Submitted by Jim Hurley on Saturday, August 18, 2012 at 9:31 PM
Can USC grab BCS glory from the SEC? That’s really the biggest story in the Pac 12 South this year. USC is very well positioned to dominate the southern half of the recently re-formed conference. They were best in show last year but weren’t eligible to play in the conference championship game because of probation. (That’s why poor UCLA had to get crushed by Oregon!). This year, the Trojans will be best in their division, are currently expected to be best in the whole conference, and are the popular choice by many to run the table and win the coveted BCS crown.
Here’s the short list of why:
*USC ended last year as one of the best teams in the country. That was signaled by impressive midseason wins at Cal and Notre Dame (by a 61-26 composite on the road!), what should have been a win over Stanford (seen as a national championship threat at the time), a road win at Oregon who went on to beat Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl, and a 50-0 “virtual bowl” against the UCLA team that won the South by default. Had there been a postseason tournament where USC was eligible…they might have outplayed Alabama or LSU head-to-head at a neutral site based on those results.
*USC returns star quarterback Matt Barkley, who finally settled into his Golden Boy role last year in very impressive fashion. He’s a legitimate star at the game’s most important position.
*USC returns 8 offensive starts and 7 defensive starts from a team that was fantastic. It’s very tough to get WORSE when you return so much experience.
*USC has been recruiting well since things started to look up again for the program. That means they’re deeper this year, and even more dangerous in their biggest games.
*USC has a very manageable schedule. The early non-conference games shouldn’t make them sweat. Their own division is weak. They get Stanford early when the Cardinal are still breaking in a new starting quarterback. They get Oregon at home. It’s not exactly 12 creampuffs. And, Utah’s going to have mischief on its mind when the Trojans visit Salt Lake City in early October. But, it’s easier to go 12-0 against this kind of schedule than the ones many other top teams are seeing.
Well, this is a preview of the whole Pac 12 South…not just the Trojans. Let’s run the indicator numbers and see how things are likely to play out…
PAC 12 SOUTH
Athlon Ranking: 1st
2011 Total Offense: 21st
2011 Total Defense: 54th
Strength: Pass Offense (15th)
Weakness: Pass Defense (102nd)
Returning Starters: 8 on offense, 7 on defense
Head Coach: Lane Kiffin
Notebook: Not much to add to what we already ran through. Athlon picks them first in the nation, and is not alone on that mountaintop making the proclamation. Hopefully the best teams play to their abilities this year, and we have a great postseason. The Trojans will be on TV a lot. Their first real test will be game three at Stanford…and that may not be much of a test of the new Cardinal QB isn’t up to the task.
Athlon Ranking: 33rd
2011 Total Offense: 109th
2011 Total Defense: 38th
Strength: Rush Defense (20th)
Weakness: Pass Offense (99th)
Returning Starters: 8 on offense, 7 on defense
Head Coach: Kyle Whittingham
Notebook: Okay, let’s talk about some other teams. Utah had a lot of trouble early in Pac 12 play last year, losing badly to Washington, Arizona State, and California. It looked like the move to the big time was going to be a painful mistake. The Utes did close the season well though, until a home loss to Colorado proved embarrassing. A bowl win over Georgia Tech (overtime in the Sun Bowl) lifted the team to 8-5, and may have provided a nice springboard into this season. Quarterback Jordan Wynn returns, as do a lot of players on both sides of the ball. Note that Athlon doesn’t see them as a Top 25 team. And, their average stat ranking on offense and defense was in the mid 70’s last year. We’ll pick our spots this year in the most obvious motivational situations (particularly revenge spots). Things could get very interesting in the race for second place down South because the next three teams we’re about to list all have brand new head coaches.
