Pac-12: Curtis McNeal

The top 25 list is coming!

July, 29, 2013
7/29/13
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Today we begin the Pac-12's preseason countdown of the league's top 25 players. As always, this is a brutally difficult list to make.

The preseason list is more about what a player has already accomplished with a dusting of speculation, not a straight forward projection of who we think the top 25 players are. For example, a player like Washington linebacker Shaq Thompson will likely end up on the postseason top 25, but might not start off on the preseason list. The Pac-12 blog is confident he'll end up being one of the top 25 players in the league in 2013, but there are others with stronger credentials as of today. Same for someone like USC's Dion Bailey, who might end up being one of the best safeties in the country. But since he's spent the past couple of seasons at linebacker, we give the nod to a few of the league's more established safeties. Oregon State's Isaac Seumalo and Storm Woods also fall into this category.

It's a fairly similar approach with what we took last season. For example, we had Isi Sofele and Curtis McNeal on the list because they were coming off 1,000-yard seasons the year before. Then someone like Ka'Deem Carey comes along and blows away the country in rushing. Chase Thomas was highly rated in the preseason, but Trent Murphy got the postseason nod. And, unfortunately, someone like John Boyett (No. 16) was rated in the preseason, but injury kept him off the postseason list. Anthony Barr and Will Sutton overshadowed preseason players like T.J. McDonald and Nickell Robey.

We had a feeling Marcus Mariota and Brett Hundley would be special, but wanted to wait until they proved it. And they did, which is why they ended up on the postseason list.

So expect the list in January of 2014 to look a lot different.

As a reminder, there 12 players coming back from last season's postseason top 25.

No. 1: Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon
No. 2: Will Sutton, DT, Arizona State
No. 3: Marqise Lee, WR, USC
No. 5: Ka'Deem Carey, RB, Arizona
No. 11: Anthony Barr, LB, UCLA
No. 15: Brett Hundley, QB, UCLA
No. 16: Trent Murphy, OLB, Stanford
No. 18: Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, CB, Oregon
No. 19: David Yankey, OL, Stanford
No. 21: Scott Crichton, DE, Oregon State
No. 22: Ed Reynolds, S, Stanford
No. 24: Taylor Kelly, QB, Arizona State

Here's some breakdowns from the postseason list:

By Team
  • Arizona: 2
  • Arizona State: 2
  • California: 0
  • Colorado: 0
  • Oregon: 5
  • Oregon State: 3
  • Stanford: 6
  • UCLA: 3
  • USC: 2
  • Utah: 2
  • Washington: 0
  • Washington State: 0
By Unit
  • Offense: 13
  • Defense: 11
  • Special teams: 1
By Position
  • Quarterback: 5
  • Offensive line: 1
  • Running back: 4
  • Receiver: 2
  • Tight end: 1
  • Inside linebacker: 1
  • Outside linebacker: 4
  • Defensive tackle: 2
  • Defensive end: 1
  • Safety: 1
  • Cornerback: 2
  • Kick returner: 1

No. 25 will post later today. Ted is eager to hear all of your thoughts here.
Ted spent much of the last two weeks looking at individuals from the league who are coming back. But what about from a team standpoint? As is always the case, we have to say goodbye to some folks who have graduated, departed early, transferred or simply chose to follow another path in life. What's left in the pantry?

Today we're going to take a look at what each team has coming back in terms of yards, attempts and touchdowns in the run game. We'll start with the Pac-12 South. "Team" carries are not taken into account looking ahead to 2013, but negative yards in 2012 are. Remember also that sacks are (for some redonkulous reason) counted as a rushing attempts.

Here's a reminder of how the teams ranked in the league in rushing offense last year:
  1. Oregon
  2. Arizona
  3. Arizona State
  4. UCLA
  5. California
  6. Stanford
  7. USC
  8. Washington
  9. Utah
  10. Oregon State
  11. Colorado
  12. Washington State

Here's what the teams in the Pac-12 South have coming back.

Arizona
  • Rushing yards in 2012: 2,961
  • Rushing attempts in 2012: 544
  • Rushing touchdowns in 2012: 33
  • Rushing yards returning: 2,427
  • Rushing attempts returning: 419
  • Rushing touchdowns returning: 27
  • Percentage of yards returning: 81 percent
  • Percentage of attempts returning: 77 percent
  • Percentage of touchdowns returning: 81 percent
  • Biggest statistical returner: Ka'Deem Carey, 1,929 yards, 303 attempts, 23 touchdowns
  • Biggest statistical loss: Matt Scott, 506 yards, 113 attempts, six touchdowns
Arizona State
  • Rushing yards in 2012: 2,670
  • Rushing attempts in 2012: 598
  • Rushing touchdowns in 2012: 27
  • Rushing yards returning: 1,998
  • Rushing attempts returning: 421
  • Rushing touchdowns returning: 18
  • Percentage of yards returning: 74 percent
  • Percentage of attempts returning: 70 percent
  • Percentage of touchdowns returning: 66 percent
  • Biggest statistical returner: Marion Grice, 679 yards, 103 attempts, 11 touchdowns
  • Biggest statistical loss: Cameron Marshall, 583 yards, 135 attempts, nine touchdowns
Colorado
  • Rushing yards in 2012: 1,323
  • Rushing attempts in 2012: 425
  • Rushing touchdowns in 2012: 16
  • Rushing yards returning: 1,320
  • Rushing attempts returning: 396
  • Rushing touchdowns returning: 15
  • Percentage of yards returning: 98 percent
  • Percentage of attempts returning: 93 percent
  • Percentage of touchdowns returning: 93 percent
  • Biggest statistical returner: Christian Powell, 691 yards, 158 attempts, seven touchdowns
  • Biggest statistical loss: Nick Hirschman, zero rushing yards, 25 attempts, one touchdown

