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It wasn't long ago, in the days of the conference being called the Pac-10, that the make up of the league was USC and then everybody else.
Success in college football can be very fleeting. USC is the best example of that. The Trojans dipped far below their standards, and watched as Oregon and Stanford took their place atop what is now the Pac-12 mountain.
USC is back, though, and not just as a contender in the Pac-12. The Trojans are back in the national title picture. Many believe the Trojans are just the team to end the SEC's run of BCS Championships.
First, the Trojans must make it through the Pac-12. Is there a team in the conference ready to take down USC?
Here's my team-by-team breakdown of the Pac-12:
1. Oregon (Projected: 10-2, 7-2 in conference)
Top players: OG Carson York, RB Kenjon Barner, DE Dion Jordan, DB John Boyett, LB Michael Clay, WR Josh Huff, OC Hroniss Grasu, DT Taylor Hart, LB Kiko Alonso, OT Nick Cody, RB De'Anthony Thomas, QB Marcus Mariota
Bowl projection: Rose
Analysis: As always, the Ducks are loaded with speed. The biggest question surrounding the team is how well QB Marcus Mariota can replace Darron Thomas. Oregon has never had issues plugging in a new body at QB before, though. And with RBs Kenjon Barner and De'Anthony Thomas both back, the Ducks offense isn't going to be hurting for playmakers. Oregon remains the team to watch in the Pac-12 for highlight reel plays and is the biggest threat to USC's Pac-12 title hopes.
2. Washington (9-3, 7-2)
Top players: QB Keith Price, TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins, CB Desmond Trufant, WR Kasen Williams, OG Erik Kohler, OC Drew Schaefer, DB Sean Parker, DE Josh Shirley
Bowl projection: Alamo
Analysis: The Huskies could be the surprise team of the Pac-12. The key will be finding adequate replacements for the weapons QB Keith Price lost around him. His top two receivers and top RB all graduated or left school early. Price is the kind of QB that can make a receiver look good, though. And coach Steve Sarkisian and his staff have earned the right to have fans believe in their ability to churn out solid WRs and RBs. If the new faces at skill positions can step up around Price, this is a team capable of winning this division.
3. Stanford (9-3, 6-3)
Top players: RB Stepfan Taylor, OG David Yankey, LB Shayne Skov, LB Chase Thomas, DE Ben Gardner, OT Cameron Fleming, TE Levine Toilolo, TE Zach Ertz, WR Ty Montgomery, DT Terrence Stephens, LB Trent Murphy, QB Josh Nunes
Bowl projection: Holiday
Analysis: Andrew Luck is gone, but there's still plenty of talent left at Stanford. Junior Josh Nunes will replace Luck behind center, but this offense will be more about the running game and RB Stepfan Taylor. Stanford has routinely brought in some of the best OL in the country, allowing the Cardinal to continue playing a physical style of football more suited for the SEC than the Pac-12. Defensively, LB Shayne Skov is back after missing much of last seaosn with an injury and is joined on the LB corps by Chase Thomas. They make a dangerous duo for the Cardinal. I rank them third in this division, but that speaks to the depth of this division. Stanford is still a threat to win the North.
4. Cal (6-6, 4-5)
Top players: WR Keenan Allen, OT Matt Summers-Gavin, DT Aaron Tipoti, OC Brian Schwenke, CB Marc Anthony, RB Isi Sofele, LB Cecil Whiteside, QB Zach Maynard
Bowl projection: Las Vegas
Analysis: Cal was once considered the second best team in the Pac-12, but the Golden Bears now seem to barely be in bowl contention each season. Jeff Tedford's seat has been hot, but he remains the head coach. There is some big-time talent on board, though, including WR Keenan Allen, who is one of the best in the nation at his position. Isi Sofele is a very underrated RB. The Golden Bears have had one of the best defenses in the Pac-12 the past few seasons, but that's not exactly saying much in a conference that is very much about offense. Cal simply can't score with most of the teams in the Pac-12.
5. Washington State (4-8, 3-6)
Top players: QB Jeff Tuel, WR Marquess Wilson, LB Travis Long, OT John Fullington, DB Deone Bucannon, RB Ricky Galvin, CB Damante Horton, RB Carl Winston
Bowl projection: None
Analysis: The Mike Leach era begins at Washington State, but don't expect instant success like Leach had at Texas Tech. Eventually, he will produce a team capable of betting competing in the conference, but for now the Cougars are still near the bottom of the Pac-12 totem pole. When Leach put in his Air Raid offense at Tech, it caught a lot of people off guard. That won't happen in the Pac-12, and Washington State doesn't have the complete team speed on offense yet to make the offense lethal. But, do expect big numbers from QB Jeff Tuel and WR Marquess Wilson should become a star in the conference. Perhaps an upset of one of the upper echelon teams in the conference will come as well, but don't expect a bowl berth.
6. Oregon State (3-9, 2-7)
Top players: CB Jordan Poyer, DE Scott Crichton, WR Markus Wheaton, LB Michael Doctor, QB Sean Mannion, RB Storm Woods, OT Michael Philipp
Bowl projection: None
Analysis: This might be the youngest team in the Pac-12. There are going to be multiple freshmen and sophomores starting for the Beavers this season. That tells me the administration might be sticking with coach Mike Reilly for the long haul despite recent disappointments. Why wouldn't they bring in a new coach for this young team if they are thinking otherwise? The Beavers will be hard to watch this year, and many of their games won't be close to competitive.
