NCAAF preview: Barkley's return makes USC fave to win Pac-12
It’s strange the path college football follows.
Two years ago, with NCAA sanctions looming, Pete Carroll bailed out on USC for the NFL. Candles were lit with many thinking the Trojans glory days were suddenly in the rear view mirror. Yet somehow, with four-and-five-star prospects dotting the roster and experience forging its hand, USC is widely considered one of the favorites to win the BCS National Championship in 2012.
Last year, because of the aforementioned ongoing NCAA suspensions, USC was ineligible to participate in the Pac-12 championship game, thus paving the way for UCLA to win the South Division and become the first team in NCAA history to participate in a bowl game and end the season with seven losses.
With the sanctions lifted, USC appears the team to beat this season while Oregon figures to be breathing right down the Trojans’ necks. And surprisingly, despite being limited to just 15 recruits a year (10 less than the NCAA normally would allow), the Trojans continue to recruit blue-chip classes.
Who says the University of Spoiled Children doesn’t know its way around a football field and a rulebook?
Note: Team writeups excerpted from the 2012 PLAYBOOK Football Preview magazine. Numbers following team name represent the amount of returning starters on offense and defense, with an asterisk (*) designating a returning quarterback. Designated ‘Play On’ and ‘Play Against’ Best Bets follow each team’s preview.
CALIFORNIA – (*6/6)
Team Theme: LAY OFF THE AMBIEN
Had Jeff Tedford’s 7-6 Bears not fallen into fourth-quarter hibernation last season where they were outscored 79-41 (after outscoring the opposition 321-232 through the first three stanzas), they could have easily proved to be more than ‘average’ in 2011.
While Tedford is best known as a quarterback guru, having developed six NFL 1st-round QB’s, but let’s not forget that he has also produced a 1,000-yard rusher in nine of his 10 seasons on the Cal sidelines. Another balanced offensive attack, along with a third straight Top 25 recruiting class, figures to prevent any more fourth-quarter hi-jinks from the Berkeley bunch.
Stat You Will Like: All seven Bears’ home opponents were either winners or appeared in bowl games last season.
PLAY ON: vs. Washington (11/2)
OREGON – (5/7)
Team Theme: DUCK SEASON
Three straight Pac-12 titles and a downy-soft schedule that features only one true road game through the first two months of the season would have most teams drooling with anticipation. But it’s not as easy as it appears for Chip Kelly. His ‘blur’ offense suffered serious losses, including star RB LaMichael James and its main operative, QB Darron Thomas.
Thomas, 22-3 as a starter, received a heavy dose of bad advice when he was bypassed in the NFL draft and will now be replaced by electrifying freshman Marcus Mariota, the Hawaiian hurler who had a jaw-dropping spring game. Don’t despair – that click you heard was the Ducks reloading.
Stat You Will Like: The Ducks were last in the nation in time of possession in 2011.
PLAY ON: as a dog at USC (11/3)
OREGON STATE – (*7/8)
Team Theme: YOUNG BEAVERS
When injuries caused projected starters to miss 59 games, Mike Riley’s crew was forced to play a bevy of freshmen and sophomores who accounted for 74 starts. At last count, 23 players made their first start while a school-record 10 true freshmen played.
The good news is 27 players who started at least one game in 2011 return, including QB Sean Mannion, who tossed for over 3,300 yards while landing a spot on the all-freshmen 1st team.
While we like OSU’s chances of improving, we suggest you gnaw at this: with a 2-8 SU and ATS mark in its final four games of the season the last two years (coupled with the stat below), you may want to jump on this team sooner than later.
Stat You Will Like: The Beavers’ final seven opponents in 2012 all appeared in a bowl game last season.
PLAY ON: at UCLA (9/22) - *KEY off BB SU losses
STANFORD – (6/7)
Team Theme: OUT OF LUCK
When a team wins 11 games and the season was considered a downer, one can assume the expectation bar was probably set a bit too high. That was the case last year when Andrew Luck’s decision to forego the NFL fell just an Oregon loss short of a desired BCS title game appearance.
What didn’t come up short was the cash register as Luck hit the lottery as the No.1 pick in this year’s draft while Cardinal backers went 10-2-1 ATS.
David Shaw, the Pac-12 coach of the year, will now put his 77 percent ATS career mark on the line with RB Stefan Taylor (looking for his third straight 1,000-yard season) as his spotlight player.
Stat You Will Like: The Cardinal are 24-2 ‘In The Stats’ the last two seasons, including stat wins in their last 20 games in a row.
PLAY ON: as a dog at Oregon (11/17)
WASHINGTON – (*6/7)
Team Theme: DOG DAYS ARE OVER
A pair of seven-win bowl seasons the last two years makes it official: the Huskies are back. Not that it needed confirming, but U-Dub has won more games in three years under Steve Sarkisian, than they did the previous six seasons combined before his arrival.
The loss of star RB Chris Polk, who opted to leave early for the NFL, is offset by the development of QB Keith Price, who enjoyed a seven-touchdown performance against Baylor in last year’s Alamo Bowl.
The main cause for concern in Seattle these days is fixing a defense that slipped seven points and 70 yards per game in 2011 and made former defensive coordinator Nick Holt the latest member of Monster.com.
Stat You Will Like: The Huskies open the 2012 season against six straight opponents that all owned winning records last year.
PLAY AGAINST: as a favorite at Arizona (10/20)
WASHINGTON STATE – (6/7)
Team Theme: UP THE WAZZU
What happens when the nation’s ninth-ranked passing offense crosses paths with an offensive guru like Mike Leach? We’re about to find out as Leach lands in Pullman after getting run out of Lubbock by the James Gang in 2009.
