USC Trojans: Heisman Trophy
The Pac-12 -- again -- produced national title contenders but not a team playing for the crystal football when the final bell rang. Further, for the first time since 2008, the conference didn't provide a Heisman Trophy finalist.
A short summary of the regular season: It was pretty good but could have been better. But it was definitely surprising.
Better? If things had fallen the right way, seven Pac-12 teams could have been ranked in the final regular-season poll. USC began the season as a national title contender only to yield that spot to Oregon. Then Stanford ended the Ducks' hopes on Nov. 17 with a 17-14 overtime win in Autzen Stadium.
So the conference streak without a football national championship extends to eight seasons.
Surprising? UCLA won the South Division over rival USC, and Stanford beat out Oregon in the North by virtue of the aforementioned win in Eugene. Neither was tapped in the preseason as the conference champion by any of the 123 media members who voted.
Surprising? USC quarterback Matt Barkley topped just about every preseason Heisman Trophy list. He didn't even make first- or second-team All-Pac-12.
Surprising? Three of the four new coaches turned in strong seasons. Start with Jim Mora, who led the Bruins to the Pac-12 championship game and a national ranking. And, a year after USC beat UCLA 50-0, the Bruins prevailed, 38-28.
Sorry for bringing that up, USC.
Both Arizona's Rich Rodriguez and Arizona State's Todd Graham finished 7-5, though Graham handed Rodriguez his fifth defeat in the Territorial Cup.
Sorry for bringing that up, Wildcats.
The new coach who was expected to make the most noise -- with both his mouth and his team -- was only 1-for-2, and it wasn't Mike Leach's team doing the talking. His Cougars finished 3-9 and recorded just one conference victory. Of course, that lone Pac-12 win was over Washington.
Sorry for bringing that up, Huskies.
The good news is a record eight bowl teams, including a third consecutive season with two BCS bowl berths, which means an extra $6.1 million for the conference to split up.
The bad news is two more coach firings: Jeff Tedford at California after 11 seasons and Jon Embree at Colorado after just two. That means half the teams in the Pac-12 will have changed coaches over the past two years.
Further, USC's disappointing season lands Lane Kiffin on the 2013 hot seat, the only Pac-12 coach who will be stuck with that designation heading into 2013.
What about some highlights? Well, here you go.
Defensive MVP, Will Sutton, Arizona State: The numbers alone paint a pretty good picture of just how dominant the speed-rushing defensive tackle was. He led the conference in tackles for a loss per game and averaged almost a sack per game. He was a wrecking ball -- the kind of player offensive coordinators design their game plan around.
Newcomer of the year, Marcus Mariota, Oregon: In a year in which redshirt freshmen quarterbacks became all the rage, Mariota stood out with his efficiency as a passer, his athleticism as a runner and the speed with which he commanded Oregon's offense. His presence assures Oregon will continue to be one of the best offensive teams in the country in the coming years.
Biggest surprise: A school not named USC or Oregon is going to the Rose Bowl. In fact, neither team played in the Pac-12 championship game -- which many thought was as foregone conclusion before a single ball had been hiked. Stanford and UCLA were surprises -- but they also earned it.
Biggest disappointment: USC's once-promising season first got hijacked at Stanford. And from then on the Trojans were swimming in concrete shoes. After starting the season No. 1 in the AP poll, the Trojans became the first such team since 1964 to end the year out of the Top 25. The contrarian opinion Kevin Gemmell offered up back in March came to fruition. And it was a complete disaster. And, yes, even worse than Ted Miller's "Worst Case." And that's pretty bad.
Best game: Depends on where your tastes lie. If you like defense, then it was Stanford's performance at Oregon, where they held the Ducks to fewer than 200 yards rushing and won in overtime. Jordan Williamson's 37-yard kick sent shock waves throughout college football. If you like offense, you have to look to the Nov. 3 shootout between Oregon and USC. The stakes weren't as high as we all thought a few months ago, but some of the league's premier offensive players showed up as the teams combined for 113 points, 68 first downs and 1,145 yards of total offense.
