USC's toughest opponent might be attrition

August, 27, 2012
8/27/12
12:30
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In 2000, Oklahoma won the national title without any starters missing a game due to injury. Think about that. Think of all the injuries that your team has suffered through the years that make you go "what if?" I hear you Oregon, 2007.

With that thought, we introduce you to the 2012 USC Trojans -- a team loaded with talent and top-ranked by the Associated Press. If the national title game were to be played Saturday, the Trojans would be solid favorites against anyone.

And, yes, when that's the case, the media hype machine opens its maw wide and spews forth words, pictures and video that function as polarizing, love-hate attention-getters. USC and coach Lane Kiffin don't inspire many neutral reactions across the college football nation. Switzerland, USC is not.

As for talent, USC's is fairly remarkable, particularly on offense. There is no better offensive troika in the nation than quarterback Matt Barkley and receivers Robert Woods and Marqise Lee. More than a handful of NFL teams would trade what they have for what USC has. There are a pair of 1,000-yard rushers behind Barkley: Curtis McNeal, who averaged 6.9 yards per rush in 2011, and Penn State transfer Silas Redd. Four starters are back from an offensive line that was very good last year. And both tight ends are NFL prospects.

[+] EnlargeDevon Kennard
Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesThe Trojans were already replacing three starters on the D-line when they likely lost defensive end Devon Kennard for the season.
On defense, the back seven returns intact. And the Trojans welcome back both specialists.

Of course, you've read this before. In fact, this accounting of USC's starting 24 has become redundant. As is the caveat that the Trojans -- limited to 75 scholarships, 10 below the typical limit per NCAA sanctions -- are thin behind that strong starting lineup. In fact, most measures show the Trojans at present with just 71 scholarship players.

Yes, on paper today, this team looks better than anyone. But 12 regular-season games and a Pac-12 championship game lie between the Trojans and a berth in the BCS national title game. Attrition is typically an immutable -- and frustrating -- rule of college football. A redo of Oklahoma in 2000 is probably too much for Trojans fans to expect.

So, starting with a home date with Hawaii on Saturday -- Norm Chow finally getting his chance as a head coach -- the million dollar question is, can USC stay healthy enough to claw its way back to the top of college football? That's the first issue.

The second? How do folks feel about USC's quick return to the national title race despite brutal -- and brutally unfair -- NCAA sanctions that were intended to cripple a dominant power?

In the Pac-12, Oregon fans feel slighted by the USC hype. After all, the Ducks stepped up when the Trojans stepped down and won three consecutive conference titles. Nationally, there's the widespread -- and ignorant -- opinion that USC is one of the nation's corrupt , football-first programs. And down South there's the whispered suspicion that the biggest threat to SEC supremacy is USC.

Wherever you stand, be prepared: If USC piles up wins and impressive performances, the hype churn will only get more frenzied. Just the way it is.

As for depth issues -- so mundane! -- plenty of teams are thinner than the Trojans, whose roster is still full of four- and five-star recruits. But it's not difficult to create worry when fiddling with a black marker and the USC depth chart, particularly on defense.

For example, what if you mark off sophomore George Uko, the Trojans' best and most experienced defensive tackle? The remaining four defensive tackles are all freshmen. The Trojans already were replacing three starters on their defensive line when end Devon Kennard was likely lost for the season due to a torn pectoral. Kennard split time with Wes Horton last year. Any further hit to the D-line could mean trouble.

Or take away one of those talented sophomore linebackers. "Uh-oh" is right. In fact, the only position on defense where there's solid, proven depth is safety.

Things are deeper on offense, though it's worth noting both of Barkley's backups are redshirt freshmen.

As for the schedule, USC stands as a clear favorite -- today -- against all 12 foes, including Oregon on Nov. 3. There's a tough Week 3 road date at Stanford, and then back-to-back visits to Utah (a Thursday night game) and Washington. Those certainly won't be walkovers.

But it's not difficult to look at USC's depth chart -- today -- and look at the schedule and conclude this team will be headed Jan. 7 to South Florida, where it won its last national title in 2004.

The "USC Watch," with all the cheers and jeers it will inspire, begins in earnest this week.

But an observer who can contain his emotions about the polarizing program might want to focus on the Trojans' injury report, which could prove as telling in the early going as the scoreboard.

Ted Miller | email

College Football

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