Athlon Ranking: 42nd
2011 Total Offense: 72nd
2011 Total Defense: 89th
Strength: Rush Offense (37th)
Weakness: Rush Defense (96th)
Returning Starters: 4 on offense, 8 on defense
Head Coach: Jim Mora
Notebook: Jim Mora is back on the sidelines after some time spent in the TV studio. You have to wonder if he was hired because of star appeal given his lack of a college background. Punditry has already gotten him in trouble given recent comments to the media about dangerous campuses nearby. It would be good for college football if UCLA could finally get back on its feet again. The Rick Neuheisel era was a disappointment. It’s not like Mora comes in with a better college resume than Neuheisel. We’ll keep an open but skeptical mind about this hire. Early home testers against Nebraska and Houston should tell us a lot about how the season is going to go.
Athlon Ranking: 43rd
2011 Total Offense: 16th
2011 Total Defense: 110th
Strength: Pass Defense (119th)
Weakness: Pass Offense (3rd)
Returning Starters: 5 on offense, 4 on defense
Head Coach: Rich Rodriguez
Notebook: Rodriguez did great things at West Virginia in a lousy conference, but seemed to be in way over his head in the Big 10 at Michigan. Will the porridge be just right at a midlevel Pac 12 program? We could certainly see this working out, particularly once Rodriguez has had a chance to recruit to his system. He’s got a creative offensive mind…and the Pac 12 doesn’t exactly sparkle on the defensive side of the ball top to bottom. We don’t expect a climb to national glory by any means. But, Arizona can be relevant again in a conference that lets you climb the ladder if you know what you’re doing. Inexperience will be a problem, as will unfamiliarity with a new system. This may be a team that starts sluggishly but ends well.
Athlon Ranking: 55th
2011 Total Offense: 25th
2011 Total Defense: 91st
Strength: Pass Offense (10th)
Weakness: Pass Defense (108th)
Returning Starters: 4 on offense, 4 on defense
Head Coach: Todd Graham
Notebook: Graham basically matched Rodriguez but on a smaller scale. Graham did big things in Conference USA, which is easy to dominate with a gimmick approach, but then seemed over his head at Pittsburgh in his limited time there. He just wasn’t a good fit for the program or its future, and got out of dodge before that became clear to everyone else. To us, he’s likely to get exposed in the Pac 12…as others have been who were brought in from lesser conferences. The good news is that you can be mediocre and still keep a job in the Pac 12 for awhile! We should note that Graham’s system is well suited to the weather he’ll usually be playing in. This is a much better fit with West coast athletes in the sunshine than it was with Pennsylvania athletes playing in inconsistent conditions. We’ll see if he catches some opponents napping this year…before the top teams make adjustments to him in the future.
Athlon Ranking: 84th
2011 Total Offense: 92nd
2011 Total Defense: 102nd
Strength: Pass Offense (57th)
Weakness: Rush Offense (106th)
Returning Starters: 3 on offense, 6 on defense
Head Coach: Jon Embree
Notebook: This could get ugly. Colorado was 2-7 in conference play last year and lost a ton of starters. Athlon doesn’t think they’ll win a league game in 2012. Our Power Ratings would agree with that general assessment…though it’s easy for teams like this to catch one or two opponents napping. This is not a team we’ll be involved with much unless they show us some fire early…then we’ll consider taking them at home at altitude against late season visitors like Stanford or Washington.
That wraps up our two-day look at the Pac 12. Things can be summed up this way:
National Championship Threats: Definitely USC, and probably Oregon
Hired New Big Splash Head Coaches: Washington State, UCLA, Arizona, and Arizona State
Should Be Competitive Returning Starting QB: Washington, California, Utah
Who Knows?: Stanford
We’ve got two more conferences to discuss in our summer series. The SEC will be up next weekend, with the East one day and the West the other. Then, on a couple of weekdays right after that, we’ll finish off with the Big 10 to get you ready for Michigan State’s big game with Boise State and Michigan’s clash with Alabama that will highlight the first weekend of TV action.
We hope you’ve been printing out all of these previews through July (mid majors) and August (majors). You still have time to go through the archives and do that if you’ve just come back to visit the website after taking the summer off.
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