Can USC Trojans Win Their Division?
Even though preseason rankings are nearly irrelevant now that the BCS is out and the playoffs are in, they can still be used as a gauge of how strong the coaches think your team is going into the season. They can also be used to compare your team against others so that you can speculate whether or not your team has a shot at the top. The 2014 Coaches Poll preseason rankings have Southern Cal at No. 15, below Oregon, UCLA and Stanford, but above Arizona State.
Of course, the goal for the Trojans is winning the conference championship and making a bid for a coveted playoff spot. However, before they can think about taking on big-time Pac-12 contenders like Oregon, who is predicted to win the conference title this year, they must focus on possible threats within the division. The two most likely rivals to stand in the Trojans' way are Arizona State and UCLA. Can USC prevail against both?
USC vs. Arizona State
The Trojans and the Sun Devils share many similarities. Last year, both finished 10-4 and lost to Notre Dame. The Trojans beat Stanford, but lost to UCLA. The Sun Devils beat UCLA, but lost to Stanford. Both schools have starting quarterbacks who are redshirt juniors. There are still many similarities between the two teams, which means who ultimately comes out on top could go either way with any mistake being a deciding factor.
ASU advantages: QB Taylor Kelly was the No. 2 quarterback in the Pac-12 last season. Despite getting sacked 41 times, he threw for 28 touchdowns. Arizona State also has the easier schedule. The Sun Devils start, and end, the season with three comfortable games while playing both UCLA and Stanford at home. The Trojans, on the other hand, are at both Stanford and UCLA, playing Stanford in their second game of the season.
USC advantages: According to SB Nation’s analysis, USC has the third-toughest defense in the conference. The Trojans also have Leonard Williams, who will be a beast to contend with, as we learned at Pac-12 Media Days. On the other hand, Arizona State only has two starting returners on defense. The Trojans also have first-rate running backs in Buck Allen, Tre Madden, Justin Davis and D.J. Morgan. Sarkisian promises a run-first offense, which means if anyone is getting prepared during fall camp, it’s the running backs.
Who wins? Kelly is definitely talented, but Cody Kessler will come into his own this year. Plus Kelly’s potential will be severely stunted if ASU does not fix its offensive line problems. With their matchup at the Coliseum this year, USC will able to avenge its painful loss last year against ASU last year and ultimately finish above ASU.
USC vs. UCLA
The Bruins ended the Trojans' season last year with a resounding defeat at home. However, these two teams ended up with similar records despite USC’s coaching roller coaster. The battle for Los Angeles has gone UCLA’s way the past two years, but UCLA still hasn’t been able to truly control its own destiny to finish strong. This year, USC will have almost all the tools in place to give the Bruins a run for their money.
UCLA advantages: Bruins QB Brett Hundley was also a No. 2 last season, as in the conference’s No. 2 candidate for the Heisman Trophy. This means that unless Kessler has the perfect season, UCLA will have the better quarterback. UCLA’s offensive line is also experienced this year, while USC’s O-line only has three starters returning and is raw.
USC advantages: Last year, UCLA’s leading rusher was Hundley at quarterback. This year, UCLA has built up its personnel in this area, but like we already said, USC’s biggest offensive strike will be the running game.
Who wins? Perhaps Leonard Williams will tear through UCLA’s stout offensive line despite the inevitable double teams he will draw, gunning for Hundley and disrupting his game. Perhaps the Trojans running backs will find gaps, burst through to the open field, and dodge the top-rated Bruins defense. Perhaps USC’s offensive line will rise to the occasion, with the sophomores and freshmen joining with the veterans to protect their quarterback and allowing Kessler to make smart decisions unpressured. Perhaps, but it is not too likely that all those things will come together this season. The Trojans need at least one more year to reach the strength they need to snatch back Pac-12 bragging rights and the South Division crown from the Bruins.