Pac-12: Tim Brewster
Last fall, the Trojans surrendered 44 plays of 20 or more yards, which ranked 102nd in the nation. By comparison, the 2008 unit yielded just 14, the lowest total over the past three years by six.
So what happened?
The result? A unit that surrendered a Pac-10-high 30 TD passes (five more than ninth-place Washington State) and wasn't much better against the run, ranking sixth in the conference (140.5).
But if you're wondering why many still rate the Trojans as the favorites in the Pac-12 South Division and believe they will improve upon their 8-5 finish of a year ago, the defense is a good place to start.
"I feel like we know what we're doing a little bit better as far as it being the second year in the system," Lane Kiffin said. "And in scrimmage formats, we're tackling better."
That will be put to its first test Saturday when Minnesota comes calling to the Coliseum.
The Trojans welcome back seven starters from last year's unit. They look strong at end with Nick Perry, Devon Kennard and Wes Horton. And few teams boast a better safety-cornerback combination than All-American T.J. McDonald and Nickell Robey. But there are questions at linebacker, where they will be young around injury-prone Chris Galippo.
The Golden Gophers shouldn't provide too difficult a test. Coming off a 3-9 season in which Tim Brewster got fired and was replaced by Jerry Kill, who rebuilt Northern Illinois, they are replacing three starters on their offensive line and they don't look like a team that will be throwing the ball well. They are, however, intriguing at quarterback. That's where MarQueis Gray steps in. He's a 6-foot-4, 240-pound junior who has been primarily a receiver, though he got behind center in "Wildcat" formations. Passing the ball over the past two years, he's just 8-of-23 for 86 yards with a TD and an interception.
Of course, Kiffin went the "oh, no" route and compared him to former Texas quarterback Vince Young.
"It's very scary for us," he said. "We've got our hands full. This is a big-time challenge for our defense."
USC won at Minnesota 32-21 last year, a victory that was part of a 4-0 start. But the Trojans proved inconsistent on both sides of the ball once conference play began, inspiring some questions of motivation because NCAA sanctions made them ineligible for the postseason. That's an issue again this fall, though it's probably not one in the season-opener, when everyone is fired up to play.
"I don't think the motivation shows up as much early in the year," Kiffin said. "It becomes more of an issue towards the end of the year or if you hit one or two losses in a row there."
Still, with Matt Barkley at quarterback and a strong crew of receivers, the Trojans should at least be a factor in determining other team's postseasons. As for the South Division, that probably hangs on how much the Trojans' defense reverts back to its old ways. Preseason optimism about knowing the scheme better and improved tackling only goes so far.
Said Kiffin: "That all sounds good but it won't mean anything if come Saturday we don't do it when it really counts."
Bloggers Ted Miller (Pac-10) and Adam Rittenberg (Big Ten) break down the three matchups.
Ted Miller: An offense with extraordinary firepower! See an average of more than 500 yards and 47.5 ppg. Oh, wait. The Sun Devils played not one but two FCS foes. Hmm. And according to this box score, they rushed for just 56 yards on 29 carries against the hearty Lumberjacks of Northern Arizona. Double-hmm. Still, the early returns are fairly positive on Threet and new offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone's spread attack. The Sun Devils' offense was so bad last year that merely being mediocre would be a huge improvement. A bigger issue than Threet: the offensive line. It wasn't consistent against FCS foes, so you'd think the Badgers front-seven might pose a problem. But, to me, the more interesting matchup is a fast Sun Devils defense versus an experienced, physical Badgers offense. What's your take?
Rittenberg: Totally agree that the game likely will come down to Arizona State's dynamic defense and Wisconsin's power run game, led by John Clay. He's the Big Ten's version of Toby Gerhart, except bigger. Clay has looked great this year, but Wisconsin needs to clean up some sloppy play on offense against the Sun Devils. The Badgers already failed on three red-zone scoring chances, matching their total from all of the previous season (53-for-56), and they've committed three turnovers inside the red zone. They have little trouble moving the ball and boast what I believe to be one of the nation's most balanced offenses, but they're not good enough to survive these mistakes much longer. Arizona State will have its hands full with Clay and a mammoth offensive line, but if the Sun Devils can use their speed and force turnovers, they'll have a shot in this one.
Let's move on to the other afternoon affair, USC at Minnesota. The Trojans haven't exactly been dominant this year, but at least they haven't lost to South Dakota. At home. Giving up 41 points and 444 yards. Yeesh. Your thoughts?
What's your take?
Rittenberg: This is an odd matchup. In some ways, USC is just asking to get beat. But how can Minnesota take down Troy if it can't keep South Dakota to fewer than 40 points? The Gophers defense obviously is a major question mark, and I fully expect Matt Barkley to attack downfield a lot on Saturday. Minnesota gets a boost as safety Kyle Theret returns from suspension, giving the defense one returning starter from 2009. The other thing here is if things go back for Minnesota at the start, any sort of home-field edge will disappear. They're not too pleased with coach Tim Brewster right now in the Twin Cities. Minnesota's only chance is to control the clock with Duane Bennett and its power run game, and keep Barkley and Dillon Baxter off the field. A huge challenge.