*Note: Colorado is interesting because Hirshman is the only player who carried last year who is off the roster, and he evened out with 60 rushing yards and 60 yards lost. Jordan Webb, Connor Wood and John Schrock accounted for minus-152 yards. The 20-yard differential is in minus-20 "team" yards, which aren't taken into account as returning yards.

UCLA
  • Rushing yards in 2012: 2,671
  • Rushing attempts in 2012: 599
  • Rushing touchdowns in 2012: 29
  • Rushing yards returning: 954
  • Rushing attempts returning: 305
  • Rushing touchdowns returning: 16
  • Percentage of yards returning: 35 percent
  • Percentage of attempts returning: 50 percent
  • Percentage of touchdowns returning: 55 percent
  • Biggest statistical returner: Brett Hundley, 355 yards, 160 attempts, nine touchdowns
  • Biggest statistical loss: Johnathan Franklin, 1,734 yards, 282 attempts, 13 touchdowns
USC
  • Rushing yards in 2012: 1,958
  • Rushing attempts in 2012: 392
  • Rushing touchdowns in 2012: 12
  • Rushing yards returning: 1,271
  • Rushing attempts returning: 247
  • Rushing touchdowns returning: 10
  • Percentage of yards returning: 64 percent
  • Percentage of attempts returings: 63 percent
  • Percentage of touchdowns returning: 83 percent
  • Biggest statistical returner: Silas Redd, 905 yards, 167 attempts, nine touchdowns
  • Biggest statistical loss: Curtis McNeal, 701 yards, 116 attempts, two touchdowns
Utah
  • Rushing yards in 2012: 1,605
  • Rushing attempts in 2012: 446
  • Rushing touchdowns in 2012: 17
  • Rushing yards returning: 539
  • Rushing attempts returning: 184
  • Rushing touchdowns returning: 8
  • Percentage of yards returning: 33 percent
  • Percentage of attempts returnings: 41 percent
  • Percentage of touchdowns returning: 47 percent
  • Biggest statistical returner: Kelvin York, 273 yards, 60 attempts, three touchdowns
  • Biggest statistical loss: John White, 1,041 yards, 218 attempts, eight touchdowns

Pac-12's top 25 is coming!

January, 21, 2013
1/21/13
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On Tuesday, the Pac-12 blog will begin its countdown of the conference's top 25 players.

As we go on, send your complaints here. Kevin is in charge of those.

He made making this list much more difficult than previous years. From 2008 through this preseason, the list was always perfect because I made it alone. Now, the process has been injected with more intelligence, insight and discernment than past years. And, really, who the heck wants any of that?

It did lead to some amusing disagreements. I suspect many of you would be interested in our give and take, which was substantial, even at the very top of the list. That likely will be presented when the list is complete.

Both of us started with a list of about 35 players. It was mostly the same 35 players, but our pecking orders, from top to bottom, were very different. The compromise process was painful. Our "Michael Clay!" "Kiko Alonso!" back and forth was like an old Miller Lite commercial: "Great taste!" "Less filling." (Everyone knows "Great taste!" should prevail, but Kevin "Less filling!" Gemmell is a tenacious debater).

What is most interesting is that, more than any previous year, the postseason list is WAY different that the preseason list.

You can review the preseason top 25 here. And you can review the entire list of bios and notes here.

And here's the preseason list.

No. 1. Matt Barkley, QB, USC
No. 2: Star Lotulelei, DT, Utah
No. 3: De'Anthony Thomas, RB/WR, Oregon
No. 4: Robert Woods, WR, USC
No. 5: Keith Price, QB, Washington
No. 6: Chase Thomas, LB, Stanford
No. 7: Marquess Wilson, WR, Washington State
No. 8: Keenan Allen, WR, California
No. 9: Marqise Lee, WR, USC
No. 10: T.J. McDonald, S, USC
No. 11: Dion Jordan, OLB/DE, Oregon
No. 12: Stepfan Taylor, RB, Stanford
No. 13: Kenjon Barner, RB, Oregon
No. 14: Nickell Robey, CB, USC
No. 15: John White IV, RB, Utah
No. 16: John Boyett, S, Oregon
No. 17: Jordan Poyer, CB, Oregon State
No. 18: Khaled Holmes, C, USC
No. 19: Cameron Marshall, RB, Arizona State
No. 20: Dion Bailey, LB, USC
No. 21: Shayne Skov, LB, Stanford
No. 22: Curtis McNeal, RB, USC
No. 23: Austin Seferian-Jenkins, TE, Washington
No. 24: Isi Sofele, RB, California
No. 25: Jeff Tuel, QB, Washington State

I see little wrong with that list if I re-enter my August self. But from today's perspective, our expectations were way off.

