USC: LaMichael James

Mailbag: Outrageous predictions

June, 6, 2014
Jun 6
Welcome to the Friday mailbag.

Follow the Pac-12 blog on Twitter here.

And you can follow my personal Twitter feed here... if you dare.

To the notes!

Clarence from Cincinnati writes: Ted, The blog is very well run, but I feel you all are very conservative on your predictions and forecasts. What is a prediction of yours for this upcoming season from left field? For me, I see a 6-0 start for Colorado and a bowl win (I am not a Colorado fan). Also, with the conference being so deep and the possibility of another two-loss conference champ being relatively high, do you see a two-loss Pac-12 champ still making the playoff?

Ted Miller: Gemmell, chilling on vacation in an undisclosed, beachside location, just sent a bite of his fish taco skyward toward the Pacific Ocean after reading that I am "very conservative."

So you want some predictions from out of left field?
  • The SEC won't win the national championship for the second consecutive season.
  • That's because Oregon and Heisman Trophy-winning QB Marcus Mariota will go undefeated. As in 15-0.
  • UCLA will not make the College Football Playoff because of two losses to the Ducks.
  • Either Oregon State or Washington State is going to win nine games this season.
  • Seven Pac-12 teams will finish ranked in the final AP poll.
  • By signing day 2015, the Pac-12 will have two new head coaches.
  • At some point, the Pac-12 blog will be wrong.

I know. That last one is nuts.

Matthew from Tempe, Ariz., writes: I'm a huge ASU fan, and student at ASU. I'm only 19 years old but I attended my first ASU game at two months old and I've witnessed 20 seasons. I read your articles and I love what you have to say, but I'm just curious about your response to Todd Graham's nephew. I think it's an interesting article, but I just wonder if you and other analysts are downplaying what Todd Graham has done. I see here you say he inherited much more talent than Rich Rod, but I don't know if I agree with that. I think he inherited an undersized defense and he built it into what it has become. He took Will Sutton, who was a head case on and off the field, and straightened him out. I remember flashes of Sutton during his freshman year, but he just couldn't figure out his head, and I think Graham deserves credit there. I also think Graham has recruited juco players, size, speed, and defense, where Rich Rod has recruited very few defensive players (according to the ESPN recruiting services). As such a big fan of ASU, U of A hasn't had offensive problems over the past few years, they just don't play defense and to be honest, I was scratching my head when U of A went with Rich Rod because his defense was so pathetic at Michigan. I think both coaches have done a great job at their positions, but I don't understand why ESPN is so anti-Todd Graham and ASU.

Ted Miller: I stand by what I wrote last week. Most objective observers would agree that Todd Graham inherited more talent at Arizona State than Rich Rodriguez inherited at Arizona.

That doesn't take anything away from how well Graham coached his players. In fact, you could make the argument that Graham coached his team better overall, and he deserves a tip of the cap for going 2-0 against Rodriguez. You could even argue that he's recruited better, though two years doesn't define a coach as a recruiter.

That said, if you were scratching your head when Arizona hired Rodriguez, well, I have a hard time believing that. It was a home run hire, period. There were a variety of reasons he didn't do well at Michigan -- a significant portion of those being out of his hands -- but the chief one, at least to me, was his not convincing his West Virginia defensive coordinator, Jeff Casteel, to follow him to Ann Arbor.

To support this point, let's consider the Arizona and Arizona State defenses last year. The Wildcats yielded fewer points per game (24.2 vs. 26.6) and yards per play (5.3 vs. 5.5) than the Sun Devils, despite having zero first-team or second-team All-Pac-12 performers on that side of the ball. The Sun Devils had six.

Yes, Arizona State played a much tougher schedule, particularly on the nonconference side of things. But the Wildcats held Oregon to a season-low 16 points.

I agree with this: Both coaches have done a great job (so far). It will be interesting to see how things stack up in the next five years, but both schools should enjoy their growing Pac-12 and national relevance.

Graham probably will never win over all his critics, and that includes fans, media and carping competing coaches. He's a fast-talking guy who's moved around a lot and has a reputation as being hard to work for.

But what I've realized in the past two years is he's one of the most authentic coaches out there. I actually "get along" with some coaches better, but I also know they, on occasion, are working me over. Graham, on the other hand, is always working me over. He's 100 percent consistent.

Graham's garrulousness that sometimes makes him seem like a used-car salesman? That's who he is. It's not an act. He's like that off the record. He's like that with a recruit's family. He's like that when he eats lunch with his assistant coaches. He's never low-key. He's always working, always competing. He is a driven, hungry son of a gun. My impression is he genuinely means what he says -- at least more than most coaches do -- and that includes trying to do things right, on the field and off.

Observing that Graham inherited more talent than Rodriguez isn't a tweak on Graham. It's just an observation that I believe is supported by substantial evidence.

Corey from the Netherlands writes: As a Ducks fan, one of the stories of this year is how Byron Marshall responds to some serious competition from Thomas Tyner. Everyone seems ready to give the job to Tyner based on talent alone, and the situation got me thinking about Alabama in 2009, with Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson. Of course, Ingram held off the more talented Richardson to win the Heisman Trophy that year, albeit with rather mundane numbers for a Heisman winner. I doubt Marshall nor Tyner will end up on anyone's Heisman list (we have a much better candidate!), but I have this feeling that both will be over 1,000 yards on the season, with Marshall in the top 2-3 in the conference, Tyner top 10. What do you think?

Ted Miller: A Ducks fan in the Netherlands. Hmm. I hear Amsterdam is beautiful this time of year.

