Stanford-USC has become a must-see game

If there's a divide in how the newest generation of college football fans view the Stanford-USC series compared to their more experienced counterparts, consider this: From 1976 to 2006, USC went 24-6-1 against Stanford and won by an average of close to 14 points per game. Leading up to 2007, unranked Stanford teams failed to upset ranked USC teams 17 consecutive times and there was little reason to expect those trends to change.

But then, Stanford named Jim Harbaugh its head coach -- with David Shaw as his offensive coordinator -- and the trends did change. Over the past eight years, starting with Stanford's upset as a 41-point underdog in 2007, USC-Stanford has turned into one the nation's best yearly series. For many, the "What's your deal?" game from 2009 still stands out -- and, really, how could it not? -- but that game also represents the last time the gap in the final score couldn't have been closed in on one possession.

"They're kind of our new rival," USC junior running back Justin Davis said. "I would say that. We know they're going to come with intensity.

"The past few games, they've been really, really close. Ever since Andrew Luck with the triple overtime game [in 2011]. We've been going back and forth for a long time. Stanford, they're not the team to [talk trash], but they're going to hit you in the mouth, so we have to be prepared for that."

It should be noted Davis didn't mean Stanford is replacing UCLA as the Trojans' primary rival, only that recent history has set an expectation for a close game Saturday when No. 6 USC (2-0) hosts Stanford (1-1) at 8 p.m. ET, ABC.

"Two hard-nosed, well-coached teams going at it. It's what you want," Stanford cornerback Ronnie Harris said. "That's what college football should be about. I wouldn't say it's a rivalry, but it definitely feels that way."

So long as it feels like one is what matters. Any specific distinction after that -- rivalry, not a rivalry -- is subjective in nature, but as an outsider it's impossible not to notice a healthy level of animosity between the two fan bases from the Pac-12's only private schools. Definitely when compared to other random Pac-12 pairings.

Either way, it's clear the players involved have earned each others' respect.

"The last time they came down here it came down to a field goal, when we went up there it came down to a field goal," USC linebacker Su'a Cravens said. "I'm expecting a tough game, as usual. They're just physical. They slow the game down, they play at their own tempo. If you're not going got be as physical as them and match their physically, it's going to be a long game."

The Trojans matched Stanford's physicality last season in a 13-10 win, which ended the Cardinal's 17-game home winning streak, then the longest active streak in the country. However, staying true to recent form, that game is more widely remembered for the bizarre episode in which USC athletic director Pat Haden made his way to the field from the press box to confront the officiating crew over a perceived bad call. It led the Pac-12 to fine Haden $25,000, and he imposed a two-game sideline ban upon himself.

USC enters with a head of steam coming off its first back-to-back 50-point games since 2005 as quarterback Cody Kessler (45 of 57, 650 yards, 7 TD, 0 INT) has looked every bit the Heisman Trophy contender he was billed to be coming into the season. Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan got off to a rough start in a season-opening loss at Northwestern, but bounced back last week with a career-high 341 yards passing in a win against Central Florida.