Can USC Win the Pac-12?

Created on Aug. 29, 2014 7:59 AM EST

Apparently, just before the season starts is when all sports media people like to throw out their boldest predictions possible. Whether this is so they can claim they called it first on the off chance one of their outlandish predictions actually comes true (who doesn’t want to be the analyst that actually analyzed it right?), or whether they just need something to kill time on air and fill up their websites - I’m not too sure. But recently I heard someone on ESPN’s College Football Live state, as his own bold prediction, that USC would make it to the college football playoffs this year, and I just had to think, “Whoa, slow down, buster.”

Making it to the college football playoffs would most likely mean USC has to win their entire conference. Just a few weeks ago, I did a side-by-side team breakdown of USC’s chances against the toughest teams in its own division, Arizona State and UCLA, to evaluate whether they could come out on top. The conclusion there was that the Trojans simply did not have enough experience yet to stake their winning claim this year.

However, is it worth it to speculate whether USC has the ability to take the conference this year, in spite of what I wrote before? In the spirit of bold predictions, of course it’s worth it.

Programming note: USC has had a tumultuous past 48 hours. On the heels of cornerback Josh Shaw admitting he lied about spraining both his ankles saving his nephew from drowning, tailback Anthony Brown quit the team Thursday accusing head coach Steve Sarkisian of being a racist. As the world turns...

USC vs. Stanford

The Trojans had lost to the Cardinals four years in a row prior to their miraculous upset last season. Gone are the days when Stanford was merely that unranked little team who every so often would punctuate their unanticipated season with a crazy upset over USC. Stanford has risen up to become a solid obstacle on the schedule of any opponent, as well as the 3rd highest ranked Pac-12 team in the preseason polls. Can the Trojans pull out all the stops to beat them?

Stanford Advantages: The Cardinals have Ty Montgomery, Devon Cajuste, and Michael Rector. This senior-senior-junior combination of wide receivers had 18 touchdowns between them last season, and are also looking to be joined by some rising talents. The Trojans, on the other hand, have one assured star in Nelson Agholor at wide receiver, and then a bunch of question marks. This is not to say those question marks do not have tremendous potential. But for now, they are still merely question marks.

USC Advantages: Take the situation I just described above and flip it; the result you get is how each team is doing on running backs. Stanford loves keeping the ball on the ground and will undoubtedly do that a lot this season on offense, but Stanford will also have many newcomers in its running ranks. USC will be sending out healthy returners within the framework of Sarkisian’s run-heavy offensive strategy. Trojan running backs will be set up for success more so than Stanford’s.

Who wins? Going into this season, USC and Stanford are at the same place in many different aspects of the game. The quarterbacks on both teams have had unremarkable or inconsistent past seasons. Both USC and Stanford have fairly stout defenses, but they are not completely put together. Whichever team can improve on these aspects first will finish above the other.

While USC’s Cody Kessler has never been overly impressive as a quarterback, he has Sarkisian on his sideline now and if there’s anyone who can craft a quarterback, it’s Sarkisian. If Sarkisian can get Kessler in rhythm with his receivers, that alone may be enough to tip the scales in the Trojans favor. Even though Stanford’s defense allowed the least amount of rushing yards last season, they allowed the second-most passing yards. And if Sarkisian can get this all done by Week 2, the Trojans will be able to beat Stanford head on, but this time as worthy equals instead of underdogs.

USC vs. Oregon

The Trojans will not be playing the Ducks during the regular season this year, which means the only time these two teams could be pitted against each other is during the conference championship game. Now, this is exciting news because the tagline to this match up should always be, “In which both teams will score an absurd amount of points.” The past four times these two teams met, the lowest winning score was 38. The lowest. Both teams in the past have held reputations of being one of the highest-scoring teams in the country. However in recent years, USC’s hold on that reputation has declined while Oregon’s hold has only doubled. Do the Trojans have any chance at all to take down this Duck dynasty?

Oregon Advantages: Quarterback Marcus Mariota is already a Heisman Trophy leading candidate. One year of tutelage under Sarkisian won’t be enough for Kessler to be able to say the same. And the Trojans can pretty much forget about attempting to crush Mariota with brute force, since the Oregon offensive line boasts multiple veterans with extensive experience in protecting their quarterback. Oregon is also the most all-around solid team in every single position. This, combined with their easier schedule, makes them the easy favorite in almost every single preseason power rankings or end-of-year predictions.

USC Advantages: The Trojans only true upper-hand comes in the form of wide receivers. Even though the Trojans have many untested receivers, they also have Agholor ready to go. The Ducks lost three of their four top receivers, as well as, their star Bralin Addison to a knee injury during spring practices. This means the Ducks have more question marks to deal with than the Trojans.

Who wins? It remains to be seen how well Sarkisian and his team will be able to coach up the Trojan defense, but the Ducks may face similar difficulties since this will be their first season in 17 years without defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti. With the effectiveness of both defenses questionable, this match-up will once again come down to who can score more in a shootout score-fest. Sarkisian’s offense may be explosive, but Oregon’s well-oiled offensive machine has been explosive for years. Nothing indicates that Oregon will not again repeat as first in the Pac-12 in points per game, which they have been for seven years now.

That mountain is one the Trojans will not be able to climb just yet.

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