What do I think? Byron Marshall/Thomas Tyner or Thomas Tyner/Byron Marshall -- it doesn't matter. It's a great luxury for run-first teams to have two capable backs. The competition will make both of them better and more hungry for touches. As long as one or the other doesn't whine about his role, things should be fine.

As for who's 1A and who's 1B, I have no idea. That's a question that will be resolved in preseason practices. If I were guessing, I'd predict that Marshall will trot out with the first-team offense against South Dakota on Aug. 30, but it will be up to him to hold on to his perch as the first option.

The goal should be for the pair to combine for 2,300 to 2,700 yards, not unlike the production of LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner in 2010 and 2011. It's notable that Barner didn't hit 1,000 yards while playing behind James, so that benchmark isn't terribly important -- overall production is.

Jeff from San Diego writes: Ted... As a Trojan who has attended games since the John McKay era, in the words of the immortal Marv Goux, "UCLA is a boil to be lanced before playing Notre Dame." Beating UCLA is all well and good, but there is NOTHING better than beating Notre Dame -- the GREATEST nonconference rivalry in CFB. The history, the Heismans, the NCs...Yes, beating UCLA is required, but NOTHING compares to Notre Dame for a true Trojan!

Ted Miller: Maybe, but I do think context matters.

The present context is UCLA rising as a national power after having beaten the Trojans two years in a row. While USC has also lost two in a row to Notre Dame, the Bruins' recently elevated status in the context of the crosstown rivalry seems more notable, at least from a media perspective.

I'm sure some "true" Trojans value wins over Notre Dame more, though I suspect many of these are of an older generation. I'd also wager that plenty of "true" Trojans would, if forced to make a call, prefer beating UCLA this season compared to Notre Dame.

Another change in context: Sharing the South Division in the Pac-12. While the Notre Dame game is the "GREATEST nonconference rivalry in CFB," losing to UCLA has even more ramifications in a divisional format compared to the old Pac-10 format.

Jim from Goleta, Calif., writes: The term "blue-chip recruit" seems to be thrown around in both football and basketball recruiting and seems to mean a can't-miss guy that everyone is fighting over. Where did this term come from? Is it so ubiquitous that I am the only one who dosn't know where it came from?

Ted Miller: Blue chips, traditionally, are high-value poker chips. That's why the term was then applied to stocks, with a "blue chip stock" being stock in a large and profitable company that was a long-time industry leader.

The terms were almost immediately adopted when recruiting coverage began and gained wide acceptance and use in the 1980s and 1990s, though I couldn't figure out who first used the term "blue chip" to describe a prospect. There was a publication called "Blue Chip" magazine in the 1970s, and you can read about the early days of recruiting coverage here.

Zach from Seattle writes: I love the Pac-12 blog, and have been following it since I was a student at UW. The stories I enjoy most are usually the in-depth ones that cover a single theme with a focus on each school per story (example, the current "Key Stretch" series). However, the depth of the analyses you run usually restrict you to produce one story on each school per day. The blog usually tackles these stories in alphabetical order by school name. For fans of schools starting with a U or a W, that means we usually need to wait for a week or two to hear about a story regarding our school after cycling through the other 10-11 stories in the same vein from other schools. I can't help but feel that as writers, you feel that a story inevitably stales out by the 12th time you write it. My suggestion is that you not reduce the depth/quality of these stories but try to randomize/shuffle/invert the order you report these stories occasionally to let the Utahs, USCs, UCLAs, UWs and WSUs of the conference get some exposure to the fresh news that UA and ASU currently enjoy on a weekly basis. Seems like an easy fix, yes? Keep up the excellent work.

Ted Miller: Now Zach, we've done plenty of features in reverse alphabetical order.

Such as this. And this.

If we did a random shuffle, many fans would go ballistic. And I'd probably lose my place.

I will also say that no feature ever -- EVER -- grows stale for me. We commit to each story with 100 percent of our focus and passion whether that team starts with an A or a Z.

That's the Pac-12 blog guarantee.

Dave from Kabul, AFG writes: "Life is full of great joys...," you wrote, but I feel the need to remind you that one of them is ROFL-ing with glee over the newly posted worst-case scenario for a hated Pac-12 rival. Granted, people may have had trouble grasping the concept of the column, and I can see the trouble balancing the over-the-top fantasy with an actual best/worst case limits prediction. Still, if this column does go softly into that good night, where else shall I find such Hugo Award-caliber flights of fancy regarding these august programs I've come to know and love, respect and despise? A Husky Fever Believer.

Ted Miller: I truly appreciate the notes about the likely end of the Best-case/Worst-case stories.

I just don't think I have it in me this season. These pieces have grown more monstrous every year, and the idea of a reduction in scope or length is as unappealing as trying to top last year's efforts.

It's not just the time commitment, either. I don't want to seem melodramatic or whiny here, but my chief worry over the years when doing these is letting a team down. Basically, I've had one day to come up with something, and I'd be in a panic in the middle of the night when I thought my piece for Team X was crap.

Again, not to be whiny, but I wrote one last year for a middle-of-the-pack team -- 1,600 words -- decided it was stupid and then completely rewrote it, finishing it in the wee hours of the morning. Still didn't like it.

I've got a week off coming up, and I've told myself to look at some options but, as noted, it feels as if the well has run dry.

Pac-12 all-BCS-era team

January, 13, 2014
Jan 13
We're looking back at the BCS era, which lasted from 1998 to 2013, so it made sense to make an all-Pac-12 BCS-era team.

Here's our shot at it. You surely will be outraged over the player from your team who got left out.

