NCF Nation: T.J. McDonald

Once lauded as the preseason No. 1 with the Heisman Trophy favorite at quarterback, the USC football program sank to historic depths in 2012. What's the state of the program and is the sky falling on USC? Your bloggers debate:

Ted Miller: Is the sky falling for USC? Maybe just a little, at least if you believe in momentum.

In August, the Trojans were ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press poll. They were rolling with the nation's No. 1 recruiting class. Quarterback Matt Barkley was the golden boy of the preseason, the top Heisman candidate, lauded for his unselfish decision to return for his senior season. And coach Lane Kiffin, after leading the Trojans to a 10-2 finish in 2011, seemed to be well on his way to proving his skeptics wrong and rewriting the story of his coaching career.

Now, in February, USC is coming off a 7-6 season, the first time a preseason No. 1 team lost six games. It lost five of its final six games, including an execrable performance against middling Georgia Tech in the Sun Bowl. After the game, there was a locker-room altercation that involved some players bad-mouthing Barkley. Further, Kiffin has been -- fairly -- blamed for the collapse, and many of his actions during the season served to reinforce his image as a guy obsessed with working the angles instead of focusing on the details. All this serves to put Kiffin on perhaps the hottest seat in the nation heading into 2013.

Further, the recruiting class, the one constant during the surprising losing, ended up ranked 14th in the nation after several players decommitted. A handful of those decommitted players added salt to the Trojans' wounds by signing with rivals UCLA and Notre Dame.

Why did they decommit? The reasons are likely to be specific to the individual athlete, but it's fair to say that the program's fall from grace and Kiffin's uncertain status played a role.

The program was perceived in a much different way in August than it is today. The considerable momentum of the preseason has reversed. Considerably.

[+] EnlargeLane Kiffin
AP PhotoLane Kiffin might be on the hot seat in 2013, but perhaps a dimmer spotlight will help his Trojans.
Of course, USC still signed an outstanding recruiting class, with 12 of the 13 members earning four stars and nine ranking among the nation's top 150 players. The present negative momentum can be quickly reversed with a fast start to the season. If Kiffin wins nine or 10 games, he'll probably be back in 2014, especially if he can beat UCLA and Notre Dame in the process -- and the Bruins in particular.

So, really, the sky is not falling over Heritage Hall.

But it is definitely blocked by dark, threatening clouds no USC fan likes to see.

Kevin Gemmell: No, the sky is not falling on USC. And I'll tell you why. There aren't many schools in the country that finish 7-6 and can bring in a recruiting haul -- considered by some to actually be a disappointment -- like the Trojans did earlier this week. There aren't a lot of schools that can look as bad as the Trojans did in 2012 and still ink six players rated in the top six for their positions nationally -- including the Nos. 1 and 3 safeties, the No. 2 pocket passer and the No. 3 defensive tackle. USC is a brand name and is always going to attract elite recruits. Even in the worst of times. And it can't get much worse than it did last season.

I've been very critical of the 2012 edition of USC football. In a word, it stunk. It was like watching a train wreck crash into a train wreck that crashed into a manure pile. For whatever reason, despite an abundance of talent, the chemistry proved toxic. Kiffin has, rightfully so, shouldered the lion's share of the blame.

All that said, with the talent USC has on its roster as of today, the Trojans can win at least nine games in 2013 (pause for laughter). I say again, the Trojans can win more games in 2013 than the team with Barkley, Robert Woods, Khaled Holmes, Nickell Robey and T.J. McDonald.

Bad years -- for whatever reason -- happen. But folks weren't screaming to fire Kiffin when he took over a program on probation and went 18-7 in his first two seasons -- including the aforementioned 10-win campaign in 2011. People weren't calling for his head when the Trojans won at Autzen Stadium in 2011 -- something only one other Pac-12 team has been able to do since 2008.

What made 2012 so much worse than it should have been were the off-field issues that came across as bush league. Those are easily corrected. You know how? Stop doing stupid things off the field! That should do the trick. And while we're at it, stupid things on the field don't work that well either. Free tip.

The spotlight won't be nearly as bright in 2013 as it was in 2012. The Trojans will probably start off in the preseason top 25. Maybe they even sneak into the top 20. That's a lot more psychologically manageable than No. 1. The schedule sets up nicely with four very winnable games before the Trojans travel to Arizona State at the end of September for their first Pac-12 South showdown. Then they get a week and a half to prep for Arizona and an extra two days to prep for Notre Dame. More importantly, it gets a lot of young players time to get acclimated. There is also a lot of returning talent that saw a great deal of playing time in 2012 -- for better or worse.

As of Feb. 8, 2013, I'm not sure who is going to win the Pac-12 South. I might give a slight edge to either Arizona State or UCLA. But discounting the Trojans is just foolishness. No, USC fans, the sky is not falling. Sometimes you just have to put the past behind you and -- as you folks say -- fight on.

Pac-12 sees 38 invited to NFL combine

February, 8, 2013
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The official list of college players invited to the NFL combine is out and 38 from the Pac-12 made the cut. At least one player from every team in the conference was invited. A total of 333 players were invited and workouts begin Feb. 23. You can see the complete list here.

Q&A: USC's T.J. McDonald

September, 21, 2012
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The USC Trojans head home this week to face a Cal team that almost pulled off an upset against Ohio State. Saddled with their first loss of the season, the Trojans look to bounce back against the Bears. USC safety T.J. McDonald took some time to chat with the Pac-12 blog for our Friday Q&A. (Warning: There are zero questions about Matt Barkley and the Heisman.)

I suppose the first and most obvious question is how has the team responded this week?

T.J. McDonald: We're responding well. We're anxious to get this taste out of our mouth, and the only way we can do that is to have good practices and play Trojan football -- the only way we know how. We have to give our best effort every play and make sure after this next game we have a better taste in our mouth.

Every time you and I have talked, you've always talked about "bigger goals" for this team. Are those goals still within reach?

TM: Definitely they are still within reach. We still have a lot that we can accomplish. We still have more to accomplish than we've had here in our recent history and the last few years. I told the defense, there are only two types of football players: those who have been beat and those who will be beaten. We're not going to win every game this year. The only thing we can do is respond and still try to accomplish all those goals we set out to accomplish before the season.

[+] EnlargeT.J. McDonald
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/US Presswire"When you lose a game," USC safety T.J. McDonald said after falling at Stanford, "you can never say you played good."
Assess your own performance against Stanford?

