Southern California’s season was on the verge of derailing. The Trojans lost two of their first three Pac-12 games and coach Steve Sarkisian was fired, leaving the program in disarray.
Instead of seeing their season spiral out of control, the 24th-ranked Trojans rallied around interim coach Clay Helton, earning a spot in the Pac-12 championship game after beating rival UCLA 40-21 on Saturday.
“I think about the seniors and the roller coaster ride they have gone through, for them to be able to call themselves Pac-12 South champions is a victory,” Helton said.
While USC (8-4, 6-3) won the South Division to earn in its first trip to the Pac-12 title game, No. 7 Stanford is back in familiar territory — and playing for something much bigger.
The Cardinal (9-2, 8-1) got the season off to a shaky start by losing to Northwestern, but worked itself back into the College Football Playoff picture by dominating the Pac-12 North. Stanford slipped up with a home loss to Oregon on Nov. 14, but still won the North for the third time in four seasons.
The Cardinal followed that up with a 38-36 win over Notre Dame on a last-second field goal on Saturday, thrusting themselves back into the CFB conversation while knocking the Irish out.
“We got the ball, drove down and it was almost like it was meant to be,” said Stanford kicker Conrad Ukropina, whose 45-yard field goal on the game’s last play was the difference.
Stanford and USC met earlier this season, a 41-31 victory by the Cardinal on Sept. 19.
Here’s a few things to look for in Saturday’s game at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California:
THE COMMITTEE IS WATCHING: Stanford’s win over Notre Dame will certainly move the Cardinal up from No. 9 in the next CFP rankings. It still may not be enough. Should Stanford beat USC, it still will need some help. Oklahoma appears to be in good shape because it doesn’t have to play in a conference title game and the winner of the Big Ten championship between Iowa and Michigan State would figure to be a lock. That leaves No. 1 Clemson and No. 2 Alabama. If the Tigers lose to North Carolina in the ACC title game and the Crimson Tide fall to Florida in the SEC title game, the Cardinal could make a case for being in the playoff.
HEISMAN POTENTIAL: Christian McCaffrey has become one of the Heisman Trophy front-runners and a big game against USC could solidify his resume. The son of former NFL receiver Ed McCaffrey will finish the season as the FBS leader in all-purpose yards — he’s 52 ahead of the next closest player — and is bearing down on Barry Sander’s all-time FBS record of 3,250 yards. He also has plenty of eye-catching plays to put on his Heisman highlight reel.
LOOKING BACK: Stanford was a national championship contender in coach David Shaw’s first season after winning its first nine games before losing to Oregon. That knocked the Cardinal out of not only the national title hunt, but it ending up costing them a spot in the Pac-12 championship game since the Ducks earned the tiebreaker to win the North Division.