With our evaluation, NFL careers came into play with only the offensive linemen because they are so difficult to compare.


[+] EnlargeMatt Leinart
Jeff Lewis/USA TODAY SportsFormer USC QB Matt Leinart, the 2004 Heisman Trophy winner, threw 99 career TD passes.
QB Matt Leinart, USC: Nearly won three national titles. Won 2004 Heisman Trophy and placed third in 2005. Threw 99 career TD passes.

RB Reggie Bush, USC: The 2005 Heisman Trophy winner was one of the most dynamic players in college football history. (Bush returned the Heisman in 2012.)

RB LaMichael James, Oregon: Two-time first-team All-Pac-12, 2010 Doak Walker Award winner and unanimous All-American finished his career ranked second in Pac-12 history in rushing yards (5,082) and TDs (53). Nips other stellar RBs such as Arizona's Ka'Deem Carey, Stanford's Toby Gerhart and USC's LenDale White.

WR Mike Hass, Oregon State: Two-time first-team All-Pac-12 and 2005 Biletnikoff Award winner was the first Pac-12 player to record three consecutive seasons over 1,000 yards receiving. His 3,924 receiving yards ranks third all time in the conference. This, of course, could have been fellow Beaver Brandin Cooks or USC's Marqise Lee, who both also won the Biletnikoff Award.

WR Dwayne Jarrett, USC: A two-time consensus All-American, he set the Pac-12 standard with 41 touchdown receptions.

TE Marcedes Lewis, UCLA: A 2005 consensus All-American and John Mackey Award winner as the nation's best tight end. Caught 21 career TD passes.

OL David Yankey, Stanford: A unanimous All-American in 2013, he was a consensus All-American and Morris Trophy winner as the Pac-12's best offensive lineman in 2012.

OL Sam Baker, USC: A 2006 consensus All-American and three-time first-team All-Pac-12 performer.

OL Ryan Kalil, USC: Won the 2006 Morris Trophy. Two-time first-team All-Pac-12.

OL David DeCastro, Stanford: A unanimous All-American in 2011 and two-time first-team All-Pac-12 performer.

OL Alex Mack, California: A two-time winner of the Morris Trophy as the Pac-12's best offensive lineman (2007 & 2008).

K Kai Forbath, UCLA: Consensus All-American and Lou Groza Award winner in 2009. Made 84.16 percent of his field goals, which is nearly 5 percent better than any other kicker in conference history.


LB Rey Maualuga, USC: Was a consensus All-American and won the Bednarik Award as the nation's top defensive player in 2008. Three-time first-team All-Pac-12.

LB Trent Murphy, Stanford: 2013 consensus All-American and two-time first-team All-Pac-12 performer.

LB Anthony Barr, UCLA: Consensus All-American 2013 and two-time first-team All-Pac-12.

DL Will Sutton, Arizona State: Two-time Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year and Morris Trophy winner in 2012 and 2013. Consensus All-American in 2012.

DL Haloti Ngata, Oregon: A consensus All-American and Morris Trophy winner in 2005.

DL Rien Long, Washington State: Won the Outland Trophy and was a consensus All-American in 2002.

DL Terrell Suggs, Arizona State: A unanimous All-American in 2002 after setting NCAA single-season record with 24 sacks. Won the Lombardi Trophy. Two-time first-team All-Pac-12.

CB Chris McAlister, Arizona: Unanimous All-American in 1998. Three-time first-team All-Pac-12.

CB Antoine Cason, Arizona: Won the Thorpe Award as the nation's best defensive back in 2007. Two-time first-team All-Pac-12.

S Troy Polamalu, USC: Two-time All-Pac-10 and consensus All-American in 2002.

S Taylor Mays, USC: A three-time All-American, he was a consensus All-American in 2008. Two-time first-team All-Pac-12.

P Bryan Anger, California: A three-time first-team All-Pac-12 selection and two-time Ray Guy semifinalist.

Oregon poised to remove USC as top power

October, 29, 2012
Getty ImagesA win this weekend for Oregon and quarterback Marcus Mariota over USC and QB Matt Barkley could represent a power shift in the Pac-12.

Is Oregon-USC about a passing of the guard?

The one absolute history teaches us is there will be change. Nothing lasts forever. Empires fall. In ancient times, no one could conceive a world without Roman domination. Look at Italy now.

USC has 11 national championships. Oregon has none. And it wasn't too long ago that USC under Pete Carroll made a dynastic run that terrorized college football. From 2002 to 2008, USC was college football's pre-eminent power, the lone program that made the SEC quake in fear.

But there is a distinct sense that Chip Kelly and the Oregon Ducks are headed to the Coliseum on Saturday to grab the Pac-12 sword from Tommy Trojan and take it back to Eugene.

It wasn't supposed to be like this. In the preseason, the overwhelming consensus was USC was ready to reclaim its place atop college football. The Trojans, emerging from a two-year postseason ban courtesy of the NCAA, welcomed back 19 starters from a team that went 10-2 and won at Oregon. They looked like a potentially all-time great team on offense, with a talented defense playing a strong supporting role.

Meanwhile, Oregon was replacing six offensive starters, including a two-year starter at quarterback in Darron Thomas and its all-time leading rusher, LaMichael James. The defense looked stout, but there were plenty of questions. It seemed premature, despite three consecutive Pac-12 titles, to call the Ducks a "reload, not rebuild" outfit.

Au contraire.

Oregon has been a well-oiled machine. It has rolled over everyone like an army of steamrollers and sat its starters for large portions of the second half. Sure, the schedule hasn't featured any A-list foes. But Arizona, Arizona State and Washington are a combined 14-10 with wins over Oklahoma State, Stanford, Oregon State and USC, and the Ducks beat them by a combined count of 144-42.