TM: I felt like I played OK. I played pretty good. But there are a lot of things I can do to get better. I'm never going to be satisfied, no matter what. Even if I had a four-interception game, I still would look for ways to get better. When you lose a game, you can never say you played good. I know that I gave my best effort, but there is still stuff I want to get better at and there were plays left out there I need to make.

After two weeks on the road, how good is it to be back at home?

TM: It feels good to be back on our field and back in front of our home crowd, and hopefully we go out there and play Trojan football the way we know how and get our fans rocking with us again. We've got a lot of support from our fans. That's always what you want, and you want to put on a good show for them.

You guys have a fairly veteran defense, but you're still the leader. How important was it for you to set an example this week and keep the guys on track?

TM: Very important. We just have to make sure that all the young guys know what to do. All of this stuff happened so fast to us. As far as getting all of the hype and being rated so high -- it all happened so fast. We weren't even in the AP polls before because of probation. Just because of one bad game, not a lot of guys know how to respond. The only way I know how is to come back and go even harder for the rest of the season and make sure that we know what it feels like and to never feel like that again. The only way to do that is to go out, play our butts off, and make sure that we fly to the ball and we take everything from the practice field and transfer it to the field on Saturday.

Cal was a few missed field goals away from beating Ohio State. What did you learn about them from watching the Ohio State game?

TM: They have a lot of fight in them. It was good for them because for them to come out to the Horseshoe and respond against a team like Ohio State and that atmosphere, we know they aren't going to be intimidated coming to the Coliseum. We just got to make sure we play our best game. As long as we are on our A-game -- and like I said before -- we transfer everything from the film room and everything from the practice field to the field on Saturday and play Trojan football, we'll be OK.

Can USC get off the canvas?

September, 17, 2012
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BarkleyBob Stanton/Icon SMIMatt Barkley and the Trojans must now look to rebound after being upset by Stanford.
The good news is there's no longer a need to regurgitate comparisons between USC in 2012 and USC in 2005. In 2005, the Trojans beat Stanford by 30. In 2012, the Cardinal forced a fourth-quarter tap out.

The 2005 team went undefeated in the regular season and lost an epic clash with Texas for the national title. The 2012 team got pushed around in Game 3.

While USC's turnovers and penalties were notable at Stanford, they were only foot-notable. The primary narrative was how USC got whipped on both lines, most obviously in the fourth quarter when the screws tightened. Stanford asserted itself and the Trojans wilted.

There are many ways to lose, and some losses are easier to rationalize. Last year, Oregon opened with a loss to LSU. Sure, there was a false narrative -- LSU dominated those gimmicky Ducks! -- but the true narrative was Oregon played sloppily and LSU did not. You can rationalize a sloppy loss because you can envision corrected mistakes and better ball security.

It's more difficult to rationalize USC's loss to Stanford. Yes, the absence of center Khaled Holmes, maybe the best offensive lineman in the conference, was significant. Still, if you came to the game with no preconceptions, you'd be hard-pressed to imagine how the Trojans might reverse the scoreboard in a rematch.

But the purpose here is not to read the entrails of the Trojans' 21-14 defeat that knocked them from No. 2 to No. 13. It's to consider the present and to speculate on the future for USC in 2012.

The present is a test of the Trojans' heart and backbone. It starts with the leadership of Lane Kiffin and his coaching staff, then trickles down to quarterback Matt Barkley and safety T.J. McDonald, the guys who came back as seniors to take care of "unfinished business."

The point A after the loss, however, was a USC failure. The Trojans' postgame despondency, particularly Barkley's, was perfectly understandable. It was normal. But exceptional people, the sorts who are supposed to lead great teams, don't do despondency. They don't do feel sorry for yourself.

Don't hate me for going here, but this is what you do.

Yeah, I pulled out Tim Tebow's news conference speech after Florida's embarrassing 31-30 home loss to Ole Miss on Sept. 27, 2008. While I know Tebow is a Rorschach test in this country, what can't be denied is his ability to inspire those who compete beside him, who wear the same uniform.

My expectation is Barkley, after regaining his composure, will deliver a similar message to his teammates. The message is this: We will get back to work. We will rededicate. We will fight with everything we have to get everything we can from this season. And if we do this, good things will happen.

(Read full post)

2012 preseason All-Pac-12 team

August, 29, 2012
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It's time for our preseason All-Pac-12 team.

Most of this won't be surprising, though making distinctions at receiver and running back was particularly difficult. If you were to magically switch out our two receivers and replace them with USC's Marqise Lee and Cal's Keenan Allen you wouldn't get much objection.

You might notice that USC and Oregon dominated the team: Seven Trojans and seven Ducks made the cut. That's sort of what happens when your team is ranked in the preseason top five.

Nine teams are represented. Only Arizona, Arizona State and UCLA didn't provide players.

And making Oregon's De'Anthony Thomas just a return guy felt too underwhelming for us.

Offense

QB Matt Barkley, USC

RB Stepfan Taylor, Stanford

RB Kenjon Barner, Oregon

TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Washington

WR Robert Woods, USC

WR Marquess Wilson, Washington State

OL David Bakhtiari, Colorado

OL Khaled Holmes, USC

OL Carson York, Oregon

OL Matt Summers-Gavin, California

OL David Yankey, Stanford

K Andre Heidari, USC

FANCYPANTS De'Anthony Thomas, Oregon

Defense

DE Dion Jordan, Oregon

DT Star Lotulelei, Utah

DE Ben Gardner, Stanford

LB Chase Thomas, Stanford

LB Dion Bailey, USC

LB Shayne Skov, Stanford

LB Michael Clay, Oregon

CB Nickell Robey, USC

CB Jordan Poyer, Oregon State

S T.J. McDonald, USC

S John Boyett, Oregon

P Jackson Rice, Oregon

Pac-12 teams getting defensive

August, 22, 2012
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T.J. McDonald, Star Lotulelei, Shayne SkovUS PresswireThe Pac-12 boasts some of the best defensive talent in the country: USC safety T.J. McDonald, Utah defensive tackle Star Lotulelei and Stanford linebacker Shayne Skov.
In the depths of their offices, some of the best offensive minds in college football are grinding.

Chip Kelly is pondering how to get 10 more plays per game out of his offense.

