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LSU or USC: Which Team Will Be College Football's No. 1 Team for 2012?

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Athlon's College Football Top 25 countdown for 2012 concludes on Tuesday with the release of No. 1 and No. 2. LSU and USC were picked by Athlon's staff to play in the national championship game - but which team should be ranked No. 1?

LSU or USC: Which Team Will Win the 2012 Title?

David Fox (@DavidFox615)
At some point during 2012, I’ll get seduced into believe this is the year to end the SEC’s national dominance. Texas looked the part of a usurper before Colt McCoy got hurt against Alabama. Oregon teased me before we learned that the only offense Auburn could stop in 2010 was the one from Eugene. I even subscribed to the notion Oklahoma State deserved a shot at LSU a year ago. In the preseason, it’s just time to relent. I’m going to keep picking the best team in the SEC to win the title until the best team from the SEC stops winning titles. USC is as worthy a contender as there is, but the Trojans still have to contend with Oregon and the limited depth wrought by NCAA sanctions. That’s why my pick for No. 1 will be LSU -- a tough pick over Alabama in the SEC alone. The Tigers’ convincing loss to Alabama in the BCS title game is disconcerting. But LSU is too good to ignore. The Tigers’ biggest liability from one of the most impressive regular seasons of the BCS era was the quarterback, and that looks to improve, or at least not get any worse under Zach Mettenberger. If Tharold Simon can free up Tyrann Mathieu to be the star playmaker as Morris Claiborne did last season, LSU should suffer much of a drop off. Throw in another potentially dominant season for the defense, the stout offensive line, the interchangeable parts at running back, and of course Brad Wing, and LSU could be just as strong as the Tigers were a year ago. As for Alabama -- well, it’s another season. Alabama is going to cycle in another group of first-round draft picks to make up for the five players who were drafted in the first 35 in April, but they’re still going to be first-year starters in the country’s toughest division of the toughest conference. In 2010, that was enough to cost the Tide three games. This season, the drop off might only cost the Tide one or two games, which would be enough to give LSU a trip to the title game.

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Braden Gall (@BradenGall)
In a year that could be wide open across the nation, it feels like four teams sit above the rest: Oregon, USC, LSU and Alabama. Most agree that the Oregon Ducks won't be able to beat USC twice — something it would have to do to land in the national title game with at least one coming on the road. The Ducks defense should be improved and possibly better than it has been over the last three years, and the ground game should certainly pressure that rebuilt Trojan defensive line, but quarterback play will be the difference on November 3 when Oregon flies South to The Coliseum. Lane Kiffin's team should emerge from the West Coast Game of the Century victorious and will likely allow them to host the Pac-12 title game.

The new playoff system won't be implemented until 2014, but 2012 will do its best to provide fans with a national semifinal. While Matt Barkley and John Boyett do battle out West, the SEC will supply the other half of the equation when Alabama visits the bayou on the same day in Baton Rouge. So if the Men of Troy win their way to Miami Gardens, the winner of the LSU-Alabama game will be the likely opponent.

LSU is the best "situation" in college football heading into 2012. It has the best backfield in the nation and likely only trails Bama nationally when it comes to offensive line prowess. The Tigers could also claim the country's best defensive line, one of the top secondaries in the land and the all-important "unfinished business" motivating moniker. And it gets Bama at home in Death Valley. However, the fact remains, if Nick Saban was the head coach at LSU, they would be my clearcut, no doubt, unquestioned No. 1 team in the land. But the winner of two of the last three Crystal Balls resides in Tuscaloosa, not Louisiana. The only thing more important to winning in college football than talent is coaching, and Saban is the best. So as I stated last week, Alabama is my pick to the win the 2012 National Championship.

That said, whether USC faces the Crimson Tide or the Bayou Bengals, Kiffin's bunch will find it very difficult to slow the opposition's power rushing attack. My only concern with the Trojans is the aforementioned defensive line, especially with the overall lack of depth on the roster. There couldn't be a worse area of weakness if you are trying to be the team that snaps the SEC's six-year run atop college football. Can Barkley score enough on LSU to off-set USC's inability to stop the lawfirm of Ware, Ford, Blue and Hilliard? So while I'm sticking with the Tide to repeat, if the match-up is USC-LSU, I am still taking the SEC to win its seventh straight crown.

Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
All good things must come to an end right? The SEC’s run at the top of college football has provided six national champions and there’s a good chance the conference can provide No. 7. However, I’m going to take USC as my national championship pick for 2012.

