Five questions for the New Year, No. 5

December, 26, 2011
12/26/11
5:00
PM PT
We've looked at the USC Trojans' top 10 moments from 2011 and the top 10 performers as well. Now, with the final days of the year approaching, we take a look at the five most pressing questions surrounding Lane Kiffin's Trojans in 2012. We'll unveil one each day this week, counting down from No. 5 today to No. 1 on Friday.

It's also worth looking back at our five questions for 2011 from this time last year. Most of them were answered definitively in one direction or the other. Here are No. 5, No. 4, No. 3, No. 2 and No. 1.

Here, then, is No. 5: Where will USC rank in the 2012 Associated Press preseason top 25?

The Trojans finished their 2011 regular season ranked fifth in the country by the AP -- in a definite surprise to those not following the team. It was a quick rise, to be sure, as USC had been ranked 18th just three weeks earlier and unranked a month before that.

But the 10-2 Trojans were deserving. Only two teams with fewer losses were below them in the top 25, and one of those was a Houston team that had just been markedly upset.

So, with this season now out of the way, where is USC going to start next year? It's important to note that the previous season's end-of-year rankings consistently play a large role in each preseason edition. Each of the top-five teams this year, for example, finished last year in the top 10.

Let's pencil in the winner of the upcoming national championship game, then, as the likely No. 1 -- especially if it's LSU, who returns a large portion of its lineup. Even if Alabama pulls off the win, the Tigers will be hard to overtake, actually.

But the other top teams all lose a lot, including No. 3 Oklahoma State (likely Brandon Weeden and Justin Blackmon) and No. 4 Stanford (Andrew Luck). No. 6 Oregon returns plenty, but LaMichael James may not be returning, and it's somewhat unlikely voters would place the Ducks over the Trojans to start the year -- even if Chip Kelly's squad does beat Wisconsin in next week's Rose Bowl.

The Badgers also lose their quarterback -- and potentially their running back, as Montee Ball has said he'll determine whether to declare for the draft based on the draft grade he receives from the NFL.

There just aren't too many more teams to compete with. Ohio State was a possibility under Urban Meyer, but they'll see a drop-off because of NCAA sanctions. Georgia has a lot of 2012 potential, but not enough to jump a 10-2 team returning its best player in Matt Barkley.

The short answer, then, is this: Expect USC to be ranked either second or third in the country next August, behind LSU and maybe Alabama, depending on what happens in next month's national championship game between LSU and Alabama, who returns at Alabama and Oregon and spring practices at USC and those schools.

Check back Tuesday for question No. 4, which deals with NCAA-sanctioned scholarship limits and how they'll affect USC next year.

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RUSHINGCARYDSAVGTD
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