USC has flashed brilliance at times on both sides of the ball this season, but that only serves to provide a stark contrast for the moments of inexplicable mediocrity and sloppiness. The Trojans are 120th -- last! -- in the nation in penalties and penalty yards per game. And last by a fairly wide margin.

Quarterback Matt Barkley has thrown eight interceptions. He threw seven all of last year.

And to cut to the chase, USC already has two losses, to Stanford and Arizona, that have thrown a blanket of "Neh" over what was supposed to be not only the Pac-12 game of the year, but also perhaps the national game of the year.

So it's fair to ask what it might mean -- big picture -- if Oregon prevails and then goes on to win a fourth consecutive Pac-12 title: Are the Ducks poised to displace USC atop the conference for the long term?

USC fans would rightly counter, "Well, how about the Ducks win a national title first?" That's fair.

Oregon fans probably would admit there's a reasonable -- and nagging -- qualifier here also: "As long as coach Chip Kelly stays in Eugene."

While Oregon probably wouldn't tumble into mediocrity if Kelly bolted for the NFL -- the program is too rich and too Nike'd -- this run of dominance feels like its foundation is built on Kelly's cult of "Win the Day" personality.

But the Pac-12 blog, just like Kelly quashing an interesting question, won't deal in hypotheticals.

So then, if the Ducks roll over the Trojans on Saturday by multiple touchdowns -- an unthinkable idea in the preseason -- and go on to win a fourth consecutive Pac-12 title, that feels like it could be a resonating statement.

Further, USC has two more years of scholarship sanctions. It can sign no more than 15 players for the next two recruiting classes (though there's some backwards-looking wiggle room coach Lane Kiffin has skillfully exploited) and can't exceed more than 75 players on scholarship, instead of the standard 85. All along, the point has been repeatedly made that USC will be most taxed by sanctions over the next two to three years.

Meanwhile, a glance at Oregon's roster, led by redshirt freshman QB Marcus Mariota, and sophomore fancypants De'Anthony Thomas, suggests the Ducks aren't going anywhere. This is almost certainly a preseason top-five team in 2013.

It seems like a potential old-school to new-school transition is at hand. From a program with iconic uniforms and pageantry that is immediately recognizable to college football fans across the country, to a program that changes uniforms every week and isn't afraid to wear lime-green socks.

Of course, the reality is USC won't go easily into the night. It has too much tradition. And let's not forget this: Location, location, location. USC's presence in Southern California's recruiting hotbed means the potential for program greatness is built-in.

And maybe USC pulls the shocker on Saturday and gets to smirk back at all the doubters.

Yet if Oregon takes care of business as most now expect, something might very well change. When someone asks, "Tell me about the Pac-12?" The new response will be, "Well, of course, there's Oregon first. You know about them, right?"

Five questions for the New Year, No. 5

December, 26, 2011
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.

5 things to watch: UCLA-USC

November, 25, 2011

1. Uniforms? It's been the talk of the town this week, what kind of jerseys the two schools are going to wear for the annual crosstown rivalry game. For its part, USC has said it will be wearing its normal home cardinal-and-gold uniforms, but UCLA is hinting at an all-white alternate combination, which would certainly attract some eyes and get some attention. It's worth noting that teams wearing non-normal jerseys -- Colorado and Notre Dame -- have not fared well against the Trojans this season, and it's also worth noting that USC coach Lane Kiffin wasn't terribly pleased with UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel when he heard the news about the Bruins' uniforms. The schools have both worn their home uniforms each of the last three seasons after Neuheisel and Pete Carroll petitioned the NCAA to allow it.

UCLAUSC2. Barkley4Heisman? With all the talk about USC quarterback Matt Barkley for the Heisman Trophy this week after USC's upset win over Oregon, one thing still remains before the all-out hype machine begins: The Trojans need to beat the Bruins. If they don't -- or even if they just sneak by -- Barkley's candidacy will be ruined. He needs to have a big game and USC needs to win in excessive fashion, otherwise voters are really going to forget about him by the time most vote in two weeks. Barkley has often talked about ending his Trojans' career with a bang, and beating UCLA handily would certainly qualify.

3. The pistol. Kiffin said it this week when asked about Rich Rodriguez' hiring over at Arizona: The Pac-12 is becoming the league of unusual offensive schemes. UCLA is no different, and the Trojans haven't necessarily had success defending the pistol in the past. (Remember the 2010 season opener against Hawaii?) The Bruins appear to have gotten it down really well in recent weeks, and quarterback Kevin Prince is the biggest threat to run USC has faced in a quarterback all season. The Trojans did face a team with multiple talented tailbacks a week ago in Oregon's LaMichael James, De'Anthony Thomas and Kenjon Barner, so UCLA's tandem of Johnathan Franklin and Derrick Coleman won't be an unheard-of threat.

4. Milestones. A number of USC players are on the cusp of some season- and career-long milestones, including receiver Marqise Lee and running back Curtis McNeal. Lee, a freshman, is just 81 receiving yards away from 1,000 on the season. McNeal, a junior, is just 119 rushing yards away from 1,000 on the season. And sophomore receiver Robert Woods needs only one catch to reach 100 on the year and four catches to break Keyshawn Johnson's single-season record. For what it's worth, Kiffin said that the Trojans will not be specifically trying to get those guys the ball early, but, if it's a blowout, they'll make sure as much as they can that the three of them get as many chances as possible to break the individual records.