After a two-year ban from postseason play, the Trojans are hungry to return to national prominence. USC closed out 2010 by winning four consecutive games, including a 38-35 shootout against Oregon. The only loss over the last two months of 2011 came in a three-overtime duel against Stanford.

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Much of the core returns intact for the Trojans in 2012, including Heisman frontrunner Matt Barkley at quarterback, along with the nation’s No. 1 receiving corps. The offensive line will miss Matt Kalil, but four starters return up front. The defense needs to be better, but the back seven should be among the best in college football. Restocking the line is the top priority for coordinator Monte Kiffin, especially after losing Nick Perry, DaJohn Harris and Christian Tupou.

Assuming USC and LSU make it to the national title game, the biggest concern for the Trojans has to be the depth in the trenches. LSU or Alabama presents a difficult test for the frontlines of USC, but the Trojans can counter with an offense that can score with anyone. Knocking off the SEC from the top perch won’t be easy, but with Barkley returning to Los Angeles for one more year, the Trojans are in good shape to win the national title. 

Mark Ross
My vote for No. 1 is USC over LSU. Both the Trojans and Tigers will be loaded with talent, but I give the edge for the top spot in our preseason poll to the team out west, if anything because of who's under center.

USC's Matt Barkley is one of the frontrunners for the Heisman Trophy entering the 2012 season, and arguably considered the favorite at this point. He is without question one of the top quarterbacks in the nation and should have a huge senior season as he has two of the country's top wide receivers - Robert Woods and Marqise Lee - to throw to. USC also returns four starters along the offensive line and a 1,000-yard running back in Curtis McNeal. Expect the Trojans to score early and often this fall.

On the other hand LSU's starting quarterback will be Zach Mettenberger, who was a highly regarded recruit coming out of high school in 2009, but has yet to start a game under center at the FBS level. Menttenberger originally signed with Georgia, but he ran into some off-field trouble and never suited up for the Bulldogs.

He transferred to Butler (Kan.) Community College where he played one season before enrolling at LSU in January 2011. He saw limited action in five games last season, but now with Jordan Jefferson gone, Les Miles has turned the reins over to Mettenberger. He will be helped by a strong running game and four returning starters on the offensive line, but that doesn't change the fact that Mettenberger is still relatively inexperienced. One thing is clear, however, we will find out quickly how good Mettenberger is since LSU opens the season at home against Washington and its first two SEC games are at Auburn and Florida.

Both USC and LSU feature two of the nation's best defenses, which will certainly help the Tigers survive any early-season struggles Metternberger may encounter. And by the end of the season, Mettenberger may emerge as one of the SEC's top quarterbacks. However, in the end, when it comes to No. 1 and winning it all in January, I will always lean towards experience, which is why Barkley and the men of Troy get my vote.

Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman)
This is obviously a very difficult call, with both teams returning loaded rosters that are capable of winning every game on the schedule. It seems illogical to bet against an SEC team that pummeled quality opponents not named Alabama last season, but I’ll go with a USC bunch that has the top quarterback in the land and an easier path to the championship game. Matt Barkley will be the Heisman frontrunner in 2012, and he has the best receivers unit in the country with Robert Woods, Marqise Lee, George Farmer and tight end Randall Telfer. The Trojans defense will be led by a nasty back seven and should be much improved from last year. Top opponents like Stanford, Oregon and Notre Dame all have questions at quarterback, and USC should be favored in every game.

An easy case can be made for LSU as the top team in the nation as well, with many of the stars from last year’s SEC Championship team returning. The running game and defense — led by All-America candidates Sam Montgomery, Tyrann Mathieu and Eric Reid — will be formidable, and Tigers fans are anxious to see how new quarterback Zach Mettenberger fares against a tough schedule. Trips to Auburn, Florida, Texas A&M and Arkansas loom large, and physical home battles with South Carolina, Mississippi State and Alabama will be challenging.

USC may have issues with depth at running back and defensive line, but the Trojans do not lack for talent anywhere on the roster. Getting past Oregon twice will not be easy, but Barkley looks ready to lead his team to a title and wrestle the national championship away from the SEC for the first time since 2005.

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2012 College Football Rankings: No. 3 Alabama
2012 College Football Rankings: No. 4 Oregon

2012 College Football Rankings: No. 7 Georgia

2012 College Football Rankings: No. 10 South Carolina