Athlon's College Football top 25 countdown for 2012 continues with No. 1 USC. The Trojans are off probation and hungry to return to national prominence.
Is Depth USC's Biggest Hurdle to a National Title in 2012?
David Fox (@DavidFox615)
The biggest obstacle for USC’s title run is probably the presumptive SEC team waiting for the Trojans in the national championship game. Or at least Oregon on Nov. 3. USC’s frontline talent is second to none, but after that, USC may have some trouble. Matt Barkley, Robert Woods and Marqise Lee probably will be everyone’s favorite passing trio, but after that the Trojans are awfully young. The same is true at running back. Curtis McNeal was fantastic over the second half of the season, but there’s not much behind him. Lane Kiffin has excelled in making the most of his limited signing classes. Just about everyone here was a four- or five-star recruit, but it’s all quality and not much quantity. Somewhere, the lack of depth is going to catch up to USC this season. There’s no telling if it’s going to hit an area where USC could take a hit or if at a spot where it would be a crippling blow to the season.
The area where USC could have the most trouble is on the defensive line. The Trojans are young, inexperienced and thin here, especially at defensive tackle. If we’ve learned one thing over the past few years, the key to winning a title -- and beating Oregon under Chip Kelly -- is strong play at defensive tackle. USC is counting on sophomores and freshmen to fill out this position. That may be the Trojans’ downfall. Perhaps they’ll find an answer by the time they face the Ducks in November. That’s the storyline I’m watching as USC tries to end the SEC’s dominance in the title game.
Braden Gall (@BradenGall)
Large hurdles are a part of any historic national championship run in college football. Having to defeat Oregon — a team that has lost four regular season games in three years — twice in one year will be a tall order. But both of those could come at home. Tricky road trips to Stanford, Washington and Utah, combined with Notre Dame at home, also could provide some interesting moments this fall. But USC's biggest obstacle to winning a BCS National Championship will be its defensive line and overall lack of depth.
In the Pac-12, the loaded back-seven of the Trojans' defense should be plenty capable of winning games. With the firepower on offense, limiting the opposition to 21-24 points per game will be more than enough to win the West Coast crown. Stopping the run won't be imperative to winning a conference title. However, the defensive line is rebuilt with three new starters and will feature five underclassmen in the seven-man rotation. Stopping the ground game, oh say, against an SEC team with a power rushing attack that would make Lombardi giggle with joy, will be the deciding factor in the 2012 BCS National Championship game.
USC is loaded for bear on offense, has an awesome coaching staff and a manageable schedule, but any sort of key injuries could completely derail a deep title run. And in a one-game situation, I have major concerns about the young and inexperienced defensive line getting stops against the likes of Barrett Jones, D.J. Fluker, Chris Faulk or Alex Hurst.
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
The Trojans are finally off of probation and are hungry to return to national prominence. There’s no question USC has one of the best starting lineups in the nation, but depth is an issue thanks to NCAA sanctions. It’s nearly impossible to make it through a full season without a significant injury, which is why depth has to be giving Lane Kiffin a few offseason nightmares.
As long as quarterback Matt Barkley and receivers Robert Woods and Marqise Lee stay healthy, the Trojans will be one of college football’s top scoring teams. However, there are reasons to be concerned on offense. Depth at running back is perilously thin, especially with the loss of Tre Madden in spring workouts with a knee injury. If Curtis McNeal is forced to miss any significant time, there is very little experience behind him. The offensive line has one of the best returning groups in the nation, but will miss left tackle Matt Kalil. Aundrey Walker appears capable of filling in on the left side, but true freshmen will be in the two-deep this fall.
The biggest concern for USC has to be the depth on the defensive line. Nick Perry and Christian Tupou are gone, but the Trojans return Wes Horton, Devon Kennard and George Uko. After those three, coordinator Monte Kiffin will have to rely on talented freshmen Leonard Williams and Greg Townsend, along with inexperienced sophomore Antwaun Woods for depth.
USC could certainly dodge a major injury throughout all of 2012, but this is a team that can’t afford to get into a 60-minute battle in the trenches. If the Trojans play for the national championship, facing off against LSU or Alabama would be a difficult matchup. Both teams are strong on the lines, which can exploit USC’s biggest weakness.
Expect the Trojans to try to jump on teams early, while relying on Barkley and the passing attack to light up the scoreboard. USC could be involved in several shootouts this year, but that formula is more than enough to make a trip to play for the national title.
Barring injuries at a few key positions, most notably quarterback, I think USC has more than enough depth to do what it needs to do to get to the national title game. Let's face it, if Matt Barkley goes down to injury, the Trojans' title hopes probably go with him.
That said, I think USC's biggest obstacle to the national title game is whichever team it ends up playing in the Pac-12 Championship game. The contenders out of the Pac-12 North figure to be Oregon, Stanford and Washington (not necessarily in that order), and USC will have to play each of them in the regular season before facing the division winner again in the conference title game.
It's not easy to beat the same team twice in one season, just ask last year's LSU team, and obviously in the conference title game, the stakes are even higher. It's entirely possible for USC to lose one game in the regular season and make it to the national title game (see Alabama, 2011).
If the Trojans go undefeated in the regular season only to lose in the Pac-12 Championship Game, however, I think the chances of them following the same path that Alabama took to the BCS title last season are very slim. For the Trojans to lose in the final week of the BCS standings and still finish ahead of not only its own conference winner, but also the conference winners from the other Big Six conferences, not to mention the other top teams, and still finish in the top two of the BCS standings seems highly improbable, at least to me. What happened last year with Alabama and LSU is the exception, not the norm, in my opinion.
USC needs to do what every other team with national title aspirations needs to do - win. If the Trojans take care of business in the regular season AND Pac-12 Championship Game, then I fully expect to see them play on Jan. 7 in Sun Life Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla., for the BCS National Championship.
Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman)
Yes, depth is definitely the top concern that would prevent USC from playing for a national title. The talent on the Trojans roster is elite, and the schedule is not easy but it’s very manageable. The SC offense is loaded, led by Heisman frontrunner Matt Barkley at quarterback and the best receivers unit in the country. Robert Woods, Marqise Lee, George Farmer and tight ends Randall Telfer and Xavier Grimble should all be solid targets for Barkley, who will be protected by the Pac-12’s best offensive line. Tailback Curtis McNeal returns after a 1,000-yard campaign, but the depth at running back is a major concern. Tre Madden (season-ending knee injury) and Amir Carlisle (transfer) are out, and D.J. Morgan played sparingly last season.
The Trojans defense has a stellar back seven, including All-America candidates like T.J. McDonald, Nickell Robey and Dion Bailey. However, the top question mark for Monte Kiffin and Ed Orgeron will be the line. Ends Wes Horton and Devon Kennard will be solid, but there is a ton of inexperience with young defensive tackles George Uko, J.R. Tavai and Antwaun Woods. Those players have talent, but depth could be a huge issue with the line rotation.
USC opponents Oregon, Stanford and Notre Dame have questions at quarterback, and the Trojans should be the favorite in every game on their schedule. If the Men of Troy stay healthy while the young prospects develop, they should win the Pac-12 crown and compete for a national title.
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