Is intimidation a factor for USC?

LOS ANGELES -- Word has circulated among USC Trojans players.

"Even guys I talk to in the Pac-10 say they're the toughest team, the most physical team you're going to play," linebacker Malcolm Smith said.

And fullback Stanley Havili had this to say about the Stanford Cardinal, USC's opponent Saturday: "We've been watching film. We know what they're going to do. They're going to come out and butt us with their heads."

At a time when USC fans must be thirsting for bravado from their team, with this season teetering on irrelevant after the Washington loss, they hear deference, maybe shades of fear, that would have been laughable five years ago. If ever a USC squad was intimidated traveling to Stanford, it must have been the debate team, right?

USC players aren't the only people who have a healthy respect for Stanford, maybe more than they should. Start with Vegas. The Trojans are 10-point underdogs in some sports books, the first time they've been double-digit dogs to anybody since 1998, when they had to travel to Florida State.

And the Stanford worship extends to the guys being paid handsomely to lead the Troajns: the coaches.

You can hear plenty of backtracking as these coaches evaluate a USC team that has proved porous on defense and hit-or-miss on offense. That's what four uninspiring victories and one last-second loss can do, particularly with scholarship limits and transfers already weighing down the Trojans. Coach Lane Kiffin didn't exactly balk when somebody suggested USC fans have unrealistic expectations coming out of the Pete Carroll era.

"I don't know if the expectations are unrealistic, but the numbers are the numbers," Kiffin said. "Whatever that makes it, we were 5-4 in the conference last year with two blowouts and a lot of competitive games. Things have changed."

There's no better capsule of how much things have changed than this weekend, when an underdog and possibly undermanned USC team plays against a No. 16 Stanford team with designs on playing in its first Rose Bowl in 11 years. The Cardinal have a budding star quarterback in Andrew Luck, a physical offensive line and a vastly improved defense.

But it's not just how well Stanford plays. It's how Stanford plays.

The Cardinal have adapted to coach Jim Harbaugh's tough-as-nails personality. Kiffin said he expects the Trojans' most physical game of the season, calling it a "test-of-will game."

"I can't imagine there's a team in the country you'd have to go line up against that would come across as more physical than what these guys do in all areas," Kiffin said.

USC's defensive coordinator, Ed Orgeron, talks about toughness a lot, so I asked him a simple question: Is this USC team as tough as Stanford? Imagine asking such a question 15 years ago.

"We're going to find out," Orgeron said. "Traditionally, USC has been as tough or tougher. We don't know yet. This is our first year with this team. What's this, Coach Harbaugh's fourth year with them? We're not in the fourth year in our program. These guys are just learning our system and our ways, but you have to give them credit. They are a tough football team, and that's what they build on."

How inverted have things gotten when USC is modeling its football program on Stanford's? Make no mistake, there is some of that going on at Heritage Hall these days. Since Kiffin arrived in January, he has been talking about toughness and discipline as the twin pillars of his program. He sounds a lot like Harbaugh did when he arrived at Stanford before the 2007 season.

One of the things Harbaugh did right away was tweak Carroll and the Trojans with talk that USC was "maybe the best team in the history of college football." It seemed like the smallest guy in the bar walking up and picking a fight with the biggest. But then Harbaugh backed it up by beating USC at the Coliseum, his Cardinal entering the game as 41-point underdogs, and everything has been different since. Stanford blew out USC 52-31 last year in Los Angeles.

Apparently, Harbaugh had a plan to wrest the psychological edge from USC. The amazing part is how quickly it worked. This year, he has refined the message. According to Stanford center Chase Beeler, "One of our mottoes is, 'We're going to win with character, but we're also going to win with cruelty.'"

That sounds more than a little strange, doesn't it? Cruelty? Aren't we still talking about a game here? If nothing else, all the rhetoric coming out of Palo Alto has reinforced the aura of Stanford as a street-fighting bully instead of a nerdy calculus major. And yeah, that talk has traveled down the I-5, all the way to USC's practice field.

But then, every once in a while, you get a little verbal push-back from USC's players. I asked Havili whether he and his teammates are as tough as Stanford's players.

"Yes, no question about it," he said.

And from Smith, "They're human."

We might find out Saturday what they really believe.

Mark Saxon covers USC football for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.