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Pac-12-SEC challenge: Auburn vs. USC

8/11/2015
Jeremy Johnson has plenty of potential, but could he lead Auburn past USC and the experience of Cody Kessler? Michael Chang/Getty Images

Thanks to a bunch of real-world issues that will undoubtedly prevent a Pac-12 vs. SEC challenge from ever happening, we've been forced to conjure an imaginary world to let our dreams play out. After kicking things off with Alabama vs. Oregon on Monday, we keep things going with Auburn vs. USC.

Here is the lineup for the week:

Alabama vs. Oregon: Monday

Auburn vs. USC: Tuesday

Georgia vs. UCLA: Tuesday

LSU vs. Arizona State: Wednesday

Ole Miss vs. Stanford: Wednesday

Arkansas vs. Arizona: Thursday

Missouri vs. Utah: Friday

Kyle Bonagura: If there is one program in the Pac-12 that might get a reluctant “OK, I guess they've been pretty good over the years” from an average SEC fan, it's USC -- except the Birmingham television market (I've seen the Pac-12 TV ratings). You guys know what kind of ball has been played on the West Coast in recent years, and you definitely harbor a special love for #Pac12afterdark. Any doctor will tell you the phenomenon is quickly becoming a leading cause of insomnia in the South. For the rest of you, just know it's not a sickness worth curing.

It is tempting to point out USC's 18-10-1 record against schools currently in the SEC and that the Trojans haven't lost to an SEC team since before any players in either conference were alive (in 1987, to Auburn), but hopefully we can all acknowledge that none of that has any bearing on the present. What matters is this year and that USC enters the season with plenty of reason to forecast its best team in quite some time. The Trojans have a Heisman Trophy candidate at quarterback (Cody Kessler), two running backs on the Doak Walker Award watch list (Justin Davis and Tre Madden), possibly the deepest, most talented offensive line in the country and an experienced defense led by two of the nation's best players (LB/S Su'a Cravens and CB Adoree' Jackson).

Coach Gus Malzahan and Auburn have earned respect, but in a game between teams of this caliber, quarterback play can be the difference. So, Greg, I ask you: Can Jeremy Johnson match what Kessler will do for USC? I'm not convinced he can.

Greg Ostendorf: Clearly, you were still waking up when Auburn opened the season against Arkansas last year, so let me refresh your memory. Jeremy Johnson went 12-of-16 for 243 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions against a Razorback defense that went on to be one of the SEC's better defenses. Oh, and that was in the first half. I realize it's a small sample, but he has been terrific in the little time he's played, and I don't see any reason he won't be great for a full season. He could be sitting next to your guy Kessler in New York City when it comes time to present the Heisman Trophy.

But as good as Johnson is, the offense won't revolve around him. Similar to USC, Auburn has a quartet of running backs (Roc Thomas, Peyton Barber, Jovon Robinson and Kerryon Johnson) who are all extremely talented. How about this for a guarantee? Whoever wins the starting job at Auburn will have more rushing yards than USC's top running back.

Let's be honest, though. Both these offenses are going to be good. I love Kessler, just like I love Johnson. To me, the key in this game will be the two defenses. One look at last year, and the edge would have to go to USC. But this isn't last year's Auburn defense. Auburn brought in Will Muschamp, one of the game's most renowned defensive coordinators, and top pass-rusher Carl Lawson is healthy again. I know you probably don't know the name Carl Lawson yet, but you will. When healthy, the guy is unblockable. My question is how USC stacks up on defense. I still remember Boston College putting up a 37-spot on the Trojans last year.

Bonagura: You're right. Johnson might be a great player. In fact, he probably will be. But making predictions based on, as you pointed out, small samples can be a dangerous game. I know we didn't set parameters for when this hypothetical game would be played, but if it were an early-season nonconference game -- not, say, in the College Football Playoff, which absolutely seems plausible -- I still like USC's chances with a more proven commodity.

As for your guarantee, I can see that happening. I'm not completely sold, considering Steve Sarkisian has coached a 1,300-plus yard back in each of the past five seasons, but that could be the case. I'm just not sure how that helps Auburn beat USC. Just as most would bet Kessler will throw for more yards than Johnson, it says more about each team's overall offensive philosophy.

Yes, that BC game was a mess -- admittedly there were a few other stinkers -- but it's also important for some context. USC only played 42 scholarship players in that trip to BC (teams can travel 70), star defensive lineman Leonard Williams was banged up, and the game came a week after the Trojans ended the nation's longest home win streak with a 13-10 win against Stanford. Besides, by the end of the season, USC allowed slightly fewer points per game (25.2 versus 26.7) than Auburn, which makes it tough for either side to claim a clear defensive superiority. With seven starters back and added depth, defense isn't a concern, definitely not compared to concerns that might exist for a team that ended the past season with four losses in five games.

Ostendorf: Both Auburn and USC have potentially great quarterbacks. Both can run the football. Both have improving defenses. Both have exciting, young coaches who are one national championship from reaching elite levels. On paper, I'd say these two teams are pretty even. I'd even go as far as to say this might be the best matchup in our Pac-12-SEC Challenge (sorry, Alabama and Oregon fans).

I lean toward Auburn, though, because I think its ceiling is higher. If these teams played Week 1, it might be different. But if they meet in the College Football Playoff, which could very well happen, I think Auburn is going to be tough to beat. Jeremy Johnson will have the experience to go with the talent. A running back will have emerged, similar to the way Tre Mason did two years ago (all he did was rush for 1,800 yards). And the defense will undoubtedly improve every week under Muschamp.

Right now, it's a coin flip between Auburn and USC. At the end of the season, when it matters, I think Auburn is the better team.