Stanford coach David Shaw refers to the Pac-12 Championship Game at Levi’s Stadium on Saturday as a chess match, but a game of checkers may be more like it.
Because if No. 7 Stanford somehow can execute a double-jump by beating No. 20 USC and leapfrogging over Clemson or Alabama in the College Football Playoff standings, the Cardinal may be able to steal a berth in the national semifinals on New Year’s Eve.
No. 2 Alabama meets Florida in the Southeastern Conference title game, which likely will have been completed by the time the USC and Stanford kick off at 4:45 p.m. Pacific time. No. 1 Clemson faces North Carolina in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game, which is being played in the same time slot as the Pac-12 title game. In addition to its own victory, Stanford needs at least one to lose in order to have a crack at a playoff invitation, with No. 3 Oklahoma considered a shoo-in (though the Big 12 still doesn’t have a conference title game) and the other spot assured to the winner of the Big Ten title game between No. 4 Iowa and No. 5 Michigan State.
Even then, the voters could select No. 10 North Carolina for the fourth and final spot with an upset of Clemson.
Shaw has avoided the what-ifs in recent weeks, and he wasn’t about to get sucked in Tuesday, either.
“Talkers talk and players play,” Shaw said.
The Pac-12 showdown pits two of the hottest teams in the conference, if not the country. USC (8-4) won five of its last six games, while Stanford (10-2) won nine of its last 10. Each lost only to Oregon in that span.
When the rivals met Sept. 19 in Los Angeles, the script was flipped. Stanford entered the game with a 1-1 record and doubts about the road ahead. At 2-0, USC was ranked sixth nationally and had national title aspirations.
But when Stanford wore down the Trojans in a 41-31 victory, the fortunes of both began to change markedly. The Cardinal had a 474-427 edge in total yards and possessed the ball for nearly 40 of the 60 minutes. USC wound up firing coach Steve Sarkisian, who headed to rehab with an alleged alcohol problem.
At a time when both defenses have struggled of late, yards and points may come in bunches once again. For Stanford, that means a heavy dose of running back Christian McCaffrey with a dash of quarterback Kevin Hogan thrown in for good measure. McCaffrey and his 3,035 all-purpose yards have him in the Heisman Trophy conversation. “We want to run the ball, we want to be physical, ground-and-pound style,” Hogan said. “That opens up the passing game. … Once we get into a rhythm on offense, we’re hard to stop.”
Shaw reluctantly admitted that the first matchup served as a much-needed confidence boost for his players, a return to basics that set the tone for the rest of the season.
“It was going into a hostile environment that is a tough place to play,” Shaw said. “They’re a very good football team. And when you go back to Week 1, when we were [at Northwestern] and didn’t play well on the road then to come back and win a game against a good football team on the road.” [It] has kind of helped the guys think, ‘We can do this. We can play our best and in a tough environment.’”
This is a different USC team as well. Since then, Clay Helton has replaced the embattled Sarkisian and was named the program’s permanent head coach Monday. Now the Trojans lean heavily on a run game led by Ronald Jones, Justin Davis and Tre Madden, who have combined for 2,116 and 17 touchdowns on the ground.If USC has resembled Stanford in its emphasis on “big man ball,” as Helton calls it, the change has come more out of necessity than coincidence. From a physical standpoint, Stanford dominated almost across the board the first game, which helped convince the coaches that more than a tweak was in order.
”In the first game, I just remember the the talent they had skill-wise especially on the outside,” recalled Helton, who added, “The thing you take away from playing a team twice is maybe making some different personnel matchups.”
Stanford won’t change much of anything at this late date. It will remain true to its identity as a no-frills power team that prides itself on fundamentals and execution.
“You get used to playing someone a year after you play them, so you take every thing with grain of salt, knowing that their team has changed, your team has changed,” Shaw said. “But when you play in the same year, you guard against [thinking] the same thing that worked the last time will work this time. You reevaluate your original plan to see what worked, what didn’t work. You just try to find in all these phases something that can be successful again, but also realizing they may change things that worked last time.
“It’s a bit of a chess match, but the hardest chess match is the one you have with yourself rather than the opponent.”