We are less than two days away from the start to the 2012 college football season and that means that we have reached the end of our summer long Rant Sports 100 in 100 college football previews series.
Without further ado, the No. 1 team in our poll is the USC Trojans.
The Trojans have finally emerged from the handcuffs of the NCAA sanctions that prevented them from participating in any form of postseason play for the last two seasons. Last season the Trojans were technically the Pac 12 South division champions but were unable to play for the conference title due to sanctions. However, this season, USC is primed to make a triumphant return to the college football landscape and immediately compete for a national championship. They survived their exile and are now ready to take it out on the rest of the country.
Let’s take a look at each element that makes up the No. 1 in the nation.
There hasn’t been anything about quarterback Matt Barkley that hasn’t been said or written before heading into this season. He’s the leading Heisman Trophy candidate and he specifically returned for his senior season just to lead USC to a national championship. He announced his decision to return right before last Christmas and oh what a present it was for Trojans fans.
Just looking at his stats from last season, Barkley completed 69.1 percent of his throws for 3,528 yards, 39 TDs and only seven interceptions. If he can duplicate, or dare I say better, those statistics the Trojans will be in great shape and will find themselves where they want to be at the end of the year.
Coming into the 2012 season, one of the only places on the offensive side of the ball that seemed to have questions was at running back.
Well, that question mark was quickly replaced with an exclamation point after Silas Redd transferred to USC from Penn State. Due to NCAA rules allowing Penn State players to transfer without sitting out a season, Redd will be able to contribute right away. He will add power to a speedy backfield that includes senior Curtis McNeal and sophomore D.J. Morgan. McNeal averaged 6.9 yards per carry last year and scored six times while topping the 100-yard mark in four games. He has the speed to break off some huge plays while Redd will provide the power between the tackles. The one-two punch will be just another excellent weapon that the USC offense will have at its disposal.
Speaking of weapons, the receiving corps that Barkley has to throw to is unreal. They are fortunate to have two of the best wide-outs in the nation in Robert Woods and Marquise Lee. Even though he is not the biggest receiver (6-foot-1, 190 pounds) last season Woods broke a conference record by catching 111 passes for 1,292 yards and 15 TDs. He became Barkley’s favorite target and will continue to be his go-to-guy heading into this season.
On the other side, Lee put up just as good of numbers catching 73 passes, scoring 11 times and averaging 15.7 yards per reception as a true freshman. He’s a quick receiver and is their best deep-ball threat. Just to show Lee’s potential as he embarks on his sophomore season, in their final game a year ago against UCLA, he blew up catching 13 passes for 224 yards and 2 TDs. Oh my. George Farmer, De’Von Flournoy and Victor Blackwell are the other receivers that will be making plays in the Trojans offense.
The only true concern on the Trojans’ 2012 roster is on the defensive line. They lost three of their starters from a season ago and will be thin on the line this season. Senior Wes Horton shared starting responsibilites last year but he will be the starting defensive end along with J.R. Taval this year. Horton is the better of the two, posting four sacks last season and according to coach Lane Kiffin, should have a big 2012 for the Trojans. They will be pretty young up the middle with freshmen Antwuan Woods and sophomore George Uko starting so they might be susceptible to giving up a lot of rushing yards this season.
A year ago the Trojans rolled the dice and started three freshmen at linebacker but it paid off in a big way.
Now that those three guys have a full season under their belts their experience will help make up for an inexperience front four. Dion Bailey and Hayes Pullard each recorded 81 tackles last year and will be the guys starting on the outside. Bailey is the reigning Pac 12 freshmen defensive player of the year and should have another outstanding season wreaking havoc on opposing offenses. Hayes was the more consistent player, recording 6.5 tackles for loss to go along with 4.5 sacks. The man in the middle will be Lamar Dawson who came on at the end of last year and started the final four games of the season.
The secondary is by far the strength of this defense. They are talented, deep and they will have to carry this unit. Senior safety T.J. McDonald is the leader of this group and is arguably the best defensive back in the entire country. He’ll likely repeat as an all-conference and All-America selection this year and is the front runner for the Thorpe Award. He accumulated 67 tackles and three interceptions a year ago but those numbers might drop a little when opposing quarterbacks try to avoid throwing in his direction. Jawanza Starling is listed as the co-starter with Demetrius Wright at strong safety.
Either one of those guys will be immediate impact players and will likely see a lot of action when QB’s avoid throwing to McDonald’s side of the field. The cornerbacks are led by Nickell Robey who is known as their shut-down coverage guy. The first team All-Pac 12 selection had 63 tackles to go along with two interceptions last year. Anthony Brown will get the starting nod at the other corner.
Schedule and Analysis
The Trojans’ start to their 2012 schedule is relatively easy. Their first two games are at home against Hawaii and Syracuse, two teams that are not predicted to be very good.
The schedule toughens as they enter conference play in week three when they travel to Palo Alto to take on Stanford in a rematch of their epic 3-OT game last season. USC gets Stanford early when they are still breaking in their new quarterback so this game won’t be as difficult as it could be, even on the road.
Their next three games might be a little tricky. USC gets California at home but then they have a tough two-game road trip with a Thursday battle in Salt Lake to face Utah and then a trip to take on Washington. That’s a pretty tough back-to-back and it could have the potential to trip them up if they aren’t focused.
USC plays two of the weaker teams in the conference (Colorado, at Arizona) before their monumental showdown against RS No. 4 Oregon in the Coliseum on November 3. A game that will have huge national championship implications for both teams should be the one of the best games in the country this season.
After Oregon they finish the season against Arizona State, at UCLA and then home against Notre Dame. It should set them up with a potential rematch in the Pac 12 Championship game against Oregon if either team doesn’t slip up along the way.
As long as USC remains healthy there is no reason they shouldn’t be competing for the national title in January. However, if there are some injuries during the season it could spell trouble seeing as the Trojans are not the deepest team in the country due to their reduced scholarships from the NCAA sanctions.
Lane Kiffin led his team from the shadows of the sanctions and now it’s his turn to lead them back to a national championship season.
David LaRose is one of the featured College Football writers for Rant Sports covering the Pac 12 and the University of Colorado.