Stanford football coach Buddy Teevens knows Southern California quarterback Matt Leinart, who threw for three touchdowns against the Cardinal last year. He knows tailback LenDale White, who ran for 108 yards and a pair of scores in that same game. He knows Norm Chow, USC's offensive coordinator, who appears to be the ultimate puppeteer, pulling strings and pushing levers from the press box, orchestrating the Trojans' attack.
So with his team hosting the unbeaten Trojans on Saturday, Teevens isn't exactly playing down his team's challenge this week.
"In my opinion, based on what I've seen," Teevens said, "they're by far the best team in the country."
If there is any doubt about that statement -- and you have to travel to places such as Norman, Okla., and Athens, Ga., to find it -- we will likely discover it over the course of the next month. After the top-ranked Trojans play unbeaten Stanford this week, they host California on Oct. 9 following an open date and travel to Arizona State the following week -- likely their three most difficult Pac-10 games, all in a row.
That the game against Stanford is even considered a challenge -- albeit a minor one -- is something of a surprise. The Cardinal lost seven of its final nine games last season, Teevens's second in Palo Alto, and finished 4-7. In the Pac-10's preseason media poll, Stanford was picked to finish ninth.
But in beating San Jose State and Brigham Young by the combined score of 80-13 to start the season, this year's Cardinal has shown that things might be different than in Teevens's first two seasons, when Stanford went 6-16 combined.
"Everything's much more positive," sophomore quarterback Trent Edwards said. "Guys are much more confident and comfortable. It's a lot different than the last two years I've been here. It's more upbeat. The guys get along better with each other. They get along better with the coaches."
Funny what winning can do. Edwards, who has thrown five touchdown passes without an interception in 63 attempts thus far, is a big part of that. He has two physical wide receivers in Mark Bradford and Evan Moore -- who are 6 feet 2 inches and 6-7, respectively, and are athletic enough that they both play on the Cardinal basketball team. They have all helped the Cardinal average 315 yards passing. The defense, which returns nine starters, ranks fourth in the nation in points against and has forced seven turnovers.
"We're more mature," Teevens said.
That all makes for a nice little story in Northern California and might point toward a turnaround season for Stanford. But consider this, from USC Coach Pete Carroll: "I'm pretty pleased right now."
Given the Trojans' standards of late, Carroll's "pretty pleased" means USC has been pretty awesome. It starts, of course, with Leinart, who has thrown for seven touchdowns with just one interception, and is so comfortable in Chow's offense that he might as well run it from a recliner. Teevens was asked this week what separates Leinart from others at his position, and his answer was a veritable Christmas list of qualities coaches seek in a quarterback.
"He gets the ball off quickly," Teevens said. "He's a dart-thrower. He puts it in small spaces. He throws an easy ball to catch. . . . He seems to be a smart quarterback. He'll take a hit. He's athletic. He can break the pocket and make the play or break the pocket and run. He's self-confident."
Whew. Anything else?
"There's so many qualities he has that I don't see in other people around, to that degree," Teevens said. "He doesn't make mistakes."
The Pac-10 is loaded with talented quarterbacks. And while Leinart is widely acknowledged as the best -- given the litany of reasons Teevens eagerly provides -- he also has the luxury of the best supporting cast.
Such is the problem the Trojans present. Herschel Dennis, the starting tailback last year, was suspended by Carroll for the first two games of this season. So in the season-opening win over Virginia Tech, Leinart merely turned to backup Reggie Bush, who caught five passes out of the backfield for 127 yards and three touchdowns. The following week, in a dominating shutout of Colorado State, White, a 6-2, 235-pound sophomore, powered to 124 yards and three touchdowns on the ground. Then last week against BYU, the pair combined for 224 yards rushing, 49 yards receiving and 3 touchdowns.
And now, as if that wasn't enough for Stanford, Dennis is back.
"It's tough keeping all those guys happy, I would think," Teevens said, "because they all do such good things with the football. . . . There's three people that anybody in the country would love to have."
All of this overlooks the Trojans' defense, which has allowed just two touchdowns in three games. But it also overlooks what might be the Cardinal's most significant source of hope -- hope that comes from, of all places, Berkeley, home of Stanford's rival California Bears.
Cal, after all, provided the lone blemish on USC's record last year, a 34-31 triple-overtime loss that remains the last evidence that the Trojans can be beaten. Though Stanford is loath to draw inspiration from Cal, the Cardinal has little choice, given the task it faces.
"It doesn't matter what the spread is," Edwards said. "That's a reminder. Obviously, Cal played a great game against them. We need to do the same: play a mistake-free football game."