Rich Rodriguez and Mike Leach are re-re-revolutionizing their attacks.

David Shaw is trying to figure out how to get nine offensive linemen, five tight ends and three fullbacks on the field at once.

Lane Kiffin has more offensive toys than an FAO Schwarz display.

"Option, option spread, I, heavy-I, pistol, triple-backs, full house, triple tights; it's something new every week," said Oregon linebacker Michael Clay. "It makes every week pretty interesting."

The Pac-12 is widely regarded as the conference of offenses. And they are only getting better. Prior to 1990, only twice has a team led the conference with a scoring average of more than 40 points. Since 1990, it's happened nine times -- including USC's conference best of 49.1 points per game in 2005.

That means being a defensive player in the Pac-12 is awfully difficult.

[+] EnlargeKyle Whittingham
AP Photo/Mark J. TerrillKyle Whittingham says his defense must be able to adapt to the different offenses in the Pac-12.
"You get Andrew Luck one week and then Matt Barkley the next," said USC safety T.J. McDonald. "The preparation is on a whole other level compared to other conferences. There are great quarterbacks and great receivers and running backs. But the culture of this conference has changed. They've forced defenses to get better."

As the spread offense became chic and more teams were stretching defenses, they were forced to respond in kind. Gone are the days of everyone lining up in a base 4-3 and slugging it out. Now defenses are evolving into multiple fronts, exotic and disguised coverages and zone blitzes.

Utah coach Kyle Whittingham should know. He and UCLA coach Jim Mora are the only head coaches in the conference with a defensive background.

"We're definitely the minority," Whittingham said with a laugh. "It's a broad spectrum. Defensively, in this day and age, you have to be able to defend it all anyways. When the spread became en vogue 10-12 years ago it caught on like wildfire. Now almost everyone has a version of it. You have to be equipped to deal with whatever you come across week in and week out and have a scheme that is flexible enough and adaptable enough that you can cover all of your bases.

"Things go in cycles. The spread becomes en vogue and takes a while for the defense to catch up. Then the zone blitz was giving offenses fits and the offenses had to catch up to that. I think everything in football is cyclical and if offense has the upper hand right now, it won't be too further down the road where that role is reversed."

And that time might be coming sooner than later. Utah, California, USC, Oregon and Stanford all have defenses that are very good and bordering on elite. But the numbers don't always add up because in this conference, you are going to give up yards and you are going to give up points.

"Part of it is innovation," Shaw said. "Part of it is Chip Kelly and Mike Leach and Rich Rodriguez. The thing is, you can use the word 'spread' offense for half the teams in our conference, but they are all different. You can say 'pro-style' offense, which is what you would say about us and USC, but they are so different. The hard part of playing defense in our conference is every single week, you are playing against something you didn't see the week before.

"Cal has a pro-style offense. But their passing is different than our pass game and their running is different than our running game. And theirs is different from USC's. You are going to play a nine-game conference schedule and every single offense you play is going to be completely different. Defensive coordinators -- and we've got a really good group in this conference -- defensive coordinators and players have to flush a lot of what you watched the week before and study film hard the next week because you're going to see a different animal."

The conference also has the players to back up the defensive hype. Stanford linebackers Chase Thomas and Shayne Skov are projected as two of the best at their positions. Utah defensive tackle Star Lotulelei is regarded as the best defensive tackle in the nation and McDonald is a returning All-American.

And while perception might never really change nationally since the conference keeps chugging out A-list offensive players, Washington quarterback Keith Price says he's seen the difference.

"The difference between us and some of those other conferences is the defensive linemen," Price said. "We've always had good skill players. They say the trenches is what separates the SEC from the other conferences. But you can see now that our conference is starting to get there. When you look at teams like Cal and Utah, their defensive lines are really tough."
Welcome to the State of the Pac-12 Conference. We here at the Pac-12 blog are proud to report that the state of the conference is strong. But we also know that there are those of you just joining us who haven't read every single post we've done. Shame on you, but we'll catch you up anyway. Here are a few storylines as we look toward the 2012 season:

Oregon-USC: The hype started with a failed Oregon comeback at Autzen Stadium last season. It grew when Matt Barkley declared he and his teammates had "unfinished business" -- not-so-subtly implying that snatching the Pac-12 crown away from the Ducks was a priority. It reached a high when both were projected (not surprisingly) to win their respective divisions in the Pac-12 media poll, which anointed USC as the 2012 champs. It will reach a fever pitch on Nov. 3 when Oregon travels to USC for the most anticipated regular-season matchup of the season. And that might only be Part I, as the two seemed destined to meet again in the conference championship game.

Quarterback carousel: There were five teams with to-be-named quarterbacks heading into the fall camps: Arizona State, Colorado, Oregon, Stanford and UCLA. Washington State hasn't officially named Jeff Tuel the starter, but your Pac-12 bloggers would be shocked if at this point there is a switcharoo with Connor Halliday. Three of those jobs are still up for grabs as of 10:30 a.m ET Friday. UCLA named Brett Hundley its starting QB a few days earlier than expected, and Colorado tapped Kansas transfer Jordan Webb as its guy after only three weeks on campus. All eyes are on the other teams to see who will lead them.

Talent at tight end: This might seem like a repeat, but your bloggers can't say enough how good the tight end talent is in the Pac-12 and how much of an impact these guys are going to make throughout the season. The conference has always been at the vanguard of offensive innovation and finding new ways for players like Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Levine Toilolo, Zach Ertz, Randall Telfer, Xavier Grimble, Joseph Fauria, Andrei Lintz and Colt Lyerla to get involved in the offense is going to add an even greater dimension to a conference already spilling over with talented playmakers.

Don't forget the defense: Yeah, they play defense too in the Pac-12. And when you look at four potential first-round draft picks coming out of the conference on defense: Star Lotulelei, Chase Thomas, T.J. McDonald and Shayne Skov -- and you consider the offenses these guys are playing against -- it's worth tipping a cap to the defenses around the league. Teams like Cal, Stanford, Oregon, USC and Utah all project to have very good defensive units that could all be in the top 25.

Who wins the Biletnikoff? There are six players from the Pac-12 on the watch list: Keenan Allen, Dan Buckner, DeVonte Christopher, Markus Wheaton, Marquess Wilson, Robert Woods. Oh wait, seven, somehow Marqise Lee was left off the original list. So who emerges from this group? Will it be Wilson and the gaudy numbers he's expected to produce by way of Tuel in Mike Leach's air-raid offense? Will Woods and Lee cancel each other out, or will both emerge as the top candidate? Allen is a star and might be the best NFL prospect of them all. Will he get the numbers in Cal's offense? Or does one of the dark horses have a chance to break through?