5. Keeping it up defensively. As freshman linebacker Dion Bailey said this week, USC's defensive surge this season from disappointing to respectable would all be for naught if the Trojans relented against UCLA this week and gave up 30-plus points to the Bruins. A 9-3 record would essentially negate the progress Monte Kiffin's unit has made all season, and the Bruins do have the talent to make that possible. The goal, then, is to create multiple turnovers, something USC has not done with regularity this season. When the Trojans do that, though, they win. The problem is this: Prince hasn't thrown a pick in four of his last five starts.

Barkley's best in biggest situation

November, 19, 2011

EUGENE, Ore. -- Matt Barkley said this wasn't the best game of his college career, but it most certainly was his biggest win.

At Autzen Stadium against the No. 4 Oregon Ducks, he completed 26-of-34 attempts, threw for 323 yards and had four touchdowns and just one interception -- on a pass Robert Woods should have caught. He made one bad throw the entire night and several elite ones. And, most importantly, he led the now-surging USC Trojans to a season-defining 38-35 victory.

In arguably the biggest situation he's faced yet in the college sphere, the third-year Trojans quarterback produced one of his best games to date and -- perhaps in vain -- made a case that he should be considered among the rest of the bowl-eligible candidates for the Heisman Trophy come the end of this season.

"I thought Matt was outstanding," Oregon coach Chip Kelly said, adding that he thought Barkley was better than Andrew Luck and better than any of the quarterbacks his Ducks have faced this season. "He always seemed like he had the answer.

"Every time we came back and scored he came right back with an answer."

He did. Oregon got big plays from a number of sources throughout the game -- quarterback Darron Thomas, running backs Kenjon Barner, LaMichael James and De'Anthony Thomas. USC only had Barkley, receiver Marqise Lee and a less-than-full-strength Woods.

Barkley's first half was outstanding, as he staked USC out to a 14-point lead by completing all but three of his 18 passes, including a 59-yard touchdown throw to Lee. And, in a crucial fourth quarter -- a time where Barkley struggled so significantly his first two seasons -- he completed 4-of-5 passes for 57 yards, with his only incompletion the tipped pass off the hands of Woods.

This was a signal-caller at his best. This was a quarterback quarterback-ing his team to a win on the biggest of stages in the toughest of environments.

Yet he said he didn't think he "played that well." He said the feeling he had after the game didn't feel like he had just played the best game among his 32 career starts at the college level.

But he did. And, in the same place where a USC quarterback won himself the Heisman Trophy nine years ago this month, Barkley proved himself to be a viable candidate for the award.

He won't win it -- no way, not with the Trojans ineligible for the postseason and some of the other top candidates likely to play in a conference championship and bowl game. But he deserves to be in the top 5, and it now seems like a legitimate possibility he could do so.

"Look at what Matt's done with a bunch of young people," USC coach Lane Kiffin said following Saturday's game. "I can't imagine those other guys out there putting up numbers with a bunch of young guys around them."

There's some validity in that argument. But then there's also the fact that -- despite their age -- Woods and Lee are much better than Luck's receivers over at Stanford and better than Landry Jones' receivers at Oklahoma now that Ryan Broyles is out for the year.

But forget the Heisman politicking and arguments. Those will have their time in the sun soon. And forget that Barkley might have just played his penultimate game in a USC cardinal-and-gold uniform.

For right now, realize this: Matt Barkley just led his USC Trojans to an upset win over the Oregon Ducks.

And he did it better than he's ever done before.

Grades: USC-Oregon

November, 19, 2011
It doesn't get much better than this. Matt Barkley had an absolutely splendid day -- his fourth-quarter interception notwithstanding, because it was Robert Woods' mistake that led to it. True freshman Marqise Lee proved to be a dominant presence on a big stage.

They weren't asked to do much until later in the game, but Curtis McNeal and Marc Tyler were once again an effective duo for the Trojans. But while McNeal didn't do anything to hurt USC's cause, Tyler's fumble late was a crucial mistake that almost cost the Trojans.

USC's defensive line built on last week's terrific performance against Washington and again produced pressure on Thomas and the Oregon offense. And while the Trojans' O-line did have a few false starts, the big guys kept Barkley off the ground and gave him time to operate.

Considering Oregon's track record -- pun intended -- this was a solid performance by the Trojans' defenders, demonstrating clear improvement from the beginning of this season. Darron Thomas did fine at quarterback, but LaMichael James wasn't allowed to run wildly, as he often is.

For the umpteenth time this year, coordinator John Baxter's unit produced a big play with the third-quarter punt block that netted USC some points, but it also allowed a couple big kick returns by De'Anthony Thomas, including the 96-yard touchdown later in the third.

Lane and Monte Kiffin out-coached Chip Kelly and his crew, plain and simple. The Trojans' offensive gameplan was solid, and USC also knew what to do to stop Oregon's top offensive options. Kiffin is going to gain a lot of national respect for this.

5 things to watch: USC-Oregon

November, 18, 2011

1. The implications: As is the case with most late-season contests between top-25 teams, Saturday's USC-Oregon will have quite a few long-lasting after-effects. If the Ducks do win, as they are expected to, they'll put themselves in a serious conversation for the national championship game with only a game against lowly Oregon State. If they lose, it'll be a role reversal of epic proportions as the Trojans turn the tables on the Ducks and do what teams tried to do to them for so many years: ruin their BCS bowl aspirations. And, for USC, a win over Oregon coupled with a season-ending win over UCLA just about ensures that the Trojans will finish the season in the national top 10 -- really a remarkable accomplishment considering all the circumstances surrounding USC's 2011 season.