You can imagine the USC presence goes down a bit this go-around.

Hyundai Sun Bowl primer

December, 31, 2012
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Who to watch: This could be another national showcase for USC wide receiver Marqise Lee to prove that he is the most dynamic player in the country. Lee won the Biletnikoff Award winner and was named the Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year after a season which saw him set a conference mark for catches (112 -- the leading total nationally) and receiving yards (1,680). He also led the conference in kickoff return yardage. Lee left USC practice early on Saturday with an undisclosed leg injury and did not return but is expected to play in the game.

What to watch: The most compelling matchup should be the USC defense against the Georgia Tech “flexbone” triple-option offense. The Trojans have struggled in 2012 against various versions of the option, and Tech executes its run-based version at a very high level -- it was No. 4 in the nation with more than 312 rushing yards per game. The Yellow Jackets have a talented senior at quarterback in Tevin Washington, and he has an impressive 19 touchdowns on the ground. Look for USC senior safety T.J. McDonald to be very aggressive near the line of scrimmage in run support.

Why to watch: There have been a lot of questions about how motivated the Trojans would be for the Sun Bowl after a disappointing 7-5 season following their preseason No. 1 ranking. That perception was helped by some disparaging player tweets toward the host city of El Paso, Texas, and a late arrival to a bowl dinner. USC coach Lane Kiffin has preached to his team for the need to stay focused on the game, and the performance of his team will show how well that message was received. Georgia Tech is certainly an opponent that is capable of taking advantage of any lack of game readiness.

Prediction: USC 31, Georgia Tech 21

At the end of the day, the Trojans will simply make more plays than the Yellow Jackets. Lee isn’t the only playmaker on the USC offense, there are guys such as Robert Woods, Silas Redd and Curtis McNeal who can explode at any time. This could be the final college game for Woods, who will announce after the game if he is leaving school early for the NFL draft. The Trojans will enter the game without Matt Barkley, who will sit out with a shoulder injury, but Max Wittek can get the ball downfield with his strong arm. Georgia Tech A-back Orwin Smith will help keep things close for the Yellow Jackets. He has missed the last two games with an ankle injury but is averaging over nine yards per carry this season.
Things haven't been ending well for USC quarterbacks lately.

Max Wittek's career began somewhat like Matt Leinart's ended, squeezed by the extraordinary frustration of not being able to pick up a few inches on fourth down.

That was an improvement over how things may have wrapped up for Matt Barkley, who walked down the tunnel for the last time at the Coliseum -- in the most electric atmosphere this season -- without a helmet. He had walked up it a few hours later in a sweatsuit, struggling to keep his gear bag from slipping off his injured right shoulder.

What do the three Trojans quarterbacks have in common, aside from having attended the same Orange County high school? For much of their college careers, they relied on Lane Kiffin to call plays for them. And USC fans will be howling about the way Kiffin handled the end of Saturday's epic opportunity against top-ranked Notre Dame.

On first and goal from the 1, Kiffin tried to sneak Wittek in. He got nowhere.

He tried the same thing again on second down. He got nowhere.

After burning a timeout, he tried giving the ball to Curtis McNeal, who got -- yes, that’s right -- nowhere.

Finally, eschewing a field-goal try that likely would have made it a one-score game, he allowed Wittek to attempt a forward pass. The redshirt freshman with the big arm got a bit flustered, throwing it a little too low, a little too firmly, to fullback Soma Vainuku. It was incomplete ... and a disappointing season got just a little more disappointing.

For Mark Saxon's full ESPNLosAngeles.com column, click here.

Conference names players of the week

November, 12, 2012
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Arizona running back Ka'Deem Carey, UCLA linebacker Anthony Barr and Oregon State kicker Trevor Romaine have been named the Pac-12's players of the week by the conference.

From the Pac-12 release:
Carey, a sophomore from Tucson, Ariz., rushed for a Pac-12-record 366 yards -- the ninth-highest single-game total in FBS history -- on 25 carries (14.6 average) and scored five touchdowns as the Wildcats defeated Colorado 56-31. He broke the previous conference record of 357 yards, which had stood for 28 years. Additionally, his 400 all-purpose yards broke a 58-year-old school record, and his five rushing touchdowns, which came on runs of 10, 13, 30, 8 and 3 yards, tied the Pac-12 single-game mark. Carey managed five runs of 20-plus yards and four of 30-plus yards, including bursts of 71, 64 and 46 yards, en route to breaking Arizona’s single-game record for yards per carry average (14.6, minimum 20 attempts). He turned in his seventh 100-yard rushing performance of the season and pushed his season rushing total to 1,381 yards, a figure that tops the conference and ranks second in the FBS. He is tied for fifth in the FBS with 18 rushing touchdowns and is tied for fourth with 19 all-purpose touchdowns on the year. He also ranks second in the nation with 1,662 total yards from scrimmage.

