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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 5: U.S.C.

Is that all you got? U.S.C. took your best shot, wiped its lip, shrugged it off and kept on moving, strolling past the overly harsh ruling heaved its way by the N.C.A.A. and coming out clean as a whistle on the other side. Sanctions, penalties, crippling sanctions and penalties? Please. U.S.C. is in a better place today than it was before the N.C.A.A. misguidedly threw down its hammer, if you can believe that. The level of swagger is at 2005-like levels. The quarterback is the best in the nation. The backfield has two 1,000-yard rushers. There are two 1,000-yard receivers. The back seven on defense is ferocious. It’s glory days all over again, even if the Trojans were just put under a two-year cloud, and this program shows no sign of letting up now that all systems are officially go. U.S.C. is back, ladies and gentlemen. That the N.C.A.A. tried and failed to take the Trojans down a peg only makes this renaissance all the more sweet.

Conference
Pac-12, South

Location
Los Angeles

Nickname
Trojans

Returning starters
17 (9 offense, 8 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 32

2011 record
(10-2, 7-2)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 5

2012 schedule

  • Sept. 1
    Hawaii
  • Sept. 8
    vs. Syracuse (in East Rutherford, N.J.)
  • Sept. 15
    at Stanford
  • Sept. 22
    California
  • Oct. 4
    at Utah
  • Oct. 13
    at Washington
  • Oct. 20
    Colorado
  • Oct. 27
    at Arizona
  • Nov. 3
    Oregon
  • Nov. 10
    Arizona St.
  • Nov. 17
    at U.C.L.A.
  • Nov. 24
    Notre Dame

Last year’s prediction

There’s a terrific amount of talent. So what’s missing? Depth, most of all, but while the Trojans are very deep and strong in some areas there are enough trouble spots to keep this team from being a legitimate national contender — and yes, the N.C.A.A. took care of that problem anyway. In short, if everything goes its way U.S.C. could challenge for 10 wins. That’s if there are no injuries, if the offensive line comes together, if the linebacker corps lands strong play from youngsters and the secondary steps up. In a more realistic scenario, these question marks harass U.S.C. all season, preventing the Trojans from reclaiming their place atop the Pac-12.

2011 recap

In a nutshell It wasn’t pretty early, perhaps reinforcing the idea – one I felt wholeheartedly, as you can right above – that U.S.C. did not quite have the horses to make a run at Oregon and Stanford for Pac-12 supremacy. There was that loss to Arizona State, an absolutely unforgivable loss, preceded by ugly wins over Minnesota and Utah. What happened in October? U.S.C. found itself – this team in specific, but also the program at large. The Trojans dismantled California; a week later, the Trojans ripped Notre Dame’s heart out. A loss to Stanford, while disappointing, gave this team even greater confidence heading into November. And what happened in November? U.S.C. became U.S.C., if you know what I mean: the program regained its confidence. While there was no postseason, due to the N.C.A.A. sanctions, it’s hard to imagine anything topping the way the Trojans capped the regular season. By the time U.S.C. sent Rick Neuheisel packing, this team was chomping at the bit for this coming Saturday.

High point Notre Dame was nice. Oregon was terrific – that was a program-building, coach-making win for U.S.C. and Lane Kiffin. But nothing compares to the 50-0 shellacking of U.C.L.A. in the season finale. That was a win for the ages: it was a complete and utter manhandling of U.S.C.’s pseudo-rival – because most rivalries aren’t this one-sided.

Low point I don’t look at the Stanford loss as a low point, seeing that it did propel U.S.C. into an outstanding final month. That leaves only Arizona State, a 43-22 defeat, and I still can’t wrap my head around U.S.C.’s error-filled performance.

Tidbit This fall marks the seventh time in program history that U.S.C. has opened the year ranked No. 1 in The Associated Press Poll. In only one of the previous six occurrences, in 2004, have the Trojans gone on to win the national championship. But the only time where the poll was far off the mark was in 1963, when U.S.C. opened at No. 1 but finished 7-3 and unranked – of course, The A.P. only ranked the top 10 from 1962-67.