Every game on! The Pac-12 will enter the first year of its new broadcast deal with ESPN and Fox and the Pac-12 Networks launched Wednesday. The biggest news there, other than the huge per-school bump in revenue, is every football game will be on TV this fall.
If you are not a member of the Oregon football team, and therefore don't get to see the Ducks practice, the first inquiry on your mind anytime you cross paths with someone who is a member of the Oregon football team and gets to watch the Ducks practice is obvious: "Hey, who's going to win the quarterback competition, Marcus Mariota or Bryan Bennett?"

"I have no idea," Ducks safety John Boyett said. "I think they're both good. They throw the ball well and run the ball well and both are pretty athletic. It will be interesting to see who can separate themselves and who can stay the most consistent throughout fall camp."

[+] EnlargeJohn Boyett
Jim Z. Rider/US PresswireOregon's John Boyett is an all-conference and All-American candidate at safety.
Hey, it was worth a try.

There are other interesting competitions this preseason. For one: Who is the best safety in the Pac-12? While a lot of folks would say USC's T.J. McDonald, a lot of others would say Boyett. And, yes, Boyett is paying attention.

So, John, who's going to be the first-team All-Pac-12 safety in 2012? This gets a quick laugh from Boyett.

"That's a good question," he said. "Hopefully the best player does."

Truth is, it almost seems preordained that McDonald and Boyett will be side-by-side as first-team All-Pac-12. They, in fact, could be in the same position on the postseason All-American team.

Boyett and McDonald are connected as very good -- if very different -- safeties in the same conference. And they are also connected because many see the Ducks and Trojans, both preseason top-five teams, as inexorably headed for an epic clash on Nov. 3, with the Pac-12 title as well as, perhaps, a national title at stake for whoever prevails.

Further, it's not difficult to see the recent history here. From 2002 to 2008, USC ruled the conference. When the NCAA came a-calling at Heritage Hall, Oregon stepped into the void and has won three consecutive conference titles. It's easy to see the balance of power in the conference being at issue -- North vs. South, the Old School Power vs. the New School Upstart, Chip Kelly vs. Lane Kiffin, Boyett vs. McDonald.

And it's probably worth noting that Oregon has its own NCAA questions looming, though it's unlikely the Ducks will get hit even nearly as hard as USC was.

The interesting twist for the Ducks and Trojans in 2012 is USC is the sure-thing on offense, and Oregon looks like the sure-thing on defense. While Matt Barkley will quarterback a crew of potential All-Americans, the Ducks aren't too far behind on defense, with potential all-conference performers at all three levels.

Boyett isn't ready to crow about the Ducks defense just yet, but he's clearly excited about their prospects. And, yes, he has noticed that so-called pundits have started to show respect for the Ducks D.

"I think we've got a lot of very good players," Boyett said. "You can't really tell until you get to the games and see how guys are performing. But we've got a good group of guys, guys who want to win, guys who have that competitiveness, that desire to win. I think that's the biggest intangible that makes a defense great."

Oregon doesn't yet have certainty at several positions on offense, most notably quarterback. But Boyett and the defense should be able to hold things down during the early schedule as the offense tries to find itself.
How much can we really learn from spring? Funky scrimmages with backwards scoring systems; depleted depth charts; completely new installs for four teams. Actually, more than you'd think. Here are five things we learned about the Pac-12 during spring.

  1. Quarterbacks are still in limbo: Be it Stanford, Arizona State, UCLA, Oregon or Colorado, almost half of the teams still don’t know who is going to be under center when the season starts. Stanford funneled its list of five down to two, Josh Nunes and Brett Nottingham. ASU still has a three-way battle with Michael Eubank, Mike Bercovici and Taylor Kelly -- though coach Todd Graham said they have a better idea than they are probably letting on publicly. The very private competition between Marcus Mariota and Bryan Bennett at Oregon remains in question -- though Mariota was spectacular in the spring game while Bennett faltered. Still, coach Chip Kelly said that one game isn’t going to be his basis for comparison. UCLA coach Jim Mora wanted to name a starter by the end of spring, but no one has “grabbed” it, so we’ll have to wait until August before learning whether Brett Hundley, Kevin Prince or Richard Brehaut gets the gig. And at Colorado, the competition was put on hiatus when Nick Hirschman broke a bone in his foot and couldn’t compete in spring drills. One has to think that was a huge advantage for Connor Wood to get almost all of the reps with the first-team offense.
  2. Not everyone has quarterback issues: Teams thought to have quarterback question marks heading into spring seemed to have resolved them. In Utah, Jordan Wynn is completely healthy, and both coach Kyle Whittingham and offensive coordinator Brian Johnson have declared Wynn their guy. While Mike Leach hasn’t officially declared Jeff Tuel his starter, it’s hard to imagine anyone else winning the job in the fall, short of Tuel suffering a significant injury or amnesia. He had a splendid spring, and appears to be a great fit for Leach’s offense. And at Arizona, Matt Scott seized the job early and left little room for any competition. Coach Rich Rodriguez has been gushing about how quickly Scott has adjusted to the offense. At Cal, Zach Maynard, once thought to be challenged by freshman Zach Kline, appears to not only have held on to the job, but distanced himself from pursuers.
  3. Wide receivers aplenty: And there are plenty of those in the conference. USC has probably the best tandem in the country in Robert Woods and Marqise Lee. Cal’s Keenan Allen (though he missed spring drills) should continue to put up big numbers, and Washington State’s Marquess Wilson should flourish in the Cougars’ new system with Tuel as his quarterback. Markus Wheaton and Brandin Cooks could challenge the USC duo statistically if quarterback Sean Mannion continues to develop. There are stars on the rise at Arizona State (Jamal Miles) and Stanford (Ty Montgomery), and a potential star at Washington (James Johnson). Look out Biletnikoff, the Pac-12 is a comin'…
  4. The conference of defense? The Pac-12 might never bunk its reputation as an offensive-centric conference (especially when it keeps churning out offensive talent). But there is a surplus of talented defenses and defensive players who were on display this spring. Washington seems to have plugged its leaks with new defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox. There’s a 3-4 trend sweeping the conference, and with notable playmakers like Star Lotulelei (Utah), John Boyett (Oregon), Dion Jordan (Oregon), Chase Thomas (Stanford), Josh Shirley (Washington), T.J. McDonald (USC) and DeAndre Coleman (Cal), it’s easy to see why some of the Pac-12 defenses will get the same kind of love as the offenses do in 2012.
  5. Confidence is at an all-time high: As it should be in the spring. The four new coaches all feel confident about the systems they have installed. Stanford feels as good as it ever has about its running game. USC and Oregon should get lofty preseason rankings, and this is the time of the year when fans go through the schedules game by game and always seem to come up with a minimum of six wins. Sorry to say, there are teams in the conference that won’t make it to a bowl game this season. But when you hear the coaches talk about their teams, you’d think the conference is going to go 12-0 in the postseason. This is a magical time for fans filled with hope and possibility. Enjoy it while it lasts.