Barr, a junior from San Pedro, Calif., collected eight tackles, including 2.5 sacks and 3.0 tackles for loss, in a 44-36 win over Washington State. His 2.5 sacks and 3.0 tackles for loss represent career highs for the running back-turned-linebacker, who also blocked a punt and forced a safety in the game. On WSU’s first offensive series of the game, he registered a sack on third down that forced a field goal attempt that was blocked and returned for a touchdown. His tackle for a safety in the second quarter gave the Bruins a 23-7 lead and set up a touchdown drive after the free kick that provided a 30-7 cushion. He has 11 sacks (1.10 avg.) and 17.0 tackles for loss (1.70), figures rank second in the Pac-12 and are tied for sixth in the nation.

Romaine, a sophomore from Corona, Calif., connected on 3-of-3 field goals and was perfect on extra points (2-for-2) in a 27-23 loss at Stanford. He accounted for 11 of Oregon State’s 23 points and sent four kickoffs into the end zone for touchbacks. His field goals came on tries of 19, 42 and 44 yards. Romaine, who is 13-of-15 on field goals this season, has converted 3-of-3 field goal attempts in each of the last two games and has a streak of nine consecutive successful tries.

Also nominated for offensive player of the week honors were quarterbacks Marcus Mariota of Oregon, and Brett Hundley of UCLA running backs Christian Powell of Colorado, Stepfan Taylor of Stanford, Curtis McNeal of USC and Bishop Sankey of Washington. Also nominated on defense were linebackers Carl Bradford of ASU, Lamar Dawson of USC and John Timu of Washington and defensive tackle Terrence Stephens of Stanford. Also nominated on special teams was defensive back Stan McKay of UCLA.

Pac-12 helmet stickers

November, 11, 2012
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So, that was sort of an exciting Saturday.
  • Ka’Deem Carey, RB, Arizona: Posting the ninth-best rushing total in FBS history probably gets you a helmet sticker. Carey rushed for a Pac-12 record 366 yards and five touchdowns in the win over Colorado, averaging 14.6 yards on his 25 carries.
  • Curtis McNeal, RB, USC: Rushed 31 times for 163 yards and two touchdowns. He also caught a 22-yard touchdown in USC's win over Arizona State.
  • Lamar Dawson, LB, USC: The linebacker helped pace a USC defense that forced four turnovers and limited the Sun Devils to 17 points and 250 total yards. He tallied a team-high 11 tackles and also had an interception.
  • Keith Price, QB, Washington: He accounted for three touchdowns in leading the Huskies past visiting Utah. Price, who completed 24 of 33 passes for 277 yards, had a pair of touchdown passes and also ran for a third.
  • Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon: The accolades continue as Mariota matched an Oregon record by throwing six touchdowns. He completed 27 of 34 passes for 377 yards. He also carried six times for 42 yards.
  • Anthony Barr, LB, UCLA: To go with his eight tackles (including three for a loss) and 2.5 sacks, he also tallied a safety.
  • Stepfan Taylor, RB, Stanford: On 19 carries, Taylor rushed for 114 yards and a touchdown to eclipse the 1,000-yard rushing mark for the third straight season. He also had a 40-yard touchdown reception -- a dump pass that he turned into what head coach David Shaw called one of the finest plays of his career.

Instant analysis: USC 38, ASU 17

November, 10, 2012
11/10/12
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With the Trojans ahead 21-17 late in the third quarter, ASU was driving and had the ball in USC territory. On third down, a short pass to an open Davon Coleman was missed and the Sun Devils went for it on fourth down, but Wes Horton got the sack on Taylor Kelly to force a change of possession. USC promptly scored a touchdown on the ensuing drive and never looked back, easily cruising to a 38-17 win.

It was over when: With six minutes left in the game, Marqise Lee took a handoff on a reverse, changed direction, got a block from Matt Barkley and raced 38 yards down the sideline to the ASU 9-yard line. The Trojans ended up kicking a field goal on the drive to make the score 31-17, which is where the score stayed until a late USC touchdown.

Stat of game: Turnovers. ASU forced five turnovers (three interceptions and two fumbles) that helped keep the Sun Devils in the game early on. On USC's first offensive play of the game, Lee fumbled. ASU recovered it and quickly scored to take a 7-0 lead. The Sun Devils also added an interception return for a score when Alden Darby read a Barkley pass, stepped in front for the pick and went 70 yards for the touchdown. USC forced four turnovers of its own -- one fumble and three interceptions.

