his third career start.
None of it mattered, Barkley or Marqise Lee or Robert Woods. What mattered was Stanford did what Stanford does, batter the opponent at the line of scrimmage.
Sunday, when the new AP rankings came out, Oregon had availed itself of USC’s fall to No. 13, moving up to third. Stanford leaped from No. 21 to ninth, while UCLA is 19th and Arizona 22nd.
First reaction to the loss is that USC, at least in the here and now, is fortunate that when the Pac-12 fathers aligned the two divisions back in 2010, Stanford got put in the North and USC in the South. A loss to a division opponent means you’re essentially two games behind that team, because the winner head-to-head owns the two-team tiebreaker.
So the pregnant question is whether anybody else in the Pac-12 South — UCLA, Arizona, Utah, Arizona State — is good enough to head off USC’s bid for the title in that division. If it isn’t, then it isn’t out of the question that the Trojans could climb back into the national-title race by winning out — including a victory over Oregon Nov. 3 and then taking the league-title game. There are a lot of bullets yet to be fired.
Still, you wonder if USC is capable of that kind of run — even whether it’s been overrated. Any team that gets mashed by a Stanford ground game that clicked for 202 yards is going to see it again. And although nobody in this league is as physical as the Cardinal and as capable of running, that’s going to be a popular formula, especially with new run-oriented philosophies at Arizona and Arizona State.
Among the shocking aspects of the Stanford victory is this: Most people figured that with the Cardinal’s inexperience at quarterback, it was vastly beneficial for the Trojans to get Stanford early. Not so. And now, Josh Nunes has one more career victory over USC than Matt Barkley does against Stanford.
That movable Pac-12 game of the year has shifted, at least until further notice. It was going to be Nov. 3, Oregon against USC. Now it’s looking like Nov. 17, Stanford at Oregon.
But what the Stanford-USC game proved is it’s more than a two-team league. It’s at least three, and Washington will get a chance to suggest it’s even more when it hosts Stanford in the next game for both teams Thursday night, Sept. 27.