Leach is as smart as he is savvy (graduated third in his class with a law degree from Pepperdine) and his 10 winning seasons and 10 bowl appearances in 10 years at Tech has the Cougar faithful clamoring. He also inherits a defense that returns its entire line and secondary.
With that being said, we say call the scoreboard police as there’ll be plenty of offense in 2012 with these contentious cats prowling the Palouse.
Stat You Will Like: Leach is 20-0 SU and 17-1-2 ATS at home in lined games when his team owns a .600 or less win percentage.
PLAY ON: at BYU (8/30)
ARIZONA – (6/8)
Team Theme: TOSSIN’ AND TURNIN’
After a one-year hiatus, Rich Rodriguez has turned up in Tucson where he’ll need to overcome long odds if he wishes to avoid yet another nightmarish November (4-10-2 ATS in his career during turkey month). That’s because the Wildcats open the Rodriguez era against winning foes in seven of their first eight games, while taking on no less than nine bowlers overall.
Toss in a blasé 17-14 SU and 10-19-2 ATS career mark at home against winning teams and Rodriguez’s first priority should be fixing a failing defense that slipped 120 YPG last season. Meanwhile the offense loses stud QB Nick Foles and star WR Juron Criner to the NFL.
We’re guessing Rich Rod will be up all night.
Stat You Will Like: Rodriguez is 9-14 SU and 6-16 ATS from Game 11 out, including 0-11-1 ATS when off an ATS loss.
PLAY ON: PASS
ARIZONA STATE – (4/7)
Team Theme: TAILIGHTS
Last year’s new uniforms and logo headed the Sun Devils in a new direction – south. Despite a roster filled with 30 seniors, six-time coach of the year Dennis Erickson was pink-slipped after a 0-5 finish to a promising 6-2 start.
Enter Todd Graham, fast becoming the king of one-year stands. After his initial season at Rice, Graham was awarded a significant pay raise and contract extension, only to leave for Tulsa a few days after. And then after inking a lucrative contract with Pittsburgh last year, in which Graham said, “I spent my whole life working to get this job,” he skipped town again and mercenarily signed on with ASU.
It’s no wonder Paul Daugherty of SI.com said, “This guy would make a weasel call another weasel a weasel.”
Stat You Will Like: Graham is 6-0 ATS as a dog with rest.
PLAY AGAINST: at Missouri (9/15)
COLORADO – (4/6)
Team Theme: THE PERFECT DIVIDE
Whew! After playing 13 games in 13 weeks in 2011 – including five of the first seven away from the range –second-year Buffalo boss Jon Embree had to be elated when perusing this year’s itinerary. Not only do his Boulder boys get a respite in early October, their first six opponents check in with a losing record.
They’d best do some damage early on as five of their final six foes ended last season above .500, including three that boast Top 15 preseason billing in 2012.
While it’s worth noting that Colorado’s foes were a collective 54-72 ATS in 2011, keep in mind that of the 22 starting positions, only three saw the same player start all 13 games last season.
Stat You Will Like: The Buffaloes are 1-6 SU and 0-7 ATS as favorites versus Pac-10/12 foes since 1999.
PLAY AGAINST: at Arizona (11/10)
UCLA – (*7/7)
Team Theme: THAT’S A MORA
The Bruins stunned the college football world when they hired former NFL head coach Jim Mora Jr. this off-season. Mora is the beneficiary of some strong recruiting classes by former UCLA boss Rick Neuheisel, who ended his four-year tenure in Los Angeles with a 21-30 mark.
As expected, both of Mora’s new coordinators have NFL experience while six other members of the staff are former NFL players. Thirty of the Bruins’ 54 returning lettermen own starting experience, but the featured performer will be RB Johnathan Franklin, who has rushed for 2,689 career yards and 18 TD’s.
Kevin Prince and Richard Brehaut are once more fighting for the starting QB spot.
Stat You Will Like: The Bruins were the first bowl team in NCAA history to end the season two games under .500 last season.
PLAY ON: vs. Utah (10/13)
USC – (*9/8)
Team Theme: TROJAN MAN
When Heisman-hopeful QB Matt Barkley announced he was returning to USC for his senior season, head coach Lane Kiffin was ecstatic, bellowing “This is a special story. He’s the perfect Trojan. He’s Matty Trojan.”
Along with WRs Robert Woods and Marquise Lee, a pair of 1,000-yard Biletnikoff award-winning and All-American candidates, the three-time Davey O’Brien semi-finalist Barkley quickly added, “The 2012 team has some unfinished business to do.”
Before betting the ranch, though, you may want to hold your horses. The Men of Troy face nine bowlers, and a result of recent NCAA sanctions, quality depth is still a bit thin.
Stat You Will Like: The Trojans own the best win percentage (50-10, .833) away from home the last nine years.
PLAY ON: as a dog at Stanford (9/15)
UTAH – (*8/6)
Team Theme: BOUND TO WYNN
Two shoulder surgeries (left and right) in two years have not deterred junior QB Jordan Wynn. He bulked up this off-season and the results in spring camp were apparent.
“He has arms instead of No. 2 pencils hanging from his shoulders,” joked Utes’ HC Kyle Whittingham. “I haven’t felt this good in a long time,” added Wynn.
That’s good news for former Utah QB Brian Johnson, who takes over as the youngest offensive coordinator in the nation. Furthermore, a cushy conference schedule finds no Oregon or Stanford, and all five Pac-12 road games are indeed winnable.
This has Whittingham, Wynn and us (see below) pointing to an October 4th home date with USC.
Stat You Will Like: The Utes outscored opponents, 102-65, in the fourth quarter last season.
PLAY ON: as a dog vs. USC (10/4)