Game ball goes to: USC's defense. A unit that has been much maligned in recent weeks for poor performances against spread offenses put together a solid effort against the Sun Devils' version of the spread. ASU came into the game among the nation's leaders in passing efficiency and scoring offense but Kelly was held to 19-of-30 passing for 174 yards and a touchdown.

Unsung hero: USC running back Curtis McNeal took over as the starter with Silas Redd sidelined and ran for 163 yards on 31 carries with two touchdowns and helped steady the Trojans' offense throughout the game.

Record performance: Barkley set the Pac-12 career passing yardage record. He now has 12,026 yards, breaking the previous mark held by Carson Palmer (USC).

What it means for USC: The Trojans' game against UCLA next week at the Rose Bowl will be a good old fashion rivalry game with high stakes on both sides, as the winner will represent the Pac-12 South in the conference title game.

What it means for ASU: A season that looked to be a rebirth under new coach Todd Graham has turned in the wrong direction with a four-game losing streak. All four losses were to ranked teams but that will be of little consolation to the Sun Devils.
As we turn the corner at the midway point of the season, your Pac-12 bloggers recount what has surprised them the most in the first half of the season. One is a pleasant surprise. The other, not so much.

Kevin Gemmell: I think we're all a bit taken aback by the remarkable success Oregon State has had so far this season. Let's be honest -- even the most devout of Beavers believers didn't think their team was going to have the school's best start since 1939. If you did, you are a real-McCoy psychic and you should immediately send all relevant stock tips here.

What's so impressive -- aside from the 5-0 start and top-10 spot in the BCS standings -- is the way Oregon State has gone about doing it. Great offense. Great defense. And above all, a no-nonsense, physical approach to football. There is an attitude -- a focused swagger, if you will -- that is really fun to watch.

[+] EnlargeMichael Doctor
Rick Scuteri/US PresswireLinebacker Michael Doctor has helped point the way for Oregon State's top-five rush defense.
The Beavers have been solid in the trenches on offense and relentless on defense. The offensive line has come together faster than most anticipated -- which obviously has contributed to a rushing attack that averages 119.6 yards per game (up from a league-worst 86.9 in 2011).

Defensively, you can’t say enough about the play of Scott Crichton, Jordan Poyer and a player I think is flying under the radar: Michael Doctor.

Naturally, the growth of quarterback Sean Mannion has been helpful. He’s done a much better job taking care of the ball (OSU ranks 12th nationally in turnover margin), and we’ve been talking about Markus Wheaton and Brandin Cooks as a potential breakout duo since we started doing weekly Take 2s in the spring.

Heading into this week’s games, the Beavers owned the second-best pass attack in the Pac-12. Again, with teams such as Washington State, USC and UCLA expected to air it out, did anyone really see that one coming?

And the fact that they can plug in Cody Vaz and not miss a beat is impressive.

But as much credit as Mike Riley deserves for the offense, defensive coordinator Mark Banker deserves equal praise -- if not more. The Beavers have the top rush defense in the conference and the No. 4 rush defense in the country, allowing just 70 yards per game on the ground. That’s elite status, and it takes more than just talented players to attain it. It takes an attitude. It takes an unwavering mentality that our defense is going to dictate to you, not the other way around.

Talking with Poyer and Crichton throughout the season, they said the simplest answer is that they are motivated by being 3-9 in 2011. It was a crummy season, and they didn’t want to feel like that again. That’s pretty good motivation.

The fact that Oregon State is better than last season isn’t a surprise. It’s the fact that the Beavers are so much better that is both surprising and pleasant.

Ted Miller: The mediocrity of USC's offense is shocking. No one saw that coming.

This is where someone claims he or she saw it coming. No you didn't. Stop it. No you didn't. Hush.

USC welcomed back nine starters from an offense that in 2011 averaged 35.8 points, 456.8 yards and 294.2 passing yards per game. Among those starters were quarterback Matt Barkley, the nation's leading Heisman Trophy candidate; 2011 All-American wide receiver Robert Woods; second-team All-Pac-12 wideout Marqise Lee, the co-freshman offensive player of the year; second-team All-Pac-12 center Khaled Holmes; and 1,000-yard rusher Curtis McNeal.

[+] EnlargeLane Kiffin
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/US PresswireCoach Lane Kiffin has reined in his offense and let the defense hold on to USC leads.
Barkley had completed 69 percent of his passes with 39 touchdowns and seven interceptions in 2011. He ranked eighth in the nation in passing efficiency. And he had all his weapons coming back. Oh, and the Trojans added a second 1,000-yard rusher when Silas Redd transferred from Penn State.

There were no weaknesses. While the departure of Matt Kalil left a sizable void at left tackle, the consensus was that Aundrey Walker was the next surefire NFL draft choice at a position where USC always has a surefire NFL draft choice.