Tidbit (good years edition) Based on the program’s history, 2012 might be a good year for the Trojans. In 1922, U.S.C. reached the Rose Bowl for the first time – or any bowl game, for that matter. U.S.C. won its first national title in 1932. U.S.C. won the Pac-10 title and earned another Rose Bowl berth in 1952. John McKay led the Trojans to the national championship in 1962 and 1972. Thirty years later, in 2002, behind Heisman-winning quarterback Carson Palmer, the Trojans had their breakthrough under Pete Carroll.

Tidbit (scoring streak edition) U.S.C. has not been shutout in 181 straight games, a period that dates back to a 27-0 loss to Washington in 1997. The Trojans stand five games away from tying and six games away from breaking the current school record of 186 games, set from 1967-83. And which team might U.S.C. break its own record against? Why, Washington, of course.

Tidbit (presidential edition) Some presidential items, courtesy of U.S.C.’s sports information department. The Trojans are 200-60-14 all-time during election years: 118-26-5 when a Republican won the election and 82-34-9 when a Democrat took the White House. Since 1929, U.S.C. has notched a Rose Bowl berth during the term of every President but one: Barack Obama. If Mitt Romney takes home the election in November, U.S.C. has only one more year to keep that streak alive.

Former players in the N.F.L.

52 TE David Ausberry (Oakland), OT Sam Baker (Atlanta), RB Allen Bradford (Seattle), OT Charles Brown (New Orleans), RB Reggie Bush (Miami), OG Jeff Byers (Carolina), TE Jordan Cameron (Cleveland), WR Brandon Carswell (Oakland), DT Jurrell Casey (Tennessee), QB Matt Cassel (Kansas City), DT Shaun Cody (Houston), LB Brian Cushing (Houston), TE Fred Davis (Washington), DT Sedrick Ellis (New Orleans), TE Rhett Ellison (Minnesota), DE Everson Griffen (Minnesota), DT DaJohn Harris (Tennessee), FB Stanley Havili (Philadelphia), OG Nick Howell (Oakland), DE Lawrence Jackson (Detroit), WR Ronald Johnson (Philadelphia), OT Winston Justice (Indianapolis), C Ryan Kalil (Carolina), OT Matt Kalil (Minnesota), QB Matt Leinart (Oakland), LB Kaluka Maiava (Cleveland), LB Clay Matthews (Green Bay), LB Rey Maualuga (Cincinnati), S Taylor Mays (Cincinnati), TE Anthony McCoy (Seattle), RB Joe McKnight (New York Jets), DT Fili Moala (Indianapolis), DE Kyle Moore (Buffalo), LB Mike Morgan (Seattle), C Kris O’Dowd (Seattle), QB Carson Palmer (Oakland), OG Alex Parsons (Oakland), LB Nick Perry (Green Bay), S Troy Polamalu (Pittsburgh), OG Chilo Rachal (Chicago), LB Keith Rivers (New York Giants), DE Frostee Rucker (Cleveland), QB Mark Sanchez (New York Jets), WR Steve Smith (St. Louis), OT Tyron Smith (Dallas), LB Malcolm Smith (Seattle), CB Terrell Thomas (New York Giants), WR Patrick Turner (New York Jets), RB Marc Tyler (Green Bay), LB Thomas Williams (Tampa Bay0, WR Damian Williams (Tennessee), CB Shareece Wright (San Dieg0).

Arbitrary top five list

F.B.S. quarterbacks from Calif. H.S. (not Barkley)
1. Keith Price, Washington (St. John’s Bosco).
2. Tyler Bray, Tennessee (Kingsburg).
3. Taylor Martinez, Nebraska (Centennial).
4. Derek Carr, Fresno State (Bakersfield Christian).
5. Cody Fajardo, Nevada (Servite).

