Weak links could doom USC, Oregon

Cody Kessler had impressive stats against weaker teams in 2014, but he also showed the ability to complete passes under defensive pressure. AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill

It's hard to look at any title contender this season -- with the exception of Ohio State -- and not have any major questions. The Pac-12 in that regard is no exception.

The two teams that were picked as the conference's best hopes, USC and Oregon as North and South Division champions respectively, have their weak links, areas that could be exposed by bullish defenses or talented offenses. Grantland's Matt Hinton outlined the weak links for both USC and Oregon, as well as six other title contenders in a story he posted today.

USC's is one that shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone since it has been written about plenty on this blog as well as other sites since last season. It's what he calls "A Tale of Two Codys."

"It’s hard to get too worked up over an ostentatious stat line once it becomes clear how much of it was racked up against the likes of Fresno State, Colorado, Washington State, and California," Hinton wrote of Cody Kessler's statistics -- 35 touchdowns and two interceptions against unranked opponents versus four touchdowns and three interceptions against ranked opponents.

It's a conundrum that has boggled several writers this summer. Every level of statistics tells a different story about Kessler. That statistic -- the serious discrepancy in his production against ranked/unranked opponents -- tells a story of a quarterback who basically picked up all his numbers in unimpressive moments. Yeah? You got seven touchdowns against two-win Colorado? Good job, buddy.

But then, take another look at some of his other statistics, which I did for ESPN The Magazine last month, and they tell a completely different story. He was better than Heisman winning Marcus Mariota when passing under duress in 2014, and not only by a bit. He completed 51.3 percent of his passes when under duress while Mariota completed 44.4 percent. The national average was 34 percent.

Weak link? Not in that regard. But still, his stat line is a mixed bag. He can start rewriting that narrative this weekend. But, what about Kessler's biggest competition out of the North? He'll have a chance (maybe two) to go up against the Ducks' weakest link -- the secondary.

Hinton described Oregon's secondary as "mediocre at best in 2014" and he isn't wrong.

"Oregon ranked 56th nationally in pass efficiency defense and 36th in Defensive Passing S&P+, well behind the curve for an aspiring national champion -- despite boasting three senior starters (Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, Troy Hill, and Erick Dargan) who were voted first- or second-team All-Pac-12," wrote Hinton.

Worse yet, Oregon defensive backs coach John Neal is replacing those first- and second-team All-Pac-12 guys with a bunch of younger players who may or may not have gotten some run in 2014. As Hinton points out, the conference quarterbacks this season aren't quite the crop they were in 2014, but that doesn't mean that this group doesn't have a huge target on its back.

And it's going to need to step up. Oregon has forced at least 25 turnovers every season since 2007 and a lot of that came from the defensive backfield either picking off quarterbacks or staying close enough with receivers that the Ducks' pass rush was able to get to the signal callers.

"Losing three secondary starters suggests Oregon's downfield defense should be vulnerable through the air as its young starters and backups find their sea legs, which in turn will apply pressure to UO's pass rush," The Oregonian's Andrew Greif wrote recently.

As long as the Ducks are playing on sea legs, it'll be a weak link. And considering they'll face Michigan State's Connor Cook in week two, Oregon better hope it's no longer weak.