As another off season of College Football material kicks off, this year marks the third year I’ll throw my hat in the ring and look at a number of topics and categories. In the process I’ll look to do everything from predicting next year’s 25 best teams, identify the games of the year, narrow down the Heisman field, identify those replacing 2012′s stars and ultimately make predictions for each league, culminating in a national championship pick. They’ll be many things I’ll be ridiculed for. There will be a number of things that will surprise some people. Ultimately you’ll come away from the next 6 months of material as ready for the college football season as I can possibly make you. While I’ll be sure to miss on things I would like to remind the skeptics I did correctly predict the same number of bowl teams preseason as Phil Steele a year ago as well as top him in BCS Bowl participants predicted before the year. Nonetheless I’m not putting out any magazines soon so keep buying his for the top preseason coverage available.
The key in any top 25 poll is understanding the premise on which the poll is based because not all top 25 polls are built the same way. Some people choose to rank teams 1-25 based on where they think teams will be ranked at year’s end. If they think a team will lose 5 games they won’t rank them. While that may seem logical I’ve never been a proponent of that style of poll and it has never been, nor will ever be, how I choose to do my top 25 polls. My polls reflect the 25 teams entering 2013 who I think are the top 25 teams on a neutral field if the country played a round-robin. If a team is likely to max out at 7 wins that doesn’t give me the urge to rank a nine-win team over them if the nine-win team is from a much weaker league. With that covered, let us continue the top 25 for 2013 as the official kickoff of the off season coverage here at The Sports Headquarters.
*Returning Starters Figures from Phil Steele’s Blog
Teams already ranked:
#25. Fresno State Bulldogs
#24 Vanderbilt Commodores
Coming in at #23..
2012 record: 7-6
Conference Finish: 2nd PAC-12 South
Bowl: Lost Sun Bowl 21-7 to Georgia Tech
2013 Returning Starters: 8 offense, 7 defense
What is there to say about the USC offense that hasn’t already been said? This offense was expected to be prolific in 2012 and frankly didn’t deliver in any aspect. Though Barkley did finish the year with 36 TDs and Marqise Lee was the best receiver in college football, the consistency wasn’t there and what was expected to be perhaps the best passing attack in the country finished only 32nd. Add in a sub-par running game that ranked 70th nationally and you had a good but not elite offense. In 2013 the potential of this team may rest solely on the right arm of Max Wittek. We were given a glimpse of him late in the year following Matt Barkley’s shoulder injury and it was cringe worthy. Robert Woods all but said his decision to leave for the NFL was because of his relationship with Wittek. Now can Wittek progress enough to make USC a factor in the PAC-12 in his first season as starter? Silas Redd comes back for his senior season and the transfer a year ago should be as motivated as any coming into 2013 after failing to reach 1000 yards in an offense that constantly was defended to prevent the long pass. Add in some costly fumbles sprinkled in and Redd will needs to be better in 2013 if USC has hopes of going to its first official PAC-12 title game.
One major question for the Trojans will be who steps up to fill the void left by Robert Woods? While Marqise Lee’s season overshadowed most of what Woods did, it’s not everyday you get a player who catches 76 passes for 846 yards and 11 scores that is your second best outside weapon. No other Trojan after Woods and Lee caught 30 passes a year ago as TE Xavier Grimble was third on the team with 29 catches. The majority of the receiving core is back, but if it’s relatively unproven, how do you project that? You want one area that was an Achilles Heel of USC in 2012, look no further than the red zone. The Trojans finished 103rd nationally in red zone scoring essentially because the team couldn’t run the ball. In 55 red zone trips the team scored 33 TDs with only nine coming on the ground. The inability to finish drives with touchdowns was a major reason the team didn’t live up to preseason offensive hopes. Of the teams worse in the red zone than USC, only three went to bowls if you want an idea of the company it kept in that regard.
The offensive line loses Khaled Holmes which for a unit that brings back four starters sounds promising but the Trojans looked weak at times last year without Holmes in the middle, the Utah game being a prime example. Still with all four returning starters being upperclassmen next year, it’s make or break time for that group. The Trojans will have a hard time duplicating the passing success it enjoyed with Barkley and Woods complimenting Marqise Lee. A new starter and questions at wide receiver? There’s no excuses, this team has to be able to run the football in 2013.
The number one issue I had with USC heading into 2012 and the biggest reason I didn’t think they were a major player in the national title race was the defense. If you had the Trojans going 7-6 before the year quit your job and move to Vegas because to me that was unforeseeable but the defense had quite a few red flags coming off the 2011 season and they showed up again. The Trojans in 2012 couldn’t stop just about anyone. The pass defense improved from 2012 but that may have just been a result of the run defense being so bad. The Trojans gave up nearly 400 yards per game and had the worst defensive performance in the program’s illustrious history in a home loss to Oregon. With that said there were some positives. The Trojans ranked near the top of the country in tackles for loss, turnovers and sacks in 2012. Monte Kiffin took the fall for the defensive fallout but simply put the talent on the field made too many mistakes.
The Trojans were one of the most penalized teams in the nation a season ago giving up over 62 yards per game. When you add up penalties, poor tackling and a mediocre red zone defense you get a defense not offering its offense much help. As I’ve long said about teams that rely on turnovers without the three and out type stops, when the turnovers don’t come, what are you left with? For USC that was a unit that was repeatedly gashed. Still, despite all the negatives to harp on, USC has things to look forward. The Trojans lose top tackler T.J McDonald but otherwise bring back the rest of its top seven tacklers from a year ago. Three starters from the defensive line are back including all-conference defensive end Morgan Breslin who finished 2012 with 13 sacks and 19.5 tackles for a loss. The linebacking core return as the top three tacklers and if they can aid the run defense, USC becomes much more dangerous in third and long when it can pin its ears back. Nickell Robey heads the secondary as an all-conference performer a year ago.
The Trojans get a break by dodging Oregon in cross-division play meaning only one matchup against the PAC-12 North heavyweights winds up on its schedule. On top of that the Trojans get the majority of its toughest games at home. Arizona, Stanford and UCLA all go to the Coliseum in 2013, three road games the Trojans lost a year ago, each game preceded by one of the PAC-12′s weaker teams or a bye week. The two tricky stretches in the schedule come in three game stretchs, the first one at Arizona State, followed by a bye week and then Arizona at home before heading to Notre Dame. While the Irish have questions, following up two games against high octane offenses before a physical matchup with Notre Dame could be tricky. The second comes in early November when the Trojans have back to back road games at Oregon State and Cal before coming home to play Stanford who will have an extra day of prep coming off a Thursday night game vs Oregon. USC has some landmines to avoid and questions to address but if this team can’t improve on 7-6 from a year ago, Lane Kiffin will be gone, and even marginal improvement might spell his end. The heat has been turned up at Southern California for 2013.
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