Pac-12 getting defensive

April, 24, 2012
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The Pac-12 is known for offense, so it's not surprising that a list of the nation's top-25 players includes six players from conference offenses.

Defense? Not so much. Just one Pac-12 defender -- Stanford LB Shayne Skov -- made The Sporting News list.

That is not unreasonable. The 2011 season was not a great one for Pac-12 defenses, though, of course, we can endlessly spool the "chicken or the egg" perspective of conference defenses looking worse due to playing nine games against superior conference offenses.

Still, the numbers are hard to deny. The conference featured no statistically elite defenses last fall. In fact, just two ranked in the nation's top 30 in total defense (California and Stanford at Nos. 25 and 26) and scoring defense (Utah at No. 19 and Stanford at No. 30).

But things may be different in 2012. In fact, the Pac-12 blog views this as "highly likely."

The best five defense in the conference in 2011 -- California, Oregon, Stanford, USC and Utah -- have the makings for ranking among the nation's top 25 in 2012. And some of the teams that were bad to incompetent on defense in 2011, such as Oregon State, UCLA, Washington and Washington State, seem fully capable of becoming at least respectable.

It's not really about the number of returning starters -- about 6.4 per team.

And it's not completely about star power -- 11 of 22 first- or second-team all-conference defenders are back -- though that's part of it.

It's about looking at the units as a whole and extrapolating forward with star power and young talent, as well as coaching continuity. Or new and improved coaches.

California has intriguing talent on all three levels, but it will need its youth movement to produce the expected results. Oregon looks strong at linebacker, end Dion Jordan could be ready for a star turn and safety John Boyett is the brains behind the operation. Stanford might have the conference's best front seven. USC might have the conference's best back seven. Utah appears strong on all three levels, though a couple of young linebackers need to step up.

As far as star-power, there's plenty. Among those who could get themselves into the All-American picture are Skov, Jordan, Boyett, Utah defensive tackle Star Lotulelei, Stanford outside linebacker Chase Thomas, USC safety T.J. McDonald, USC cornerback Nickell Robey and Oregon State cornerback Jordan Poyer.

There are also buy ratings on Arizona defensive back Tra'Mayne Bondurant, Arizona State defensive tackle Will Sutton, Cal defensive end Deandre Coleman, Colorado defensive end Chidera Uzo-Diribe, Oregon linebacker Kiko Alonso, Oregon State defensive end Scott Crichton, Stanford cornerback Wayne Lyons, Stanford defensive end Ben Gardner, UCLA defensive end Datone Jones (yes, we're tapping him again!), USC's young linebackers (yes, all three), Utah defensive end Joe Kruger, Utah S/LB Brian Blechen, Washington defensive tackle Danny Shelton and Washington State OLB/DE Travis Long.

Among others.

Further, the defensive numbers might be better as teams take a step back offensively. USC's offense looks potentially dominant, and Oregon is always very good, even with a new QB. But Stanford is almost certain to take a step back without four first-round NFL draft picks, as might Washington with the loss of running back Chris Polk and its top two receivers. Four teams are breaking in new quarterbacks and four teams are adopting new systems with new coaches.

Most notable: There are offensive line questions across the conference.

Will the Pac-12 suddenly start playing a bunch of 17-10 games? No.

But here's a guess that the conference will play much better defense in 2012.

LOS ANGELES -- USC players don't want to hear about expectations or narrowing windows of opportunity or preseason rankings. After being shut out of the postseason for sins of the past, they are now shutting out the noise that surrounds the much-hyped 2012 team.

When the stern infractions were handed down two years ago -- which included a two-year bowl ban and scholarship reductions through 2014 -- several of the then-sophomores got together and made a pact that when they could return to the postseason, they would do so with a hunger. And the 2012 team is starving.

"As much as you want to hide it, knowing you could go 12-0 and it doesn't matter, well, it sucks," said safety T.J. McDonald. "You want to win every game, but knowing no matter what you do, you can't win a championship. That's why you come to USC.

"Now we can win every game and get to a bowl game. Hopefully a big one. We have big hopes. It's not a sense of urgency. But a sense that it's our time. It's a hunger."

[+] EnlargeLane Kiffin
Matt Cashore/US Presswire"Prep not hype," Lane Kiffin said. "That explains it all. It will always be our preparation for the game, not the hype surrounding us or the game or the opponent."
When you look at the returning weapons -- the receivers, the running back, the secondary, the linebackers, the four offensive linemen -- it's easy to see why many are projecting USC as the preseason No. 1. And the quarterback, who made the phrase "serious unfinished business" as synonymous with USC as "Traveler," knows what this team is capable of.

"I think it's a special year for our team when you look at all of the talent and everyone we have coming back," said Matt Barkley, the preseason Heisman Trophy favorite and likely top-5 draft pick in the 2013 NFL draft. "But I don't think you can look forward and say, 'If we don't do it this year, we'll never do it.' That's flawed thinking and the wrong mindset to have. But I will say that I think we have a great shot to do it this year."

"It" being the national championship. But there are constant reminders for the players to keep their own expectations tempered. Chalked into the side of the practice field are the words "PREP NOT HYPE," a reminder that national championships are not won in the court of public opinion.

In the weight room, the 2012 schedule is up on the wall with white pieces of tape across every opponent save Hawaii -- the season opener on Sept. 1.

