First, first look: Stanford

The weeks are counting down until fall camp begins for the USC football team the first week of August. During each of the in-between weeks, we've been offering up an early first look at the 12 scheduled opponents for the 2011 season, in chronological order. We began with Minnesota and Utah, continued the next three weeks with Syracuse, Arizona State, and Arizona, and added Cal and Notre Dame recently. We now present Stanford, who the Trojans will face at home on Saturday, Oct. 29:

History: USC and Stanford have matched up 88 times in their histories, dating to 1905.

On only five occasions have the Cardinal been ranked higher than USC entering the matchup. Last year was one of those times, and this year figures to be another, as the Cardinal enter the 2011 season as a likely preseason top-10 pick.

USC leads the all-time series between the schools by a margin of 58-27-3, and the Trojans have had win streaks as long as 12 games against Stanford. But, over the last dozen years, the Cardinal have actually been USC's toughest in-conference opponent.

Since 1999, the teams have split 12 games, and it has been streaky. Stanford won in 1999, 2000 and 2001; USC won five straight from 2002 to 2006 until Stanford pulled off the big upset in 2007. Then the Trojans won once more in 2008 before the Cardinal took the next two, including USC's worst home loss in three decades in 2009.

Half of those last 12 games have been tightly contested, with margins of victory of five points or fewer.

Offense: Stanford's unit starts with Andrew Luck, obviously, and that's where a lot of the conversation will center on. But the Cardinal have quite a bit of offensive talent returning in 2011, from arguably the best lineman in the Pac-12 in Jonathan Martin to 1,100-yard rusher Stepfan Taylor to speedster receiver Chris Owusu.

They lost a lot, yes -- three linemen and Luck's two leading receivers graduated. But top-tier talent is still there. Owusu's an intriguing, if injury-prone, player, who could easily end up being one of the most exciting players in the conference this season. Can he be a consistent target for Luck? That will be a storyline to follow.

Stanford's other projected starter at receiver, junior Jamal-Rashad Patterson, was a high school teammate of USC's Markeith Ambles in Georgia who underachieved last season with only five catches.

Senior tight end Coby Fleener and junior guard David DeCastro, a Pac-10 first-team pick in 2010, are the only other returning starters on offense.

New offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton is an NFL transplant with a decade of pro experience in his second year at Stanford. He took over the coordinating duties for new coach David Shaw in the offseason, when Shaw was promoted to replace Jim Harbaugh, who left to coach the San Francisco 49ers.

Defense: Stanford's 3-4 defense is led by junior inside linebacker Shayne Skov, senior strong safety Delano Howell and junior outside linbacker Chase Thomas.

Skov, a tackling machine who led all tacklers in the USC-Stanford game in 2010, was honorable mention all-conference last year, as was Thomas. The two shared the team lead in sacks, producing 15 between them. Howell, a Newhall Hart High product, had a team-high five interceptions in 2010 as a second-team all-Pac-10 performer.

The other three returning starters for Stanford are free safety Michael Thomas, cornerback Johnson Bademosi and defensive end Matthew Masifilo. All three players are seniors.

The secondary is the defense's strength, as all four expected starters have at least some starting experience. The weakness will be the defensive line, where the two new starters have a combined 10 career tackles in three years.

Special teams/special circumstances: Remember Nate Whitaker?

The since-graduated kicker who won the game for Stanford with a 30-yard field goal as time expired last year has a younger brother, and he's also a Cardinal kicker. But he's not expected to win the job in 2011, with redshirt freshman Jordan Williamson the favorite to take over the place-kicking duties.

Mission Viejo product David Green is the punter, a two-year starter who had his job usurped for most of last season.

Owusu tied a Pac-10 record in 2009 with three kick-return touchdowns. If he's healthy in 2011, he could challenge that number. Junior receiver Drew Terrell was an honorable mention all-conference performer in 2010 as a punt returner. The two could split those duties this year or Terrell could keep the job as a way to give Owusu some plays off.

The Stanford game will mark the end of the toughest stretch of USC's schedule, a three-week period where the Trojans first play at Cal and at Notre Dame. The Cardinal will be coming off two previous games against the Washington schools.

That's it for this week. Next week comes a look at Colorado.