Two years ago, ESPN’s College GameDay came here for the USC-Stanford game. USC was unranked and on the rise after an early season 21-point loss to Arizona State. Stanford was ranked in the top six nationally, with a vaunted, powerful offensive line and a punishing power attack. This year, GameDay is here again for the USC-Stanford game. USC is on the rise after an early season 21-point loss to Arizona State, and Stanford is ranked in the top five nationally, with one of the most physically imposing and dominant offensive lines in recent memory. Subtract two great quarterbacks, Andrew Luck and Matt Barkley, and one might assume that this game is just a repeat of the 2011 three-overtime epic. To do so, however, would be a mistake.
Yes, Stanford’s season is unfolding in a familiar fashion, one college football fans have grown accustomed to during the course of current head coach David Shaw’s tenure. The Cardinal pound the ball and wear down the other team, using their unique combination of brains and brawn to compensate for a lack of dynamic athletes.
That’s where the similarities end, however, because for USC, this is one of the most bizarre football seasons the school has ever had. Generally, USC’s seasons have played out one of two ways over the program’s illustrious history. Sometimes the team fulfills its immense potential and goes on to play in a Rose Bowl or the national championship, developing into the team that no one wants to play at the end of the year. Or USC flounders as a result of questionable coaching and frustrating play calls. The last two decades have seen both types of seasons. The Trojans were dominant and exciting under Pete Carroll, yet underwhelming and disappointing under Paul Hackett and Lane Kiffin.
The reason this team is so unique is because it has integrated both types of teams in the same season. There was the offensive ineptitude showcased against Washington State and Utah State juxtaposed with the brilliant performances against Oregon State and California. Maybe this improvement is due to Kiffin’s firing, and the fact that coaches are rarely fired that early in the season, but this type of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde switch just doesn’t happen in college football.
It’s not out of the question that USC could still play in the Rose Bowl this year and win 12 games. After that Arizona State loss, no one on the planet believed that was possible with this year’s crew. The real question, though, is how did that drastic turnaround come about?
There are probably a lot of technical reasons why, but I think it’s a lot simpler — the development of talent. The one hallmark of Trojan teams, both good and bad, has been an abundance of talent. Even in the lean years, you could always count on USC redshirting more four- and five-star recruits than some teams had on their entire roster. This year is no different; it just so happens that under a new regime that refuses to play favorites, the cream of the crop is actually rising to the top.
Want to know the difference between a narrow victory over Utah State, and a dominant performance over Cal? Redshirt sophomore running back Javorius “Buck” Allen is finally touching the ball and displaying the talent that was so evident during practice the past two years. The victory was obviously due to more than just one player, but Allen’s performance over the past few games was indicative of a change in philosophy for the Trojans.
After languishing on the bench for years, senior wide receiver De’Von Flournoy is showing fans what his potent combination of strength and size can do to defenders. Junior defensive end J.R. Tavai is now getting the chance to confirm that he was no one-game wonder two years ago against Stanford as he has proven to be a ferocious defender, racking up tackles all over the field.
Many of these players were initially thrust into the spotlight because of injuries to starters ahead of them on the depth chart, but they have seized their opportunity and look to be mainstays in the starting lineup moving forward.
The talent extends beyond these players, and now that the position coaches finally have free reign over their areas of expertise, players are blossoming left and right. From two true freshmen safeties to redshirt sophomore quarterback Cody Kessler, several Trojans who lacked experience at the start of the year are now coming into their own.
This season really has been unlike any other, and it has underscored how important it is to not only recruit, but also develop talent. Since 2011, Stanford has experienced smooth sailing, while USC has had a rollercoaster ride, complete with plenty of highs and lows.
On Saturday, USC can do what it came so close to accomplishing in 2011 — upset the Cardinal and restore the balance of power in the Pac-12. Achieving that isn’t just important for Saturday, but it might be the defining characteristic that thrusts the Trojans back into the national spotlight for good.
“Davidson’s Direction” runs every other Wednesday. To comment on this story, email Jake at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit dailytrojan.com.
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