USC Coach Lane Kiffin talks to his offensive unit on the sidelines during… (Jonathan Moore / Associated…)
A top-five team will play in a packed Coliseum. A Heisman Trophy candidate will be at the controls of a seemingly unstoppable offense. And a shot at a national title is within reach.
OK, so it's Stanford, not USC, boasting those lofty credentials and possibilities.
USC Coach Lane Kiffin can accept that … for now.
After nearly 1½ years of being adrift in a sea of sanctions and inconsistent performances, USC has a chance Saturday against the No. 4 Cardinal to reestablish itself among college football's elite.
The Trojans took a step in that direction last week with an impressive victory at Notre Dame, a win that temporarily returned them to national relevancy. The matchup against quarterback Andrew Luck and the Cardinal is an opportunity to take a giant leap toward solidifying that status.
Stanford enters the game riding a nation-best 15-game winning streak and has defeated its last 10 opponents by at least 25 points. The Cardinal, an 8½-point favorite, has covered the betting spread in every game.
"The last couple weeks, really starting in the second half of the Washington State game [Oct. 15], we've played pretty close to the way we want to play," Stanford Coach David Shaw said.
Kiffin said there has been no discernible drop-off by the Cardinal since Shaw, the former offensive coordinator, replaced Jim Harbaugh, who left for the NFL's San Francisco 49ers after last season.
"They're probably better now than they were," Kiffin said.
Kiffin spent the week building up the Cardinal and called Luck, the presumed No. 1 pick in the 2012 NFL draft, "maybe the best quarterback to ever play college football."
USC quarterback Matt Barkley did not sound too concerned.
Not after the Trojans played their most complete game of the season, beating Notre Dame at South Bend, Ind.
Now the Trojans are back in the spotlight.
"We feel kind of that mojo, that swagger we need to have on both sides of the ball," said Barkley, who is quietly looking forward to the side-by-side comparison with Luck.
Last season, Barkley passed for three touchdowns against the Cardinal at Stanford Stadium. But Luck drove Stanford to a last-second field goal and a 37-35 victory.
The game was not nearly as close the last time Stanford came to the Coliseum.
In 2009, the Cardinal ran over USC's front seven, Luck picked apart the Trojans secondary and Stanford intercepted three passes by Barkley en route to a 55-21 pummeling. It was the most points ever scored against USC.
The game served as a marker of sorts for Kiffin, who was coaching Tennessee at the time and did not see the full extent of the demolition until he watched video of the game after returning to USC to replace Pete Carroll.
Oregon had shredded the Trojans two weeks before Stanford did in 2009, but that was at Autzen Stadium with a newfangled spread offense.
Stanford's approach was different.
"When we got here, seeing that game on tape and what happened, we saw what we needed to do on defense," Kiffin said. "It was an NFL-style power run game. That had just never been successful over the years at all against 'SC defenses."
USC players who were on the field in 2009 anticipate a similar approach from the Cardinal.
"They pounded the ball then and it's the same kind of team with the same mind-set now," said defensive end Devon Kennard, who started at outside linebacker against Stanford in 2009. "We know that and we're going to have to come up with answers."