1. USC (12-0, 9-0)
Top players: QB Matt Barkley, WR Robert Woods, WR Marqise Lee, OT Kevin Graf, OC Khaled Holmes, LB Dion Bailey, CB Nickell Robey, DB TJ McDonald, DE Wes Horton, RB Curtis McNeal, OG Marcus Martin, TE Randall Telfer, LB Hayes Pullard, DT Dave Kruger, DE Devon Kennard
Bowl projection: BCS Championship
Analysis: Yes, I'm buying the Trojans as the best team in college football. They're coming off NCAA suspension ready to compete for a national title. QB Matt Barkley is the favorite for the Heisman Trophy and it's going to be hard for him to lose it. Of course, we said the same thing about Andrew Luck last season. He's got two elite weapons to throw to at reciever in Robert Woods and Marqise Lee, while Curtis McNeal is a good enough RB to take pressure off the air attack. There isn't a unit on this team that looks ill-equiped to compete with the SEC for a national title. Ironically, the program that was considered the evil empire by many college football fans not even a decade ago might be the Luke Skywalker that can dethrone the current emperor of college football that is the SEC.
2. Utah (7-5, 5-4)
Top players: DT Star Lotulelei, RB John White, OG Sam Brenner, DB Brian Blechen, DT Dave Kruger, CB Ryan Lacy, LB Trevor Reilly, OC Tevita Stevens, QB Jordan Wynn
Bowl projection: Sun
Analysis: There really isn't a threat to USC in the South Division, but if one were to emerge it would be Utah. The Utes have some nice talent returning this season, including QB Jordan Wynn who missed nearly all of last season with a shoulder injury. Wynn has looked good in practice and Utes carry higher expectations because of him. Star Lotulelei is considered by many to be the top DT in the country and is worth watching the Utes play every week. Lotulelei is a mammoth who will likely be a first-round pick next April.
3. UCLA (6-6, 4-5)
Top players: TE Joseph Fauria, LB Patrick Larimore, CB Aaron Hester, OT Xavier Su'a-Filo, LB Jordan Zumwalt, RB Johnathan Franklin, WR Shaquelle Evans, OG Jeff Baca, DE Cassius Marsh, DE Datone Jones, DB Tevin McDonald, QB Kevin Prince
Bowl projection: Kraft Fight Hunger
Analysis: It won't surprise me if UCLA wins three more games than I projected and emerges as the biggest threat to USC in the South Division. Jim Mora Jr. takes over a program that routinely underachieved while Rick Neuheisel was coach. Mora inherits a veteran offense that features senior QB Kevin Prince and RB Johnathan Franklin, who I consider one of the most underrated RBs in the nation. Nobody should sleep on the Bruins this season if the coaching change inspires them to finally play up to their potential.
4. Arizona (5-7, 3-6)
Top players: QB Matt Scott, DT Justin Washington, OC Kyle Quinn, LB Brian Wagner, DB Marquis Flowers, CB Shaquille Richardson, WR Dan Buckner, RB Ka'Deem Carey
Bowl projection: None
Analysis: Matt Scott is the key to Arizona's success this season. That type of pressure is often put on a QB whether it's warranted or not. But with the Wildcats switching to a new offense under new coach coach Rich Rodriguez, Scott's role couldn't be more vital. As always, Rich Rod plans on utilizing his spread option scheme which requires a QB capable of properly reading defenses and being a major threat with his legs, much like Pat White was during Rodriguez's hey-day at West Virginia. Scott is that type of QB, but hasn't played in a game since the 2010 season. The Wildcats have enough talent to allow Scott some time to acclimate back to the live football, but it might not be enough to get them into a bowl game in Rich Rod's first season.
5. Colorado (4-8, 2-7)
Top players: QB Jordan Webb, DT Will Pericak, LB Jon Major, OT David Bakhtiari, DB Ray Polk, RB Tony Jones
Bowl projection: None
Analysis: The rebuilding process in Colorado is going to be a slow one for coach John Embree, who is entering his second season in charge of the Buffaloes. Kansas transfer Jordan Webb takes over the Buffs offense with a lot of new faces. Colorado's best playmakers are on defense with DT Will Pericak, LB Jon Major and DB Ray Polk. Major's presence is bittersweet for the Buffs. He was a member for a recruiting class that was supposed to be one of the best in CU history. Instead, most of the players from that recruiting class didn't last more than two years with the program and set it back several seasons. It's a big hole to dig out and the administration must be patient while Embree and his staff attempt to leave their mark.
6. Arizona State (4-8, 2-7)
Top players: LB Brandon Magee, RB Cameron Marshall, DT Will Sutton, WR Jamal Miles, OT Evan Finkenberg
Bowl projection: None
Analysis: Todd Graham left his head coaching job at Pitt to come to Arizona State, but inherits a team in a transition after Dennis Erickson. The early departure of QB Brock Osweiler didn't help matters, either. The offense will be based around RB Cameron Marshall as the Sun Devils try to figure out who their QB is. Graham is on record saying he's likely to use a two-QB system early in the season. There's not much to get excited about on the defensive side of the ball, either. The Sun Devils are in contention with Oregon State and Colorado as the worst team in the conference.
USC over Oregon -- The Trojans probably would have won the conference title last season had they been eligible. I am picking USC to go further than just a Pac-12 Championship, though. The Trojans are my pick to win a national championship. They have all the pieces. So get ready to be sickened with ESPN's coverage of USC this season.