OK, we've saved the best for last: Iowa at Arizona. Both teams look great so far. Iowa won last year's game, but trips out West haven't been kind to the Hawkeyes lately. What happens in Tucson?
Miller: First off, it's a great offense-defense matchup, with Nick Foles and an experienced UA offense taking on one of the best defenses in the nation. The cautionary tale for Wildcats fans is that also seemed like the case heading into the Holiday Bowl versus Nebraska, which became a complete disaster. Foles has a good offensive line, but the Hawkeyes have an NFL defensive front. If the Wildcats can get any sort of running game -- and Nic Grigsby is an explosive guy who can make a big play out of a small crack -- then things will be far easier for Foles and a quick-hit passing game. Foles is extremely accurate and he has a deep receiving corps. Yet to me the game turns on the Wildcats' rebuilt front seven. The unit replaced both tackles and all three linebackers and has played better than expected, but Iowa is a different sort of beast. If the Hawkeyes can run power effectively, then the Wildcats will be in trouble. If Iowa has to throw, I like the Wildcats secondary's chances versus Ricky Stanzi, who as you well know, Adam, hasn't always been the manzi.
What do you see from this one?
OK, prediction time. Who wins in the three Pac-10-Big Ten matchups?
Miller: Somehow I knew you were going to ask that.
I think USC will handle Minnesota fairly easily: Trojans 41, Gophers 20.
I think Arizona State will be competitive at Wisconsin but the Sun Devils will struggle to score -- and possess the ball -- and the defense will wear down: Wisconsin 27, Arizona State 17.
As for Arizona-Iowa: I go back and forth, but I'm going to risk the ire of the Wildcats faithful and pick Iowa 28, Arizona 24. I just don't think the Arizona defense will be able to hold up all night, and that will allow the Hawkeyes to take a lead at some point in the second half and then play keep-away with the run game.
So, for what REALLY is going to happen... Ladies and gentlemen, Adam Rittenberg.
Rittenberg: Why thank you, good sir.
The Gophers save face a bit against USC and hang around for a while before Barkley and his receivers prove too much for a young defense. Trojans win 35-23.
Wisconsin controls the clock as always and cleans up some of its mistakes in the red zone. Threet leads two first-half scoring drives before the Badgers take control and win 30-20.
Iowa-Arizona should be a great one. The elements will be tough for the Hawkeyes, and they'll fall behind early. But I've got to go with the better defense and the more battle-tested team. Iowa wins 26-21.
So we agree. We'll have to fight over the Rose Bowl pick this year. I've got Boise State!
Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller
Five scary nonconference games favored Pac-10 teams shouldn't overlook:
Central Michigan at Arizona (Sept. 5): Arizona was excited about winning eight games last year. The Chippewas have won at least that many three years in a row. They've got 16 starters back -- including 10 on defense. And, in contrast to the Wildcats who will be breaking in a new quarterback, Central Michigan can lean on Dan LeFevour, who's 14th on the NCAA career list for total offense.
Purdue at Oregon (Sept. 12): Purdue shouldn't be fast enough to keep up with the Oregon, but it made things quite difficult for the Ducks last year. Moreover, this game is sandwiched between the marquee season opener at Boise State and a visit from Utah. Even though Purdue has been sliding of late and changed coaches, the Boilermakers are still a Big Ten team worthy of respect.
Oregon State at UNLV (Sept. 12): Oregon State is a notoriously slow-starting team -- see three consecutive 2-3 starts. UNLV welcomes back 15 starters from a team that won at Arizona State a year ago. The Beavers are (again) rebuilding their defense, particularly their secondary. UNLV is talented and experienced at wide receiver. The Rebels are thinking bowl game. And even though this is an 8 p.m. kickoff, the guess here is it will be fairly toasty in Vegas, at least significantly more so than in Corvallis.
California at Minnesota (Sept. 19): Some folks have been touting California as a team that is talented enough to unseat USC (who, me?) But this game should get the Bears' full attention, and not just because they fell flat on a trip east to Maryland in 2008. Minnesota is clearly trending up in the Big Ten under coach Tim Brewster, who is a first-rate recruiter. The Gophers also are one of the Big Ten's most-experienced teams with 17 starters back. Moreover, Cal will be the Gophers' first BCS conference foe in their fancy new stadium, so the atmosphere should be frenzied against the visitors from Berkeley.
USC at Notre Dame (Oct. 17): It's almost impossible to imagine Notre Dame besting the Trojans if you watched last year's game, a 38-3 throttling that wasn't even as close as the 35-point spread suggests. However, recall that the year before losing to 41-point underdog Stanford in 2007, USC rolled the Cardinal 42-zip. At some point, Notre Dame is going to beat the Trojans in this national rivalry. The Irish will be playing at home, where they last challenged the Trojans in 2005, and they also have 17 starters back to help save Charlie Weis' job.