Yet here we are. With the more difficult portion of the schedule ahead, USC is worse in just about every area on offense. Heck, the Trojans are 112th in the nation on third down, behind teams such as Memphis, Colorado and Kansas.

Heading into this week’s games, Barkley ranks 30th in the nation and third in the Pac-12 -- behind a pair of first-year starters -- in passing efficiency. He's thrown six interceptions after throwing seven in 12 games last season. He's completing just 62.7 percent of his throws. He's been sacked nine times after going down just eight times all last season.

Woods is 99th in the nation with 60 yards receiving per game and five touchdowns; he had 15 TDs and averaged 107.67 yards per game last season. McNeal, now a backup, has only 44 carries.

Lee's numbers are better than last season, but he hasn't been consistent catching the ball.

Some of the blame falls on coach Lane Kiffin, the offensive playcaller who's opted for a more conservative approach, particularly when the Trojans have a lead. With an improved defense, Kiffin seems content to run the ball and play to his defense once he gets ahead.

Still, in the preseason, there was a legitimate discussion of whether this offense might end up ranked among the best in college football history. The question now is whether it will be among the top half of the Pac-12.

And that is a huge surprise.

What we learned in the Pac-12: Week 4

September, 23, 2012
9/23/12
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What did we learn in Week 4? Read on.

Oregon State is back: After consecutive losing seasons, the Beavers have opened 2012 with consecutive victories over ranked teams, avenging defeats to Wisconsin and UCLA from a year ago. The previous two seasons, the Beavers couldn't run the ball or stop the run. Now they apparently can do both. That's sort of a big thing. Further, QB Sean Mannion has grown up. In the 27-20 win over No. 19 UCLA, he passed for a career-high 379 yards and two touchdowns and didn't let a bad decision on an interception get him down. Oregon State heads to Arizona next weekend looking for its first 3-0 start since 2002.

[+] EnlargeOregon State's Sean Mannion
Jayne Kamin/Oncea-US PRESSWIREOregon State's Sean Mannion passed for 379 yards and two touchdowns during a win at UCLA.
Ducks passed their test: Oregon coach Chip Kelly says the Ducks take a football test every weekend against a nameless, faceless opponent. Well, the Ducks advanced out of 101-level courses to a 300-level advanced class on Saturday, trading nonconference patsies for a ranked Pac-12 team that already had whipped Oklahoma State, the defending Big 12 champion. And the Ducks made an "A" against No. 22 Arizona with a 49-0 win. In a plot twist, the defense took center stage, while the offense needed a half to get its rhythm. The performance solidified the Ducks' status atop the Pac-12 pecking order, at least pending games with Stanford and USC.

USC can win without great QB play: USC bounced back from its loss to Stanford with a solid 27-9 win over California. It wasn't pretty, but it was much better than last weekend. The Trojans won by running the ball well -- both Silas Redd and Curtis McNeal eclipsed 100 yards on the ground -- and playing tough defense. The Trojans held Cal to 250 total yards. Barkley threw two TD passes, but he also tossed a pair of interceptions for the second consecutive week. He'd had just one multipick performance in his previous 16 games. His Heisman Trophy hopes are fading. The Trojans don't yet look like the offensive juggernaut just about everyone expected them to be -- Barkley and receiver Robert Woods were curiously muted -- but a better-than-expected defense might provide some time for them to rediscover their mojo.

Arizona State makes South Division statement: By stomping South Division rival Utah 37-7, Arizona State made the most noise this weekend in the South Division. UCLA and Arizona both lost, but to good teams. USC, which the Pac-12 blog has long lauded as a certain winner of the South, still looks like a solid front-runner, just not a certainty any longer. QB Taylor Kelly was brilliant for the Sun Devils, while the defense is proving to be opportunistic. The Sun Devils are at California next weekend. They need to prove they can play well on the road, and Cal is good enough to provide a revealing test -- for both teams really.

Colorado isn't a complete disaster: When Colorado was losing 31-14 at Washington State early in the fourth quarter, it appeared everything was mostly going to script. In fact, it even felt like an uptick for the woeful Buffaloes, who had started 0-3 in the worst possible way. But something seemed to click, and instead of accepting defeat, the Buffs fought back. Their efforts were rewarded with a three-touchdown barrage that gave them a 35-34 win. The specter of a winless season is now gone. That is a worrisome demon to exorcise. And the young Buffs got to see that good things sometimes happen to teams that fight back. A win might not signal a massive transformation -- the issues that led to the 0-3 start are still present -- but it certainly will help coach Jon Embree get a good night of sleep.

Mike Leach won't transform Washington State overnight: Of course, the home side of the field inside Martin Stadium isn't feeling too keen. There was so much goodwill and optimism after the hiring of Leach that there was a feeling he would be able to take a respectable crew of returning players and quickly turn them into a bowl team. That might not be the case. Leach, like most new coaches taking over a program in the dumps, might need some time to implement his system and recruit his type of players. On the downside, the Cougars' lack of poise and sloppiness -- particularly in the fourth quarter -- must trace back to some source deserving blame. It's not unreasonable to posit that Leach and his players have not yet clicked. There was a yielding in this loss that isn't easy to write off.
Happy Friday.
 