Coaching

Lane Kiffin (Fresno State ’98), 18-7 after two seasons back with the Trojans. Of course, Kiffin came to Los Angeles after a seven-win season with Tennessee during his lone season in Knoxville. He also spent a year and a fraction as the head coach with the Oakland Raiders, compiling a 5-15 mark from 2007-8. Though the record (4-12 in 2007) does not show it, Kiffin did not do a terrible job with the Raiders, especially on offense. In 2006, Oakland finished dead last in the N.F.L. in scoring, total offense and passing touchdowns and 29th in rushing. In the next season, Kiffin’s first, the Raiders moved up to 25th in scoring – up to 17.7 points per game from 10.5 – and sixth in rushing. Despite these gains, Kiffin was fired by the Raiders four games into the 2008 season. Will we ever know the true story behind his abrupt departure? Probably not. Tennessee didn’t seem to care: he was hired by the university two months later. What attracted U.T. – as well as a number of other universities with open coaching jobs – was Kiffin’s work as an assistant with the Trojans. He served under Pete Carroll from 2001-6, first as the tight ends coach (2001) and receivers coach (2002-4) before ascending to the offensive coordinator spot from 2005-6. He was also the team’s recruiting coordinator over his final two seasons. In terms of statistics, the 2005 team led the nation in total offense, while the 2006 team featured a 3,000-yard passer and a pair of 1,000-yard receivers. The Trojans went a remarkable 65-12 over his six seasons on the staff, 59-6 from 2002-6. All this, of course, became overshadowed by Kiffin’s dastardly turn as SEC villain, which cemented his status as the most despised figure in college football’s premier conference. New conference, new coast, slightly similar story. Now, however, the rest of this league fears Kiffin – the rest of the Pac-12 is scared of a U.S.C. revival, and rightfully so. It’s amazing: Kiffin handled the program’s probation period better than anyone could have anticipated. Two years later, U.S.C. is again an elite program.

Tidbit (coaching edition) U.S.C. lost three members of last year’s staff. One is Sammy Knight, a graduate assistant who worked with the safeties, essentially as a 10th assistant coach. The other pair are off to the N.F.L.: linebackers coach Joe Barry, who has an extensive N.F.L. background, left to join the San Diego Chargers, and wide receivers coach Ted Gilmore left after one season to join the Oakland Raiders. In response, Kiffin brought in some very talented assistants. The first is defensive backs coach Marvin Sanders, the Bo Pelini disciple who had joined Pelini’s brother, Carl, at Florida Atlantic before moving to Los Angeles. Gilmore’s replacement is former Kentucky receivers coach – and national title-winning quarterback – Tee Martin, who has been a nice fit thus far. To replace Barry, Kiffin reached down to the F.C.S. to nab Scottie Hazleton, the former defensive coordinator at North Dakota State.

Players to watch

I have very little to add about Matt Barkley, the fourth-year starting quarterback who enters his final season as the leading Heisman favorite, and rightfully so. By the end of this coming season, he’ll hold every meaningful passing record in program history: passing yards, completions, touchdowns, completion percentage and total offense, to name a few. His junior season – 3,528 yards, a school-record completion percentage of 69.1 percent, a conference-record 39 touchdowns – was the finest by a quarterback in school history, better than Palmer, better than Leinart, better than Sanchez. Barkley is a three-time team captain, the first to be so honored in program history; he’s a banner student-athlete, by all accounts, whether on the field, in the classroom or in the community.

He’s everything you want in a quarterback – make Barkley two inches taller and you’d see his picture listed beside the word in your nearest dictionary. And lost in the shuffle is this idea: Barkley is the ambassador for U.S.C. football. Never before had the Trojans needed a player, not a coach, to step to the forefront and be the face of the program – due not only to the fact that Kiffin was so universally derided after Tennessee, but also because of the recent sanctions. Barkley bridged the gap from Pete Carroll to Kiffin, giving U.S.C. a clear and undisputed leader during a two-year stretch that could have otherwise been disastrous for U.S.C.’s hopes of remaining among the nation’s elite.

In short, all Barkley is, on the field and off, makes him one of the defining players in the history of a program littered with generation-defining players. He’s just a special college quarterback – whether or not he wins the Heisman, or if U.S.C. wins a title this fall, Barkley will long be remembered in Los Angeles and beyond.