Barkley was brilliant, and Scott was just very good. Barkley completed 19 of 20 passes for 298 yards with six touchdowns and zero interceptions against Colorado. It was the most efficient performance in the country this season and the most efficient in the history of the Pac-12. He now has 102 career TD passes, a Pac-12 record.
Yet it felt familiar. USC is always big news, even when it's not winning championships. And Barkley is the most famous college quarterback in the country, even if he's not going to win the Heisman Trophy.
Scott? His outstanding numbers and quick adoption of new coach Rich Rodriguez's offense resonates only regionally, if at all.
That might change. These two seniors meet Saturday in Tucson, Ariz., with Barkley, a four-year starter, trying to lead the Trojans back into the national title picture, which means not overlooking Scott and the Wildcats because of their Nov. 3 date with Oregon.
These two did meet once before. Let's hope this one is as fun as the first time: Oct. 4, 2007. That's when Barkley, a junior at top-ranked Mater Dei in Santa Ana, Calif., and already highly celebrated, and Scott, a senior at No. 2 Centennial High of Corona, clashed in front of roughly 10,000 fans in the Santa Ana Bowl.
"The fans definitely got their money's worth," Mater Dei coach Bruce Rollinson told reporters after the game. "That was some show."
Scott passed for 176 yards and rushed for 178. Barkley was 21 of 31 for 364 yards and two touchdowns. The Centennial defense featured Vontaze Burfict, Brandon Magee, Shelly Lyons and Will Sutton, who all signed with Arizona State. In a joint interview in 2011, the Pac-12 blog asked Burfict, Magee and Lyons about this game, and they all became a bit grumpy. It's fairly well-known that Barkley and Burfict are not exactly close.
Barkley was a five-star prospect in 2008, the nation's highest-rated quarterback. He signed with USC, which was on a dynastic run atop the then-Pac-10, with a 6-1 record in BCS bowl games over the previous seven years and two national titles.
So what does Rodriguez think of Barkley?
"He's obviously been one of the best quarterbacks in the history of the Pac-12," he said. "He's likely to be the first pick in the NFL draft. We're facing one of the all-time greats and also a tremendous leader."
Scott, a year ahead of Barkley, was a three-star prospect who picked Arizona over California, Boise State and Utah. The Wildcats went 5-7 in 2007, their ninth consecutive non-winning season. He beat out Nick Foles for the starting spot in 2009 but lost the job to Foles three games into the season. When Foles was hurt in 2010, Scott came off the bench and played well, but he opted to redshirt in 2011 so he could finally inherit the keys to the offense as a fifth-year senior.
When asked about Scott, USC coach Lane Kiffin's first word is "Wow."
"He's a phenomenal player," Kiffin said. "I didn't realize he is as fast as he is -- accurate, arm strength. He's playing great, doing an unbelievable job with the system."
So there's plenty of admiration for both quarterbacks.
Scott said he and Barkley know each other from football camps and recruiting and get along well, but, yes, it would be meaningful to best Barkley on Saturday.
"They are the No. 9-ranked team, so it's going to mean a lot more," Scott said. "It's a big stage. A great quarterback is coming in here. It would mean a lot to outplay him."
If Take 2 is anything like Take 1, this one figures to be pretty interesting.
USC Trojans coach Lane Kiffin said Tuesday that Barkley could still win the trophy if he continues to play the way he did against Colorado last weekend. Barkley set a school record for touchdown passes in a six-touchdown day against the Buffaloes, completing 19 of 20 pass attempts for 298 yards.
It was his best performance of the 2012 season and the best statistical game of his college career, although lowly Colorado didn't exactly present a ton of challenges.
Kiffin indirectly referenced Carson Palmer's 2002 Heisman-winning season at USC in arguing that Barkley could still win the award with five big late-season games. He'll have the stage to do it, too, with games coming up against top-10 teams Oregon and Notre Dame.
"Like I've said all along, the Heisman is a full body of work through the whole year," Kiffin said Tuesday. "Everybody wants to figure it out way early. There's been a lot of Heismans won in a lot of places, including a couple here, late in the year.
"So we'll wait and see and obviously if he keeps playing the way that he did, I think everybody will be happy."
