Take 2: USC or 'the field' in South Division

September, 28, 2012
9/28/12
12:00
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Once appearing to be a lock for the Pac-12 South, the USC Trojans suddenly look vulnerable. Quarterback Matt Barkley has played below expectation and a loss to Stanford exploited some of the Trojans' weaknesses. So your Pac-12 bloggers are tackling this question: USC? Or the field?

Ted Miller: The Pac-12's South Division is far deeper than it appeared it would be in the preseason. But I still strongly believe we're going to see USC in the Pac-12 championship game on Nov. 30. That is giving ground, by the way. In August, I viewed it as nearly a metaphysical certainty.

First off, who do you think is actually better than USC in the South? Last week, UCLA looked like the top potential foil, but it lost at home to Oregon State. As good as Arizona State has looked, it flopped at Missouri. Arizona is fresh off a 49-0 beating at Oregon. And we all saw what the Sun Devils did to Utah. No need to mention Colorado, even though it and the Sun Devils are the only two South teams presently unbeaten in conference play.

[+] EnlargeLane Kiffin
Ezra Shaw/Getty ImagesIs USC still a lock to win the Pac-12 South Division having already lost to Stanford?
To me, USC's worst-case scenario is three conference losses -- something like a loss to Oregon and then a random face plant, the sort the Trojans sometimes have taken through the years. Which other South team seems capable of going at least 6-3 in conference play, with a victory over USC along the way to win the tiebreaker?

Arizona has road trips to Stanford and UCLA ahead. A home date with Oregon looms large amid five road conference games for the Sun Devils.

UCLA and Utah have the most forgiving schedules. As often noted, the Utes don't play Oregon or Stanford. But after last weekend, it's difficult to see them making a run at the conference title.

UCLA still seems like the best bet to challenge its rival. It misses Oregon, but it plays rival Stanford the week after USC comes to town. It also has road dates at California and Arizona State.

Arizona and Arizona State have big tests just this weekend. The Wildcats are 2-10 against Oregon State since 2000, and the Sun Devils haven't won at Cal since 1997.

The idea here is even if USC moves back to the field, it's difficult to project someone else moving up enough to overtake the Trojans.

While things didn't go well in the second half against Stanford, the Trojans still have the pieces in place to win a BCS bowl game. That talent that was celebrated in the preseason wasn't just media hype: It was based on past performances. And the defense, in fact, might be better than expected.

USC vs. the Field? It's still the Trojans.

Kevin Gemmell: I'm not sold on the fact that USC won't still win the Pac-12 South. But I'm a lot shakier about that assumption than I was a few weeks ago. So if the question is USC vs. the field, I'd say the field has a much stronger shot than it did.

I'm sure there were a few hardcore fans who expected their new head coaches to immediately bring legitimacy to their programs. And maybe we thought it could happen for one of the new South coaches. But all three? No, I didn't see that coming.

To me, that is the biggest shocker of the season so far. Todd Graham, Jim Mora and Rich Rodriguez all brought lofty credentials with them, but for the turnarounds at all three schools to happen with such haste has really been a pleasant surprise.

And yes, I do think one, two or all three of those teams can challenge the Trojans. I will always buy into the doctrine that defense wins championships. But I also know you need good quarterback play. And the Wildcats, Bruins and Sun Devils are all getting that.

Taylor Kelly is the conference's most efficient quarterback at this point. Matt Scott is the conference leader in passing and Brett Hundley is the conference's most dynamic young player. All three of them have playmakers around them that could do some damage to the Trojans.

But all three also have factors working against them, which is why USC is still the favorite. The Sun Devils need to prove they can win on the road, since their Nov. 10 showdown with the Trojans is at the Coliseum. Arizona gets the Trojans at home on Oct. 27, but we need to see what the psyche of the team is following last week's 49-0 pasting by Oregon.

And then there's UCLA -- the team that probably has the best shot at knocking off the Trojans. But they are still young across the offensive line and at the QB spot. However, don't think they won't be a little motivated after what happened last year.

Stanford did the rest of the conference a huge favor -- because they put doubt into the minds of the Trojans. For the most part, it's a veteran group and they'll probably be able to regroup. But now they also know there are no guarantees. The rest of the division knows it, too.

Ted Miller | email

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