It just isn’t fair. On one side, U.S.C. has Robert Woods (111 receptions for 1,292 yards and 15 scores), an all-American. On the other, at flanker, U.S.C. has sophomore Marqise Lee (73 for 1,143 and 11 scores), a reigning freshman all-American – and a heavy contender for big-boy all-American honors in his second season. When you have Barkley under center, one of the Pac-12’s best offensive lines and this pair running routes, what hopes do most teams have of slowing U.S.C.’s passing game? Not much, to be honest. Stopping Woods is the key, as his ability to demand double-teams opens things up for Lee, who is one of the premier big-play threats in the country; 10 of his 11 touchdown grabs traveled 24 or more yards. Stopping Woods is easier said than done, of course, as every team in the Pac-12 can attest. There’s no better one-two punch in the country.

The heated battle between junior De’Von Flourney, freshman Nelson Agholor and sophomore George Farmer for the spot as the Trojans’ third receiver will likely carry over into September, with Kiffin and this staff waiting for each to prove themselves in this offense before making a final decision. But even if one makes a move for the job – and it looks like Flourney leads the way – all three will contribute. Farmer’s usefulness extends beyond the passing game, as he can help out in the backfield and on special teams, as can Woods and Lee. At tight end, U.S.C. returns sophomores Randall Telfair (26 for 273) and Xavier Grimble (15 for 144). Well, Barkley has a few toys to play with on passing downs.

There’s only one loss up front, but it’s a big one: U.S.C. must replace an all-American at left tackle in Ryan Kalil, who opted to forego his final season of eligibility. Rather than promote sophomore Nathan Guertier, who spent much of last season as Kalil’s backup, U.S.C. moved sophomore Aundrey Walker over from right guard – and Walker, knowing what lies ahead, has cut body weight equivalent to a middle-school girl from his robust frame. Whether Walker can handle the pressure of being Barkley’s blind-side protector is the only question mark still lingering among an otherwise strong offensive front. Four starters return: sophomore Marcus Martin at left guard, senior Khaled Holmes at center – he’s an all-American candidate – junior John Martinez at right guard and junior Kevin Graf at right tackle.

Outside of the changes at left tackle, it’s an improved group. U.S.C. knows that Holmes, one of the best linemen in the country, will solidify the line from his spot in the middle. Martin has Holmes-like upside, though he may be a year away from reaching his full potential. Graf’s a heavy all-conference contender. If reserve guard Abe Markowitz can remain healthy, U.S.C. has very nice depth nearly across the board – again, everywhere but left tackle. While the spot on the blind side is the line’s biggest concern, I am extremely confident that Kiffin and his staff will do whatever it takes up front – outside of running full protection on every down, which would hurt the passing game’s overall effectiveness – to keep Barkley clean. U.S.C. allowed one sack for every 55.8 pass attempts last fall; that’ll be a hard total to match without Kalil, but the Trojans will remain in the ballpark.

That U.S.C. already had one 1,000-yard back, senior Curtis McNeal (1,005 yards), didn’t stop the Trojans from pulling out all the stops to reel in another. In Penn State transfer Silas Redd (1,241 yards), U.S.C. added the sort of battle-tested back that can help give this offense even greater balance than it featured a season ago. Are McNeal and Redd complimentary pieces – is one quick, the other strong? Not really. Both are shiftier backs, not churn-it-out backs, so it’ll be interesting to see how U.S.C. utilizes the pair in concert.

What you know: McNeal and Redd will each get at least 125 touches, such as McNeal and Marc Tyler did a year ago, and both should gain at least 650 yards in this offense. It’s also possible that one moves into a lead role at some point, likely during the early stages of Pac-12 play. While there won’t be much left over behind McNeal and Redd, U.S.C. also returns sophomore D.J. Morgan (163 yards). With fullback Rhett Ellison gone, the Trojans can either start a holdover like redshirt freshman Soma Vainuku or hand the job over to true freshman Jahleel Pinner.