OregonUSC2. USC's No. 1 receiver: USC pass-catcher Robert Woods isn't fully healthy -- that much we know for sure. But what we'll see on the field Saturday is exactly how healthy he really is, and whether he can actually help the Trojans upset Oregon at Autzen Stadium. Lane Kiffin says he's 70 percent recovered from ankle and shoulder injuries that have bothered him, in one form or another, all season long, but Woods insists he's further along. Last week's game against Washington, when he had just two catches for five yards, indicated he wasn't feeling too great. Also, a corollary to this item: If Woods can't go or can't be at full strength, is there any possible way USC can still compete? Brice Butler would be the next in line to line up across from Marqise Lee, and he has had some success of late.

3. The conditions and the crowd: The snow some projected for this weekend in Eugene has been pushed back to Sunday, but, even now, projects a 50 percent chance of rain on Saturday and a high of 45 degrees. USC's had to play in some tough places this year -- windy Tempe, loud and cold South Bend and new Boulder -- but Autzen is likely to take the cake. In the Trojans' final road game of the year, expect 60,000 Duck fans to create by far the loudest experience yet of the 2011 season. Autzen only fits 54 thousand in seats, but Oregon filled it up well past its capacity last month against Arizona State, and it's likely the Ducks will do the same Saturday.

4. De'Anthony, Darron, Kenjon and LaMichael: Oregon has so many weapons. Any one of those four guys -- plus receiver Lavasier Tunei, really -- could be many teams' No. 1 offensive options. The Ducks have all of them, and Chip Kelly is sure to make good use of all his available players on the offensive end. LaMichael James, of course, is probably the biggest cause for concern from USC's perspective, but, as Kiffin said this week, the Trojans have to approach all of the Oregon runners in the same manner. They can't key in on James, because then De'Anthony Thomas and Kenjon Barner will go off. They can't key in on Thomas, because it's impossible to predict how he'll be used each week. And Thomas continues to quietly post solid numbers -- he has thrown fewer interceptions than both Matt Barkley and Andrew Luck this season.

5. The fourth quarter: All season, USC has talked up its supposed improvements in the final 15 minutes of games. We have seen signs of small improvements over the course of the year, but we've yet to see real, tangible evidence that the Trojans have fixed all that has ailed them in the past. As the fourth quarter began last season during the USC-Oregon game at the Coliseum, the Trojans were driving past midfield and on the verge of scoring a touchdown to put themselves within a field goal of the Ducks. Then they turned it over on downs and gave Oregon an easy field goal, and then, within another touchdown of making it a one-score game, Barkley was picked off by John Boyett in the red zone. Three minutes later, it was game and the final score (53-32) made it looked like Oregon had dominated the entire game. In reality, the Trojans weren't far away from making it very, very competitive.

First look: Oregon

November, 15, 2011
All year, USC coach Lane Kiffin has done a masterful job of hyping up each week's opponent for the Trojans, giving the best possible evaluation of the team the Trojans face on a weekly basis.

OregonUSCIt's an old coaching strategy, one many of the younger college football coaches in the country now employ exhaustively. The goal is to raise the potential reward for beating the team in questionand lower the risk for losing.

Kiffin, the Trojans' second-year coach, didn't have to do that so much against Oregon this week.

But he still tried.

"It's hard to argue that they're not the hottest team in the country right now," Kiffin said Sunday of the fourth-ranked Ducks.

His evidence? They've beaten every team they've faced this season -- save for LSU, of course -- by at least two touchdowns. They just beat then-No. 4 Stanford by 23 in Palo Alto. And their 13-point loss to LSU to start off the season was a tough scenario, taking place in a supposed neutral site that favored the Tigers and playing without the services of top special-teamer and cornerback Cliff Harris.

To date, that game is the only time Oregon running back LaMichael James hasn't gotten at least four yards per carry. Freshman running back DeAnthony Thomas, a longtime USC commit, fumbled on back-to-back touches in the third quarter, which changed the score of the game from 16-13 LSU to 30-13 LSU in a matter of minutes. The eventual final score was 40-27 LSU.

That was a weird day for the Ducks, Kiffin maintains -- and a bit of a fluke, looking back on it.

“They’re a very different team than they were on that day,” Kiffin said.

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Former USC commit Polk a star at UW

November, 9, 2011
It's funny how things work out sometimes.

When now-Washington coach Steve Sarkisian was an assistant at USC last decade, he recruited now-Washington running back Chris Polk heavily out of local Redlands East Valley High. Back then, Polk was a top-100 prospect, and he committed to USC to compete with Joe McKnight and Co. for carries in the Trojans' backfield, but he ended up going against the grain and choosing coach Tyrone Willingham and the down-on-their-luck Washington Huskies.

Then Willingham was fired after Polk's freshman season when the Huskies went 0-12, Sarkisian was hired after grooming Mark Sanchez into an NFL first-round selection, and soon Sarkisian was Polk's college coach.

And now the 5-11, 222-pound Polk, a fourth-year junior, is Sarkisian's biggest weapon as the third-year Washington coach attempts to pull off an upset over USC for the third straight season this Saturday at the Coliseum. Considered a potential first-round selection in the NFL draft, he's been flat-out dynamic this year, averaging more than 120 rushing yards and another 30-plus receiving yards per game. He surpassed 1,000 rushing yards last month for the third time in his college career.

"He’s big and physical, and he’s really good in the passing game too," now-Trojans coach Lane Kiffin said this week. "So he’s really kind of the complete package."