"I don't think our approach is going to be any different this year than it has been in the past when we didn't have a bowl game to go to," said USC head coach Lane Kiffin. "We didn't change anything last year as far as preparation, so we don't want to change anything now. We didn't all of a sudden not coach as hard and it's not like we're going to start coaching hard."

Yet players say there was always that nagging reminder that there was no tangible prize at the end of the race.

"I think to those on the outside, it might look like we have a sense of urgency," McDonald said. "That's only because we've spent the last two Christmases watching other teams play. So is there a sense of urgency? Yes. But it's because we want it, not because other people think we should have it."

The Trojans are already starting to feel the effects of limited scholarships with depth issues across the board. It will only get worse with a maximum of 75 scholarships in 2012, 2013 and 2014. Plus, they can't sign more than 15 players in those years.

This season could also be one of vindication for Kiffin. A national championship -- or at least an appearance in the title game -- would validate him for holding the Trojans together through what many considered overly draconian sanctions.

Still, Kiffin says, nothing changes this year.

"There will be no difference in how we approach each game," Kiffin said. "It's not like you're going on the road against a top-5 opponent like Oregon and we start to coach differently and then the next week against UCLA who is unranked. [The expectations] have nothing to do with our preparation. Prep not hype. That explains it all. It will always be our preparation for the game, not the hype surrounding us or the game or the opponent."

Yet guys such as McDonald and Barkley can't help but think back to that meeting two years ago, when the sanctions were first handed down. And now they finally have the chance to put their plan into motion.

"We talked about when we got back, we want it to be like it was before," McDonald said. "We want to be able to live up to the standard, not just be part of any rebuilding process. Last year we had a good season and now we're exactly where we want to be. You don't come to SC to be under the radar. You don't come here to be underestimated. You come here to be at the top of the pack. We know we'll get attention. But we won't be arrogant or buy into it. And if people want to put us up front, that's fine. It makes us even more hungry to get it done."
LOS ANGELES -- No story about USC safety T.J. McDonald would be complete without talking about the suspensions, his aggressive style of play and the reputation he has around the conference.

No problem, says McDonald. Let's clear the air and put it out there front and center.

"I've been playing this game the same way for so long," McDonald said. "I've been growing up watching guys like my father [six-time NFL Pro Bowl safety Tim McDonald]. Watching guys like Ronnie Lott. Watching big hitters. Playing safety, we don't get to do too much. It's not like we can go out there and catch touchdowns or take a handoff and make a highlight. It's either you get an interception or you are hitting somebody. That's the part of the game I love, is being physical, and being able to make those plays.

"But at the same time, you have to stay within the rules. I never tried to hit anybody in the head or the helmet or even lead with my helmet because that's going to hurt me. I'm not going to try to knock myself out.

[+] EnlargeT.J. McDonald
Chris Williams/Icon SMI"He's heading for a really, really good year," USC defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin said of safety T.J. McDonald, entering his senior season.
"It's one of those things that you have to accept. It's the rule. The only thing I can do is try to change technique-wise in terms of bringing my arms and not making such a big collision. But you can't sit there and say I'm going to aim lower, because that's when you start thinking too much and I don't have that time to think. When that ball is in the air, you're gone. It's hard. I don't think it's fair to say I'm a dirty player. You can ask anybody in my locker room and they won't say I'm a dirty player. Am I physical? Yeah, I'm a physical player. And I'm not going to change my physical play. But I'm going to play within the rules."

Sufficient? Good. Now that we've gotten that out of the way, let's get to what McDonald has planned for his USC swan song in 2012.

It's going to be tough build on his already-stellar resume. In 2011, he was first-team All-America, made almost every defensive-honors list in the country and was a semifinalist for the Thorpe Award. But McDonald knows he can get better.

"I want to take my game from being a playmaker to a game-changer type of player," McDonald said. "I feel like there is a lot I can improve on. There is a lot of stuff left out there that I want to get better at. And as a defense as a whole, we haven't put up great numbers. As far as the score and wins and losses go, we did a better job. But we need to get more turnovers. We need to stop the pass better. I want to be the captain of the defense and be able to fix that."

In 23 career starts, McDonald enters 2012 with 163 tackles and six interceptions. Last season he led the team with three picks. And it's not like he's using this spring to slow down, either. Defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin said McDonald has been one of the most motivated players on the field.

"He's having a really, really good spring," Kiffin said. "He was fast last year, but he's getting better and better and faster and faster. Sometimes guys come back for their senior year and they take a kick-back approach to spring. Been there, done that, you know? He's not doing that. He's heading for a really, really good year."

Last season USC ranked third in the conference in scoring defense (23.6 points per game), second in rush defense but ninth in pass defense, where the Trojans surrendered 263.3 yards per game in the air. The good news is that they led the Pac-12 in fewest touchdown passes allowed with 17. Another year in the system plus an excess of talent returning in the back seven leads Kiffin and McDonald to believe USC will be better against the pass this season.

"It's my third year in the system and other guys it's their second and third," McDonald said. "You have a good feel for what we're trying to do and being able to play fast. We're at that level right now where we can play fast and coaches can throw adjustments at us and it's not going to faze us."

Not surprisingly, there was a tremendous amount of buzz when quarterback Matt Barkley announced his return. McDonald's announcement wasn't met with quite as much fanfare -- at least outside of the USC locker room. But the guys he plays with know how important it is to have McDonald back for one more season.

"Yeah, they were all pretty excited," McDonald said of his teammates. "I sent them all a text before I made my announcement. Hopefully it's a confidence boost for the team and we can go out and do something with it."
EUGENE, Ore. -- John Boyett is still smiling. Everything seems fine. Up to the halfway point in a 15-minute interview, Oregon's free safety has been insightful and pleasant, even when a certain sportswriter started blathering about this or that.

But that smile hints at something else. It's a happy smile, yes, but happy in the way a lion looks just before he takes a huge chomp out of a gazelle.

Me: I just made a list of the top-25 of players in the Pac-12.

Boyett: [Big laugh] I heard.

Me: You were left off.

Boyett: [More laughing] I heard.

Me: [Nervous laugh] Are you competitive with the other guys?

Boyett: Very competitive.

If you've watched Boyett play, that shouldn't be a surprise. A soon-to-be four-year starter for the Ducks, the 5-foot-10, 202-pound senior from Napa, Calif., is child of a football family, and he's obsessed with the game, whether that's about conditioning or watching film or playing with an intensity that easily endures the filtering presentation of a TV camera.