The line separating U.S.C. from Oregon is razor-thin – today, in the polls, and in November, when the two meet between the white lines. Where do the Trojans have the Ducks beat? At quarterback, obviously. At wide receiver – again, obviously. Not along the offensive line; you can make a case for U.S.C., but the Ducks are at least a slight step ahead. And you can flip that statement when it comes to the secondary: Oregon’s back four are terrific, but in this case, U.S.C. has them beat. And the Trojans’ linebackers can play, especially on the outside. What else does U.S.C. have? More depth than you might think along the back seven, all things considered – remember that the program hasn’t been playing with a full deck in regards to scholarship distribution.

The Trojans also have the elder Kiffin, and it’s obvious that U.S.C.’s defense was far more comfortable in its second season in his system – last year’s defense allowed nearly a half-yard less per play and roughly a field goal less per game than in 2010, making some impressive strides against the run. For now, any question whether U.S.C. can continue to stop the run effectively and get pressure with its front four hinges largely on Monte Kiffin’s ability to sew together a line dinged by attrition, as I’ll mention below. Along the back seven, however, U.S.C. is ready to roll.

As noted, the Trojans have a pair of all-conference outside linebackers. On the weak side, U.S.C. returns sophomores Hayes Pullard (81 tackles, 4.0 sacks); on the strong side, it’s sophomore Dion Bailey (81 tackles, 2 interceptions). Based merely on stature, it’s surprising to see Pullard, at 235 pounds, on the weak side, while the 210-pound Bailey controls the strong side. But it works, and works well, and I think that U.S.C. wants to get Pullard in a situation where he can more effectively rush the passer. While the Trojans lose Chris Galippo, sophomore Lamar Dawson (25 tackles) started the last four games of last season after Galippo went down with an injury; U.S.C. is not worried about his ability to move seamlessly into a full-time starting role.

Sophomore, sophomore, sophomore. The youth – and resulting potential – is a big part of the story on the second level, joining the fact that this group, and Pullard and Bailey in particular, played extremely well as rookies. The depth isn’t overly experienced, outside of senior Tony Burnett (25 tackles), a former defensive back who could play a role as a coverage linebacker on passing downs, and junior Marquis Simmons, who missed most of last season with a neck injury. But there are freshmen on the two-deep with massive potential, like true freshman Scott Starr, who has already grasped the backup role at middle linebacker. It’s only logical to expect U.S.C. to get even better play on the second level.

There are two senior starters on the defense – two surefire starters, at least: Wes Horton and free safety T.J. McDonald (67 tackles, 3 interceptions). The latter is a reigning first-team all-conference pick and a heavy, heavy contender for all-American accolades in his final season. With such changes up front and youth at linebacker, U.S.C. looks to McDonald not only for his production, which is as good as you’ll find anywhere, but also his leadership qualities. He’s the Barkley of this defense: McDonald leads in word and in action. What’s there to love about McDonald’s play? He has a complete, well-rounded game – he’s able to move inside and cover the slot receiver, hover over the deep middle of the field and supply toughness against the run. McDonald is the total package; he’s an all-American.

A second senior could join him in the secondary, should Jawanza Starling (48 tackles, 3.5 for loss) grab the starting job at strong safety ahead of junior Demetrius Wright. In all, there’s really nice experience along the back end. Even if Starling doesn’t start – and I think he will, though not based on anything I’ve heard, just a feeling – he’ll join another senior, Drew McAllister (22 tackles), to give this defense four very capable options at safety. Depth could extend beyond this four if JUCO transfer Gerald Bowman can make an immediate impact. As of today, due to U.S.C.’s wealth of options, it’s hard to see how Bowman lands a meaningful spot in the rotation.

U.S.C. returns its top three cornerbacks from last fall, led by junior Nickell Robey (63 tackles, 2 interceptions), a first-team all-conference selection. Yeah, Robey’s small – listed at 5’8 – but that doesn’t limit his ability to hang with bigger receivers, nor has his lack of prototypical size been a major issue since Robey refined his technique on the fly as a true freshman starter. On the other side, U.S.C. brings back sophomore Anthony Brown and junior Torin Harris, who split time in the starting lineup a year ago. Look for a pair of incoming freshmen, Devian Shelton and Kevon Seymour, to see the field when U.S.C. moves into a six-defensive back alignment.