Polk's stat lines the last two seasons against USC include 235 yards from scrimmage and a TD. He's proven to provide a tough challenge for the Trojans' defense, perhaps the toughest challenge over the last couple of years outside of LaMichael James and Jacquizz Rodgers.

But USC is trying to keep it simple in devising a game plan to stop him this week, following what the Oregon Ducks did in holding him to 3.3 yards per carry in their 34-17 win over the Huskies last weekend.

"It's not real complicated," Kiffin said this week. "Tackle the guy really well and don't let him fall forward. Just look no further than what happened on Saturday night. Oregon tackled great the whole game.

"They swarmed to the ball, they tackled really well, they knocked the power back."

But, even then, Polk found a way to accumulate 114 yards out of the backfield. It's been almost a year since he's failed to reach the century mark in yards from scrimmage.

With him, it's more of a case of trying to limit his production than trying to make him completely unproductive -- and, of course, trying not to remember that he could very easily have been doing the same thing for the Trojans right now.

First look: California Bears, Thursday

October, 9, 2011
USC's struggles over the last few years of Pac-12 play don't really apply to the California Bears.

Jeff Tedford's squads, while consistently solid nationally and often a force in the conference, have just not been an issue for the Trojans of late. In 2008, USC shut down Cal's offense entirely and won 17-3. In 2009, the Trojans blew the Bears out, 30-3, in a game dedicated to Stafon Johnson, who had dropped a bench-press bar on his throat in the week leading up to it. And, last year, at the Coliseum, USC led 42-0 at halftime before pulling away with a comfortable 48-14 win.

Going back further, the Trojans haven't lost to Cal since a triple-overtime game in Berkeley in 2003, a game in which future Super Bowl-winner Aaron Rodgers was replaced in the second half becaise of poor play. The 2011 Bears starting signal-caller, Zach Maynard, has been replaced by a backup, Allan Bridgford, twice this season. But those appearances came later in the game, in one case because of an injury and in the other because of a blowout.

Maynard, a Buffalo transfer, has proven to have well-developed chemistry with his top two receivers in Keenan Allen and Marvin Jones. Running back Isi Sofele stepped right in for Shane Vereen, who left to the NFL, but the Bears defense has been the primary issue at fault for the team's 3-2 start.

Cal was 3-0 at first, after a trio of non-conference games. But Keith Price and Washington found a way to beat the Bears last month in Seattle, and then the Bears again struggled to keep up with Oregon last week in Eugene. The latest problem is the pass defense, especially now, with top corner Marc Anthony out for the foreseeable future and a true freshman, Stefan McClure, in for him.

With how much trouble USC's quarterback-receiver tandem of Matt Barkley and Robert Woods has caused some better defenses so far this year, it's not hard to imagine a situation where Woods surpasses 200 receiving yards on Thursday at AT&T Park.

Cal's run defense allowed a ton of yards (239) to Oregon's LaMichael James on Thursday, but that's not indicative of its normal play. Washington running back Chris Polk gained three yards a carry against the Bears in that Huskies win, and Fresno State's Robbie Rouse and Colorado's Rodney Stewart both ran the ball poorly earlier this year, too.

A Marc Tyler-dominated day is not likely for USC in what promises to be an unusual environment at AT&T Park, where only a handful of Trojans have played a football game previously.

A Barkley-to-Woods one is.

Taking advantage of a weakness

September, 29, 2011
Arizona, USC's opponent this Saturday, is a 1-3 team that probably is better than than record considering the quality of its opponents.

But the Wildcats do have one easily discernible weakness: They struggle defending the run.

In its last three games, Arizona has given up an average of 285 rushing yards per game, a ridiculously high number boosted by LaMichael James' record-setting 288-yard performance last week. But Stanford's Stepfan Taylor and Oklahoma State's Joseph Randle had similar success too, gaining 7.4 yards per rush against the Wildcats' porous front seven.

But James, Taylor and Randle all have one thing in common: They're quick. USC's No. 1 running back, Marc Tyler, is not, as evidenced by his struggle to break most runs past the 15-yard mark. And that naturally lowers the Trojans' expectations for what they can accomplish against the Arizona defense.

"It is what it is," coach Lane Kiffin said Thursday. "You can’t all of a sudden make a guy really fast. We’re doing the best to put him in the best situations with his ability. Obviously you always want a home run hitter and a guy that last week on those runs has some explosive longer runs.

"We've just got to use what we have and make the best of him and find different ways to use him.”

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5 things to watch: USC-ASU

September, 23, 2011
1. The whole road thing: It's USC's first road game, and that's the focus of the week for the squad. Last week's focus -- it's all about us, not about Syracuse -- worked out well. Will this one? That depends on a few factors: (1) how a young offensive line responds to constant crowd noise at Sun Devil Stadium, (2) how freshmen linebackers Dion Bailey and Hayes Pullard keep up against a sharp, smart quarterback and (3) how USC's young offensive targets Marqise Lee, Xavier Grimble and Randall Telfer do in a new environment. In general, the Trojans need to avoid rookie-type and mental mistakes, as Kiffin has preached all week. The problem is that they've been making those mistakes all year thus far. It doesn't matter how well the team plays in general if USC commits too many penalties. Those have a way of messing things up.

ASUUSC2. The Tempe temperature: projects it to be 99 degrees at kickoff and at least 87 until midnight. Compare that to USC's mid-70s temperatures for the Trojans' first three games. The heat is going to be a factor, as it'll likely force USC to use more substitutes than usual and rotate players in and out on a frequent basis. It could mean cramping and all that, but it could also mean Marc Tyler will get the chance to run over a run-down Sun Devils defense late in the game, just as he did in Tucson last year against Arizona. ASU also has a lot less depth on its defense than was expected heading into the year, with long-term injuries sidelining defensive end Junior Onyeali, linebacker Brandon Magee and cornerback Omar Bolden.

