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Is USC No. 1 in 2012?

1/10/2012

After six consecutive national titles, it's clear the path to the national championship goes through the SEC. But ESPN's Brock Huard believes he's found the team to break the string.

USC.

Huard lists five reasons: 1. The abundance of talent; 2. The level of production; 3. The surroundings and the schedule; 4. The improving defense; 5. The Barkley factor.

USC's case is strong and Huard makes it. No team will approach the top-level skill talent the Trojans have on offense with QB Matt Barkley, WRs Robert Woods and Marqise Lee and RB Curtis McNeal. There are NFL teams that would trade with USC straight up with those four spots. And you probably could throw in the tight end combination of Xavier Grimble and Randall Telfer, too.

Yes, the defense, with eight starters back, should take a step from solid to good in 2012. And, yes, the schedule sets up well, with both Notre Dame and Oregon coming to the Coliseum.

But there is one major issue: depth. The sort of players USC recruits don't like to think of themselves as "depth," which is why they often leave when it's clear they are backups or reserves. The latest is WR Kyle Prater, a once-touted recruit who fell behind due to injuries and being less good than his recruiting pedigree. The Trojans previously lost RB Amir Carlisle, who's transferring to Notre Dame, and RB Dillon Baxter, who fell afoul of coach Lane Kiffin. It also appears that WR Brice Butler is leaving.

The point: Things are thin behind Woods, Lee and McNeal. And they are even more worrisome on the lines. Sure, the Trojans welcome back four starters on the offensive line but there's a significant step back on the second team. Further, the defensive line is replacing three starters, though the depth there is better.

The most important thing for USC next fall is simple: staying healthy. The Trojans' likely starting 22 as it stands today will be a tough match for any team, SEC or otherwise. But the difference between the 2012 Trojans and, say, the 2004 version, is a lack of A-list depth.

USC is a almost certain preseason top-five team in 2012, along with LSU, Alabama, Oregon and probably Oklahoma. And if things fall into place, we might finally have that USC versus the SEC national title game we've been lacking in the BCS era, for whatever reason.

Of course, Oregon fans might have some thoughts on this.