USC needs to win pretty

September, 5, 2012
9/05/12
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After inspecting film of USC's 49-10 win against Hawaii, coach Lane Kiffin lamented some "normal first-game sloppiness" and was unhappy with his inconsistent offensive line play, which surprised him after the line was sharp in preseason camp.

But an area that surely caused him to raise a worried eyebrow was the struggles at the cornerback spot opposite Nickell Robey. With Torin Harris out with an injury -- one of three defensive starters who didn't play against the Warriors -- Anthony Brown, Brian Baucham and Kevon Seymour were beaten a number of times.

Truth is, it wasn't a big deal against a green Hawaii offense adopting a new scheme. USC had two interceptions and allowed only 208 passing yards. But it could be a big deal Saturday against Syracuse in MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.

[+] EnlargeLane Kiffin
AP Photo/Kevin TerrellTrojans coach Lane Kiffin knows his team must play better against Syracuse than it did in its opener.
Syracuse quarterback Ryan Nassib put up huge numbers in the Orange's nail-biting, 42-41 loss to Northwestern. He completed 44 of 65 passes for 470 yards and four touchdowns, with all the touchdowns coming in the second half. He also rushed for 30 yards.

"Their quarterback made a ton of plays," Kiffin said.

USC pounded Syracuse 38-17 last season, and the Orange welcome back only 12 starters. They are again picked to finish near the bottom of the Big East. But it's difficult to scoff at 596 yards gained against a major conference foe.

Kiffin admitted that his defense "didn't get tested a lot" against Hawaii. That could change against Syracuse.

Although the Trojans are overwhelming favorites, they also are in a beauty contest at the top of the polls. All wins are not equal. The Trojans need to win impressively to impress voters.

Consider that they fell from No. 1 to No. 2 behind Alabama after the Crimson Tide stomped Michigan. That seems reasonable, seeing that Hawaii is mediocre to bad and Michigan was ranked No. 8, but the Trojans are the first No. 1 team to drop in the AP poll after winning a game by 35-plus points since Penn State in 1997, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

So surrendering a bunch of yards and points against Nassib and allowing Syracuse to hang around late in the second half could further hurt USC's standing. Don't think that matters? It will if pollsters and computers are trying to make distinctions in December between multiple unbeaten and one-loss teams. Recall: The BCS still yokes college football for two more seasons.

One way the Trojans can keep Nassib in check is by keeping him and the Orange's up-tempo, no-huddle offense on the sideline. The best way to do that is to run the ball. Although the Trojans piled up some nice passing numbers against Hawaii, the running game sputtered with just 81 yards at 3.5 per carry. Last year's starting tailback, Curtis McNeal, got only five carries, and Penn State transfer Silas Redd got nine.

Kiffin said that didn't indicate a change in the backfield pecking order.

"That wasn't on purpose," Kiffin said.

The Trojans probably aren't on upset alert. But when you're in the national championship chase, it's not only about winning it's about winning pretty. So it's important for "first-game sloppiness" to transform into second-game efficiency and dominance.

Notes on the preseason Pac-12 top 25

September, 3, 2012
9/03/12
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Our listing of the Pac-12's top 25 players concluded on Friday, just in time for the season.

You can review the entire list here.

And here are some notes you might find interesting.

By unit
Offense
: 16
Defense: 9

The 2011 postseason list broke down with 19 offensive players and six defensive players. The league does feel like it will be better on defense this year.

By team
USC ... 8
Oregon ... 4
Stanford ... 3
California, Utah, Washington, Washington State ... 2
Arizona State, Oregon State ... 1
Arizona, Colorado, & UCLA ... 0

USC dominates the list, and really there's no one you could make a decent argument doesn't belong on the list. On the 2011 postseason list, Stanford had six and Oregon five. If I were a gambling man, I'd wager Oregon might add two or three players to the 2012 postseason list.

As for the teams with no players: Who would you make a case for? Kevin and I discussed Colorado offensive lineman David Bakhtiari, who was second-team All-Pac-12 in 2011, and UCLA RB Johnathan Franklin. Arizona has QB Matt Scott and a couple of nice guys in the secondary.

By position
QB ... 3
WR ... 4
RB ... 7
OL ... 1
TE ... 1
LB ... 3
DE ... 1
DT... 1
CB ... 2
S ... 2

There were five QBs and four running backs on the 2011 postseason list, so maybe the league will be more run-based this fall. There were three offensive linemen on the postseason list -- I bet you can name them. Every position group -- other than special teams -- got at least one player. That happens in large part because while making the list you think, "Who's the best guy in the conference at this position?"

Fourteen guys from the 2011 list are back, and five of them are from USC. Here they are with their old ranking.