3. Barkley: USC's quarterback, junior Matt Barkley, hasn't had his best games against Arizona State in the past and actually had his worst-ever collegiate game in Tempe as a freshman, when he passed for only 112 yards while completing just 7-of-22 attempts. That game, he said this week, was "terrible." In retrospect, he said he didn't know if he was "sick," "tired," "lethargic," or "dead." The Trojans barely won that game, getting big boosts from former safety Will Harris and receiver Damian Williams, who boosted Barkley's passing totals with a 75-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown.

4. Burfict: Is there a more exciting opposing player the Trojans will go against all year than ASU's Vontaze Burfict? Maybe Stanford's Andrew Luck or Oregon's LaMichael James -- that's really it. Burfict is a lightning bolt of a defender, a guy who tends to make things interesting. USC's players -- and coaches, actually -- have talked all week about the junior middle linebacker, trying to rile him up via the press so that he will presumably take action early on in the game and get called for a personal-foul penalty. Here's the thing, though: The Trojans might be just as likely as he is to get a foul called on them. Matt Kalil straight-up said he plans to drill Burfict.

5. A 6-8 quarterback: You know how it's fun to watch a top-flight offense go against a top-flight defense? That's sort of what this game will be like, only on a much more minute level. Arizona State quarterback Brock Osweiler is tall, very tall, and surprisingly mobile, which typically allows him to get off passes in unusual situations. But USC's defensive line is particularly adept at reaching up and knocking down passes at the line. Who will win this battle within the battle? The safe money's on the 6-8 Osweiler, but Nick Perry and Co. will put up a fight. And USC's defense will likely have some trouble with Osweiler all around, as the junior has made significant strides this year and posted a dominating performance two weeks back against Missouri.

DBs prepare for Gray and the spread

August, 31, 2011

What do USC's defensive backs have to prepare for against a team running a spread offense like Minnesota?

They have to be ready for deep balls, thrown early and thrown often. They have to be ready for the quarterback, MarQueis Gray, to cut broken plays short and take off running. They have to be ready for traditional run plays from tailbacks Duane Bennett and Donnell Kirkwood.

Above all, they just have to be ready for everything. Jerry Kill likes to mix things up in his offense -- or, Kill liked to mix things up in his offense at Northern Illinois and probably will at Minnesota, too.

Still, the Trojans insist Saturday's game is all about execution and not at all about deception.

"It's nothing that we haven't seen before," sophomore cornerback Nickell Robey said Wednesday, roughly an hour after he returned an interception for a touchdown during practice. "Everything's the same with the spread. They got athletes who do the same things that most athletes around here do.

"It's nothing surprising we're gonna see."

That's not an insult, you see. Because, for all the Trojans know as of right now, the Gophers really won't be doing anything different. In fact, they'll be doing a lot of what the Oregon Ducks do in the Pac-12 with the combination of Darron Thomas and LaMichael James.

(Read full post)

Questions for camp, No. 10: Barkley for Heisman?

August, 3, 2011
Only one day (!) remains until fall camp begins for the Trojans. We've been previewing the biggest questions that USC must answer in the month between camp and the season opener. Read the first nine questions here, covering such topics as freshmen on both side of the ball, position switches and recovering from unexpected.

The 10th, and final, question is this: Could junior quarterback Matt Barkley made a legitimate run for the Heisman Trophy in what very well might be his last season as a Trojan in 2011?

It's one of the best off-the-field storylines to follow in sports: the race for the Heisman Trophy. And it's even more interesting than usual for the Trojans and their fans this season, because it's likely that, in Barkley, USC will have a true competitor for the award for the first time in six years.

Barkley's not the favorite. That role goes to Stanford's Andrew Luck. But he's probably, at this point, somewhere in the bottom half of the top 10-candidates nationwide, behind Luck, Oregon's LaMichael James, Boise State's Kellen Moore and the two quarterbacks from the state of Oklahoma, Landry Jones and Brandon Weeden. Some would argue Auburn's Michael Dyer, Alabama's Trent Richardson and Oklahoma State's Justin Blackmon are also in front of him.

But what would Barkley have to do this season to jump ahead of a few of those guys and make a serious run?

First, USC would need to have a very good, if not great, season. Any less than 10 wins, coupled with the lack of a bowl game, would eliminate him from consideration. He probably needs to lead the Trojans to an 11-1 or 12-0 season to really have a chance. He also needs to bring his interception total down from 12 to fewer than 10 and up his touchdown total at least to 30.

He also needs to have big games in USC's big games and lead an upset over Stanford or Oregon while hanging tough with each of those schools' candidates.

These conditions are demanding, and Barkley would have a much better chance if he were to stay for his senior season because of the bowl-game aspect and the extra year of experience. But that seems unlikely at this point. A good goal for this season, then, is to simply get to New York for the Heisman Trophy presentation as one of four finalists.

The last Trojan to do so was Reggie Bush, in 2005, when he won the award with the most votes since O.J. Simpson in 1968. But Bush's honor has since been forfeited. The last Trojan to win the award who still remains in the record books is Matt Leinart in 2004.

As for competition on his own team, Barkley won't have to worry too much about splitting votes with any teammates. The closest thing to another candidate has is sophomore receiver/returner Robert Woods, who has nothing more than an extreme outside chance.

Barkley could easily get to New York. Winning the trophy would be a lot more difficult.

Football camp coverage begins Thursday.



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