[+] EnlargeJohn Boyett
Jim Z. Rider/US PresswireJohn Boyett could be the best in a recent line of successful Oregon defensive backs.
"Football is in my blood," he said.

How competitive is he? Competitive enough to be, yes, just a bit irked not only at that ole top-25 list but also that he ended up second-team All-Pac-12.

"I'm not just going to say I feel like I'm the best safety because it's me. I'm a realist," he said. "But I really do feel I'm the best safety in the country. I probably wouldn't believe that if [secondary coach John Neal and defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti] hadn't told me the same thing."

But Boyett, who's led the Ducks in tackles two of the past three season and finished second in 2010, didn't come to this discussion unarmed. He's completely aware of who his rival is for best safety in the Pac-12: USC's T.J. McDonald. McDonald was first-team All-Pac-12, first-team All-American with The Sporting News, ended up ranked 19th on the top-25 list and is widely considered the best senior safety in college football. Insider

"I know T.J. McDonald's stats," Boyett said. "I know all the safeties I am competing with in the draft. I know all their stuff. But I'm not stupid competitive. I don't get into all the politics. I'm here to help my team win. If we get into another BCS championship game, I don't care if you give me first team or 20th team, I just want to help the team win."

But...

Boyett continues, "But it is crazy when you look at it. I look at my stats compared to everyone else. And I'm not a big stats guy, I just want to win games."

But...

"But of course you've got to look at it every once and a while. I've got 276 tackles, nine picks and like 29 pass breakups. And the other guy's [McDonald] got like [163] tackles, six picks and nine pass breakups. I've got him by [113] tackles, three picks and 20 pass breakups! And they are still getting...

But...

"That's why I don't get caught up in all that stuff."

Not completely, at least.

What Boyett really does get caught up in is winning. Oregon has done that during his career like it never has before with a 34-6 record over the past three seasons. He was recruited to a 2007 team that fell out of the national title hunt when quarterback Dennis Dixon blew out his knee. In 2008, his redshirt season, the Ducks went 10-3 and won the Holiday Bowl. Yet those were the down years. He became a starter in 2009 when T.J. Ward got hurt, and since then the Ducks have won three consecutive Pac-12 titles and played in two Rose Bowls -- winning one -- as well as the national title game after the 2010 season.

Boyett believes the Ducks will again be in the hunt in 2012. And he believes this defense might be the best unit with which he's played.

"We lose three or four guys, but all the guys coming in for them are just as good as them," he said. "[Aliotti] asks me how the defense is doing, and I seriously tell him, 'This defense is going to be the best since I've been here.'"

Boyett is part of an impressive recent legacy of Oregon defensive backs. When he arrived, the Ducks' secondary included Ward, Jairus Byrd, Patrick Chung and Walter Thurmond. The first three were second-round NFL draft picks, while Thurmond went in Round 4.

Those are the guys who first taught him how to play, but they aren't exempt from Boyett's competitive streak either. He's got big plans for this year, and part of that plan is leaving no doubt in the eyes of NFL scouts.

Said Boyett, "Coach Neal says if I have another great year I'm going to get drafted as high if not higher than them."

Pac-12 spring preview: South Division

February, 23, 2012
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Pac-12 spring preview: South Division

Spring practice is almost here. Here's a snapshot at what to expect from the Pac-12 South in the coming weeks.

ARIZONA

Spring practice starts: March 4

Spring game: April 14

What to watch:
  • Hello, my name is ... Like the other two teams in the South Division with new head coaches (Arizona State and UCLA) much of Arizona's first few weeks will be Rich Rodriguez evaluating his personnel and getting to know what he has to work with. Likewise, the players are going to have to figure out what this new coaching staff is about. Everything from how they do pre-practice stretches to how they call the cadence is going to change.
  • New scheme and a new scheme: A spread option on offense and a 3-3-5 on defense. That's a lot of new material to digest on both sides of the ball. Until Rodriguez can recruit the players he likes into his scheme, he's going to have to make it work with the players he has. Fortunately on the defensive side of the ball, Arizona has good depth in the secondary with Cortez Johnson, Marquis Flowers, Shaquille Richardson, Jourdon Grandon and Tra'Mayne Bondurant. The Wildcats should also get a boost with the return of injured players Jake Fischer (LB), Jonathan McKnight (CB) and Adam Hall (S).
  • Perfect fit? Former starter Matt Scott, who was beaten out by Nick Folesin 2009, is expected to reprise his starting role under Rodriguez. He redshirted the 2011 season and -- magically -- Foles never got hurt last year despite taking 23 sacks and countless hits. Scott is considered the more versatile quarterback and should fit nicely into the new run-based spread attack.
ARIZONA STATE

Spring practice starts: March 13

Spring game: April 21

What to watch:
  • QB competition: We know what kind of offense new coach Todd Graham is going to run; now it's a matter of figuring out who is going to run it. Graham has his choice of three players -- Mike Bercovici, Taylor Kelly or Michael Eubank -- to replace NFL-bound Brock Osweiler. Graham said earlier this month that there are no favorites heading into the competition and each one brings his own skill set to the table. Eubank has the size (6-foot-5, 235 pounds), Bercovici (6-1, 205) is a mechanic and Kelly (6-1, 202) is a little bit of everything.
  • Get the locker room: By the end of the 2011 season, ASU's locker room wasn't just divided, it was completely splintered. Graham's task -- and that of his new coaching staff -- is to pick up the pieces, mend internal fences and find some chemistry on both sides of the ball. Linebacker Brandon Magee, long considered a great locker room leader, should help get the Sun Devils back on track as he returns from a season-ending Achilles injury.
  • Hands competition: The Sun Devils lose three of their top four wide receivers from last season -- Gerell Robinson, Aaron Pflugrad and Mike Willie. Jamal Miles returns after finishing second on the team last season with 60 catches and six touchdowns. Rashad Ross figures to be the No. 2 guy, but establishing depth in that corps -- especially if Graham wants to be up-tempo -- is key.
COLORADO