Any question marks surrounding this defense revolve around the line, which is lacking in both proven production and adequate depth. Will the Trojans take a step back against the run? Will the defense be able to get pressure on the quarterback with its front four? Most title-worthy teams don’t have such questions. Why U.S.C. can potentially overcome its line woes – outside of the fact that the line is still loaded with talent – is due to the experience and production found along the back seven. There are no depth issues here, though the widespread consensus is that the Trojans are one or two injuries away from falling apart at nearly every position. If the line is better than most think it will be, U.S.C.’s defense will be more than good enough to win every game.

Woods and Lee are threats for six on every kick return. Robey is steady on punt returns – and more than occasionally explosive. Sophomore kicker Andre Heidari, who made 15 of 17 field goals as a rookie, is a candidate for end-of-year hardware. While not a boomer, senior punter Kyle Negrete is very efficient on directional punts. So what’s not to like? Whether due to an inability to mount a full roster or as a result of a scheme issue, U.S.C. has not done on a nice job on coverage since Kiffin took over in 2010. Perhaps that changes this fall thanks in part to the new recruits that arrived over the summer and the handful of freshmen coming off of a redshirt season.

Position battle(s) to watch

Defensive line No group was dinged by attrition more than the defensive line, which lost three starters off of last year’s starting front – and you make the case that thanks to overall depth issues, no group could have less afforded to lose a starter a year ahead of schedule, as U.S.C. did with end Nick Perry, an all-conference pick. It gets worse: U.S.C. also lost freshman end DeVante Wilson, who will miss the entire season following a knee injury, and senior end Devon Kennard (29 tackles), who might miss the entire season after tearing a chest muscle just prior to fall camp. Where does this leave U.S.C. heading into the opener against Hawaii? Not in a good place, that’s where.

Kennard’s injury forced the Trojans to move sophomore J.R. Tavai outside from tackle, though Tavai, due to his lack of adequate size, was always a better fit on the edge. He’ll be joined in the starting lineup by the only returning starter up front, Horton (22 tackles, 4.0 sacks), and it’ll be on the senior to provide not just vastly increased production but the sort of leadership sorely lacking throughout the rest of this line. Depth at end will come from redshirt freshman Greg Townsend and JUCO transfer Morgan Breslin, with the latter viewed as a potential difference-maker in a situational role – Breslin could give U.S.C. some valuable snaps as an edge rusher on third down. Inside, the Trojans will team sophomore George Uko (18 tackles), a two-game starter last fall, with redshirt freshman Antwaun Woods. U.S.C. is crossing its fingers that this starting quartet can produce.

The starting lineup isn’t the big issue: all four can play and all four can produce, as they wouldn’t be at U.S.C. otherwise. The issue is depth, or lack thereof, and the lack of bodies is clearly evident inside. Uko’s backup is true freshman Leonard Williams, who most assumed would open his career at end. The nose tackle spot will be handled by three redshirt freshmen in Woods, Christian Heyward and Cody Temple, with the latter a converted offensive lineman. You can’t sugarcoat this: U.S.C. is dynamite everywhere but along the defensive line – and the Trojans are simply not built to win a national title up front. What’s going to happen when Oregon runs the top four ragged?

Game(s) to watch

U.S.C. gets three very tough road games by the midway point: Stanford, Utah and Washington. The one must-win game there comes against the Utes, the Trojans’ fiercest divisional rival; a Utah win there might be difficult for U.S.C. to overcome, thanks to the Utes’ ridiculously smooth conference schedule. Another trio of big games come over the second half, highlighted by that home date with Oregon in early November. A win over Utah virtually ensures a South title; however, as you know, every game will count for U.S.C.’s hopes at a B.C.S. title game berth. What does that mean? Well, U.S.C. has to beat Oregon twice – and that’s as daunting a proposition as it sounds. Here’s guessing that come Nov. 17, U.S.C. will welcome Jim Mora to the rivalry with open arms. Unlike in the past, U.S.C. will not close with U.C.L.A. but rather Notre Dame.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell Two trouble spots: defensive line and special teams coverage. Everywhere else, U.S.C. is as polished, poised and productive as you’d expect from a team with national title aspirations – with real, not imaginary title expectations. You need to consider this in a historical light: U.S.C. has weathered the storm of N.C.A.A. sanctions better than any team in college football history; the Trojans actually improved, perhaps rallying around the us-against-the-world mentality brought on by the penalties assessed prior to the 2010 season. Today? The Trojans are a superb football team. Without any doubt, this is one of the top five teams in the country – U.S.C. is as good as they get.

