Here are five things to watch when Stanford (1-1) travels to No. 6 USC (2-0) on Saturday (8 p.m., ET, ABC):
1. Quarterback play. Stanford's Kevin Hogan and USC's Cody Kessler are two of the country's most experienced players, which sets up as an interesting storyline headed to a game that could radically change the trajectory of the seasons for both teams. Hogan has been primarily cast as a winner during his time at Stanford, but he's 0-2 vs. the Trojans -- he didn't surpass Josh Nunes on the depth chart until after the teams played in 2012. On the other side is Kessler, who, like Andrew Luck accomplished, is looking to finish his career as the starter 3-0 against private schools from California.
Kessler has been nearly flawless, so far, throwing for 650 yards and seven touchdowns without a pick. Hogan, meanwhile, is coming off a career-high 341-yard performance in a win against Central Florida that helped quell concern following a surprising loss to Northwestern the week prior. -- Kyle Bonagura
2. Will Stanford execute in scoring range? In USC’s 13-10 win last season, the Cardinal flat out didn’t. They reached at least the Trojan 35-yard line pn all nine of their possessions, but only came away with 10 points. In USC’s 20-17 victory two years ago, Stanford also struggled in the red zone.
So penalties, turnovers, and execution issues have all contributed to inept Stanford efforts inside scoring range against the Trojans the past two years. In both seasons, these problems have proven to be the difference in the final score.
The Trojans have featured strong red zone defenses as of late — last year’s squad ranked 13th nationally in that category — so perhaps Stanford’s struggles haven’t been purely coincidence. But if the Cardinal are to have a shot on Saturday, they’ll need to convert their opportunities into points at a much greater clip than the past two meetings. — David Lombardi
3. Can anyone match up with JuJu Smith-Schuster? Through two weeks, he has been the most dominant receiver in the Pac-12. That, of course, can be partially attributed to the Trojans’ level of competition, but there isn’t a sense he’ll slow down much once the stakes are raised.
Last year against Stanford, Smith-Schuster had the worst game of his freshman season. He was held to one catch for minus-2 yards a week after debuting with four for 123 yards against Fresno State. At that point, he was still more of a complementary piece alongside Nelson Agholor, but now he’s the focal point of an impressive passing game.
Stanford’s Ronnie Harris, a fifth-year senior, likely gets the first crack at covering Smith-Schuster, but redshirt freshman Alijah Holder, at 6-foot-2, 184 pounds, should get tested as well. -- Bonagura
4. Where is Stanford’s defense in relation to last year? In week one, the Cardinal’s new-look defense faced a redshirt freshman quarterback. In week two, they squared off against a second-stringer for most of the game. But week three presents Kessler, so the degree of difficulty increases exponentially for this unit.
The Stanford defense was excellent last season, and it didn’t disappoint against USC. Though Buck Allen ran for 154 yards, Kessler managed only 135 through the air, and the Trojans’ 13 points were a season-low by a big margin.
Since Stanford is still breaking in eight new defensive starters, we certainly don’t expect them to equal last season’s stinginess. But just how much Kessler and Co. can manage against a relatively untested unit this time around will be a pivotal variable in this game’s outcome. -- Lombardi
5. The whole game. The last five times these teams have met, it has finished as a one-score game. A quick reminder:
2014: USC 13, Stanford 10. Andre Heidari kicked two second-half field goals, including a 53-yarder with 2:30 left to give the Trojans the win.
2013: USC 20, Stanford 17. Heidari is good from 47 yards with 19 seconds left as the Ed Orgeron-coached Trojans took No. 4 Stanford out of the national-title conversation.
2012: Stanford 21, USC 14. QB Josh Nunes had moments of brilliance in Stanford's upset of No. 2 USC.
2011: Stanford 56, USC 48 (2 OT). Andrew Luck guided a touchdown drive in the final minutes to force OT after throwing a pick-six late in regulation.
2010: Stanford 37, USC 35. Nate Whitaker kicked a 30-yard field goal as time expired to give No. 16 Stanford the win.