Spring practice starts: March 10

Spring game: April 14

What to watch:
  • Momentum, maybe? For as rough as 2011 was for the Buffs, they ended the year on a high note, winning two-of-three down the stretch -- including a 17-14 win over Utah in the season finale. But there is also the possibility that things might get worse before they get better. With just four returning starters on offense, spring in Boulder will likely be more about teaching and less about refining.
  • Where to start (offense)? Well, quarterback might be a good place. In the court of public opinion, Connor Wood, a transfer from Texas, seems to be the favorite. Nick Hirschman appeared in five games last season, mostly in mop-up time when the game was already out of hand. It's also possible a starter could be named by the end of spring ball. Finding offensive weapons to surround the new quarterback will also be a challenge. Wide receiver Paul Richardson caught 39 balls last season, and running back Tony Jones showed a flare for catching the ball out of the backfield. He'll likely step in as the new workhorse back for the departed Rodney Stewart.
  • Where to start (defense)? Last in this. Last in that. Last in almost every team statistic the Pac-12 has to offer. But there are some intriguing youngsters on the roster. Cornerback Greg Henderson was all-conference honorable mention as a freshman with a team-high nine passes broken up. Jered Bell also returns from injury after blowing out a knee last preseason. If healthy, he's expected to be a big contributor in the secondary. Linebacker Jon Majorreturns as the team's leading tackler, and if Doug Rippy is fully recovered from his knee injury, he'll look to build on what was a pretty good season last year before getting hurt.
UCLA

Spring practice starts: April 3

Spring game: May 5

What to watch:
  • QB up for grabs: Like the majority of the conference, UCLA enters spring with a quarterback competition. New offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone said he doesn't care how much experience (or lack thereof) a player has -- if he can play, he wins the job. So don't be surprised if Brett Hundley passes Kevin Prince and Richard Brehautas the new man leading the Bruins. Fans have been clamoring for a change. Hundley might be it.
  • Attitude adjustment: One of the first things new head coach Jim Mora did was slam the team for its tradition of going "over the wall," a time-honored senior ditch day, saying if they want to jump the wall, they should just keep on going. How's that for sending a message? UCLA has earned a reputation for being soft and underachieving despite good talent. Attitude and toughness is needed -- and so far, Mora appears to be hammering that point home.
  • Speaking of toughness ... The defense has to get tougher. No two ways about it. It was weak against the run last season, allowing more than 190 yards per game on the ground; couldn't get to the quarterback; and couldn't get off the field almost 50 percent of the time on third down. It's time for potential all-conference players such as defensive end Datone Jones to start living up to the hype and the defense as a whole to stop getting pushed up and down the field. At 6-5, 275 pounds, Jones has the physical makeup to be a major force in the conference and catapult himself into the elite class of collegiate defensive players.
USC

Spring practice starts: March 6

Spring game: April 14

What to watch:
  • Ignore the hype: Few teams ended last season hotter than USC and returning quarterback Matt Barkley. The Heisman talk has already started, the way-too-early rankings already have the Trojans as national championship contenders, and the public perception is that the offense is unstoppable. Nice to hear, but hype is a double-edged sword. Head coach Lane Kiffin has a knack for deflecting hype. This season will be his toughest test to date.
  • Insurance? The Trojans are loaded on both sides of the ball with returning players. But after the starting 22, things start to get dicey. Developing depth and keeping the starters healthy is a top priority -- particularly on the offensive and defensive lines and at running back, where experience is thin outside of the starters. The entire back seven returns on defense -- headlined by hard-hitting safety T.J. McDonald. Stopping the pass has been a major priority for Kiffin, and if this group stays healthy it should see the pass-efficiency numbers improve even more.
  • Other options: Along those same lines, wide receivers Robert Woods and Marqise Lee make up the most feared receiving duo in the conference -- maybe the country. But who are the Nos. 3 and 4 receivers behind them? George Farmer? Victor Blackwell? De'Von Flournoy? Don't overlook the tight end duo of Xavier Grimble and Randall Telfer, which should rival Stanford's Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo as the best tight end tandem in the conference.
UTAH

Spring practice starts: March 20

Spring game: April 21

What to watch:
  • Youthful approach: Head coach Kyle Whittingham turned some heads by naming former Utah quarterback Brian Johnson as his offensive coordinator. Johnson, who recently turned 25, said he's not looking to make wholesale changes to the offense, though he wants to put his stamp on it and continue to build around running back John White IV, who had a breakout season in his first year of major college football. Having quarterback Jordan Wynn back healthy should also help as the team transitions to Johnson running the offense.
  • Fixing the line: Who is going to protect Wynn (if he does indeed win back the starting job) and make holes for White? That's a major concern heading into spring as the Utes have to replace a pair of all-conference linemen in Tony Bergstrom and John Cullen. The Utes should be set at the interior but have to adjust to a new position coach, with Tim Davis leaving for Florida after just one season and Dan Finn -- a former Utah graduate assistant who was brought on to help Davis -- taking over the whole line following a one-year stint at San Diego State.
  • Work the experience: The defensive line should be one of the best in the conference, especially with the return of Star Lotulelei, who won the Morris Trophy last season as the conference's best defensive lineman. With the Kruger brothers returning to the line -- Joe at defensive end and Dave at tackle -- Derrick Shelby is the lone starter who has to be replaced. There's also some pretty good depth in the secondary that was tops in the conference last season in pass-efficiency defense.

USC's holes are on defense

February, 15, 2012
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Working off of Mark Schlabach's most recent "way-too-early" top 25, Brian Fremeau looked at the top five teams on Schlabach's ranking and Insider decided to pick apart the holes.

Topping that list are the USC Trojans.

Fremeau on the Trojans:
Generating consistency and dominance on defense needs to be the point of emphasis this spring. The Trojans forced three-and-outs on only 32 percent of opponent drives last year, the 70th-best rate in the nation. All 10 BCS bowl team defenses last season were better at getting opponent offenses off the field more quickly. (The other four teams in this article [Alabama, LSU, Oklahoma and Georgia] were much better at forcing three-and-outs, each ranked in the top 12 in this metric last season). Those extended drives were a major liability in USC's losses to Stanford and Arizona State last year -- the Trojans gave up 92 offensive points on only 26 non-garbage opponent drives.

Offensively, there isn't much to complain about other than the current vacancies at left tackle and fullback. And the defense should continue to improve under Monte Kiffin's tutelage.

Naturally, there are holes to fill -- specifically on the defensive line, where some shuffling is bound to happen in order to replace Christian Tupou, DaJohn Harris and Nick Perry. But the fact that safety T.J. McDonald decided to return -- thus giving the back seven another full year together -- bodes well for USC's defense to make more strides next season.

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