2. Matt Barkley, QB, USC
5. Chase Thomas, LB, Stanford
7. Star Lotulelei, DT, Utah
8. Robert Woods, WR, USC
11. Keith Price, QB, Washington
12 De'Anthony Thomas, WR-RB, Oregon
13. Marquess Wilson, WR, Washington State
15. Keenan Allen, WR, California
16. Marqise Lee, WR, USC
19. T.J. McDonald, S, USC
20. Dion Jordan, DE, Oregon
21. John White, RB, Utah
23. Nickell Robey, CB, USC
24. Stepfan Taylor, RB, Stanford

New guys on the list include:

No. 13: Kenjon Barner, RB, Oregon
No. 16: John Boyett, S, Oregon
No. 17: Jordan Poyer, CB, Oregon State
No. 18: Khaled Holmes, C, USC
No. 19: Cameron Marshall, RB, Arizona State
No. 20: Dion Bailey, LB, USC
No. 21: Shayne Skov, LB, Stanford
No. 22: Curtis McNeal, RB, USC
No. 23: Austin Seferian-Jenkins, TE, Washington
No. 24: Isi Sofele, RB, California
No. 25: Jeff Tuel, QB, Washington State

So who moves up the list? Or gets knocked off? You can expect the postseason list to be very different.

And, by the way, far more meaningful. It will reflect actual performance rather than projection.

USC ready to start title run

September, 1, 2012
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LOS ANGELES -- USC is back as the Big Show, as a premier football program that features All-Americans, high rankings and national title hopes.

At least, that's been the big talk all summer. Really, it started last December when QB Matt Barkley stood in front of a Christmas Tree inside Heritage Hall and first spoke of "unfinished business."

His returning to a 10-2 team that finished ranked sixth with 18 other starters coming back made the Trojans a vogue favorite to knock the SEC from its perch atop college football.

It also made Barkley the heavy preseason Heisman Trophy favorite. And forced more than a few folks to reconsider some of their previously negative opinions about coach Lane Kiffin.

But now toe-meets-leather, the games begin and USC either takes care of business or flops. Because, as ridiculous as it might sound for a team with just 75 scholarship players, anything less than a Rose Bowl berth would seem like a failure. Heck, some might say it's national title or bust.

It begins this evening against Hawaii, which should be completely overmatched. So success in the opener is defined by a blowout and starters sitting out the fourth quarter.

Of course, new Warriors coach Norm Chow, the former offensive coordinator under Pete Carroll, would love to stick it to the Trojans, or at least make life difficult for them. He's not a huge fan of how he was pushed aside at USC, and he's long held a grudge against Kiffin and Washington coach Steve Sarkisian, who took over for him in 2005.

So what to look for if the scoreboard holds little intrigue?
  • The stat sheet: If Barkley is going to win the Heisman, he'll need numbers. So expect him to attack with receivers Robert Woods and Marqise Lee.
  • The RBs: How will Kiffin split time between Curtis McNeal, his returning starter, and Silas Redd, a high-profile transfer from Penn State?
  • The DL: The Trojans' only real question mark -- other than overall depth -- is the defensive line, which was replacing three starters even before Devon Kennard was lost to a pec injury. The Warriors are rebuilding on the offensive line, so the Trojans should win the upfront battle. If they don't, that should inspire some concern.
  • The wounded: USC won't win a national championship if it suffers more than a small handful of injuries. It needs to stay healthy because of the scholarship limitations. And, yes, the D-line is the place it can least afford to lose guys.

While this game won't make much of a big picture statement -- unless the Trojans implode -- it will set the scene for the season. Is USC again the Big Show? Is it ready to party like it's 2002-08 again?

We shall see shortly.

Five things to watch: USC-Hawaii

August, 31, 2012
8/31/12
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The No. 1-ranked USC Trojans begin their 2012 season on Saturday against Hawaii (4:30 p.m. PT) at the L.A. Memorial Coliseum. Here are five things to watch:

1. Who's playing? Because of Lane Kiffin's new injury-reporting restrictions that began this week, we don't know which of the Trojans' injured players will be playing on Saturday. It certainly creates some mystique around this opener, as there's really no telling who was practicing this week and who wasn't. Among the players who missed all or most of USC's Saturday scrimmage, the last day injuries were allowed to be reported, were receiver George Farmer, tight ends Randall Telfer and Christian Thomas, defensive tackle Leonard Williams, defensive ends Wes Horton and Greg Townsend Jr., linebacker Lamar Dawson, cornerback Torin Harris and safety Demetrius Wright.

2. Silas Redd and Curtis McNeal. The expectation is that McNeal will start, because he's been at USC longer and been successful with all of his opportunities. But Redd's first three-plus weeks in a USC uniform have gone about as well as the Trojans could have expected. The early-season competition between the two to decide who the primary back will be might be more interesting than the battle between Marqise Lee and Robert Woods, because we don't yet have any idea of how Kiffin plans to use Redd in games. Here's guessing both guys will get about 15 touches on Saturday, with another 5-10 for D.J. Morgan.

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