So why don’t I have U.S.C. as the best team in the country? Because I’m not confident in the Trojans’ ability to beat Oregon once, let alone twice. This fact has a tremendous amount to do with the team’s issues on the defensive front. As we know, the Ducks are going to exploit this perceived weakness from opening kickoff to final whistle; Chip Kelly always goes for the jugular, and with U.S.C. lacking experience and depth up front, Oregon is going to do whatever it takes to force this defense to simply run out of gas along the front four. Maybe U.S.C. can get the better of the Ducks once; I cannot see it happening twice – and if the Trojans do lose a game, it would more likely be in the Pac-12 title game, not at home in November.

If I’m nitpicking, it’s because of this razor-thin gap separating two teams with jaw-dropping credentials. U.S.C. is excellent across the board: Barkley is the leader for the Heisman; Woods and Lee form the nation’s best one-two pair at receiver; if Walker can get the job done, the line will be terrific; adding Redd gives the running game additional star power; the linebackers are young, hungry and sideline-to-sideline aggressive; and the secondary, paced by McDonald, rivals Oregon’s for the Pac-12’s best. There is every reason – every single reason – to think that U.S.C. can win its league and the national title. For me, however, Oregon is the pick in the Pac-12.

Dream season No one sniffs the Trojans. Not U.C.L.A., of course. Not Notre Dame. Not Stanford. Not Oregon – twice. The Trojans go 12-0 in the regular season, beat the Ducks to win the Pac-12 crown and meet L.S.U. in January for the national title.

Nightmare season Not many losses, but each hits U.S.C. where it hurts. A loss to Utah hands the Utes the South title. A loss to Oregon ends any shot of a national title. A loss to U.C.L.A. hurts most of all. And a loss to Notre Dame in the finale sends the Irish to a B.C.S. bowl.

In case you were wondering

Where do U.S.C. fans congregate? For some solid message board chatter, check out Tribute to TroyU.S.C. FootballS.C. Playbook and We Are S.C. For additional coverage, look no further than Conquest ChroniclesTrojan Wire, Scott Wolf’s Inside U.S.C. and the Web site of The Orange County Register.

U.S.C.’s all-name nominee QB John Manoogian.

Word Count

Through 120 teams 495,694.

Up Next

Who is No. 4? The illustrious list of former students who wrote for the newspaper at tomorrow’s university include one individual who visited the offices of The New York Times on Aug. 1.

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Comments

  1. Eksynyt says:

    Oregon is probly next. They have a tremendous journalism school.

  2. George says:

    Who is left? Oregon, Bama, FSU and who? Thanks in advance.

    Awesome work Paul as always.

  3. glenn says:

    Alabama
    Florida St
    LSU
    Oregon

  4. Patrick says:

    Alabama is next. Gay Talese stopped by the NYT’s sports department on August 1, and is a ‘Bama alum. Interestingly enough, he’s a

    https://twitter.com/EnnisNYT/status/230683382613430272

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_University_of_Alabama_people

  5. Patrick says:

    … visiting writer in a writing program at USC each spring.

  6. Michael says:

    Paul, if your ability to gauge USC’s pre-season talent is as good as last year’s prediction (#32), then USC should win the National Championship hands down.

    Paul: Well played. And yes, you’re absolutely right.

  7. Lee says:

    Paul is spot on with USC. They simply DO NOT have the depth on the defensive line to win a national championship. They will have to beat Oregon twice and then probably have to contend with LSU for the crown. LSU can pound the ball. I say 10-2 reg season.

    USC’s problem is that they are a poor matchup against the above two teams as they are ground orientated attacks.

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