Kansas State's Collin Klein seems to be considered the latest favorite after his team's 55-14 dismantling of Geno Smith and West Virginia last week.
Team of the week: Oregon fumbled on its first possession at Arizona State and immediately yielded a touchdown. Ah, here's that road test we were talking about! Then the Ducks opened up a can of whup-butt and throttled the Sun Devils in one of the most dominating halves of football this season. Sure, the final was only 43-21. But it was 43-7 at the break, which allowed the Ducks to rest many of their starters much of the second half. Some test.
Best game: There were no close games this week, but Oregon State's 21-7 win over Utah certainly provided some tension for Beavers fans. With the Oregon State offense muted in Week 2 with backup QB Cody Vaz, the defense won the day, forcing four turnovers. Yes, it was a two-touchdown win, but things were in doubt well into the fourth quarter.
And if your crystal ball had related that to you in August, you would have taken your crystal ball back to Target and asked for a refund.
Barkley was the leading Heisman Trophy candidate entering the season. Price was a darkhorse contender. They were, without question, the two top returning quarterbacks in the conference. And, perhaps, in the nation.
In 2011, Price, as a first-year starter, ranked third in the Pac-12 in passing efficiency and eighth in the nation. He threw 33 touchdown passes. At present, he's 12th in the conference in passing efficiency and doesn't rank nationally because his rating is not among the top-100 QBs. The Huskies, in fact, are last in passing in the conference, with just 184 yards per game, down 51 yards from last fall.
Barkley seemed to find his rhythm last week during a win against Utah. Price has yet to rediscover his groove. The pair will square off Saturday when the Trojans take on the Huskies at CenturyLink Field in Seattle.
"Keith is still a fantastic football player," Washington coach Steve Sarkisian said. "I think at times, yeah, maybe he has pressed a little bit, and maybe he's gotten frustrated."
Still, Price hasn't been himself. A player nicknamed "Teeth" because of his tendency to smile a lot, even during high-pressure moments, has looked stressed-out and frustrated on the field. Moreover, after games, he's seemed distraught while taking the blame upon himself for the offensive struggles.
"He needs to play football," Sarkisian said. "Right now he's working football."
If anyone knows about the burden of high expectations, it's the Trojans.
"If you don't win every game by 50 points, all the sudden everybody is saying, 'What's wrong with you?'" coach Lane Kiffin said.
They were pretty much written off after the loss to Stanford -- Barkley as a Heisman candidate and the Trojans as national title contenders. Yet there is plenty of season left. For both teams.
The Huskies' schedule, which has included four top-10 teams in the first six games, eases up over the season's second half. In August, a 4-2 start, which a win would give them, would have been embraced by just about anyone on Montlake. An upset of the Trojans would leave them well-positioned in the conference pecking order. And, keep in mind, the Huskies did beat the team (Stanford) that beat the team (USC).
For USC, Barkley could still play his way into the Heisman conversation, and the Trojans are still lurking in the national picture. An impressive win likely would push them back into the top-10, and we know anything can happen in college football.
But the first step for both teams is getting their quarterback play consistently back to where it was expected to be in the preseason.
But a loss at Stanford and middling numbers from Barkley have doused much of the hype and knocked them off the college football radar. National championships and Heisman Trophies are no longer associated with the program in 2012, and more than a few seem eager to stick the dreaded "overrated" label on the team and player.
USC off the radar? Trojans coach Lane Kiffin isn't buying it.
"I don't think at SC you're ever off the radar," he said. "I think that shows in the ratings of games. Even when you're not No. 1, No. 2 or No. 3, all the conversations are about SC and you're always everybody's biggest game. I don't think you ever really come off the radar here."
Backing him up is Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. To him, as well as the Utes fan base, it's a big deal that No. 13 USC is coming to Salt Lake City to play inside Rice-Eccles Stadium on Thursday night (9 p.m. ET on ESPN).
"Without a doubt," Whittingham said. "It's been many, many years since USC was here."
Many years is right. The Trojans' previous visit was in 1917 -- a 51-0 victory.
Still, in the preseason this looked like a game with far more national juice. Most so-called pundits projected this as a likely battle of ranked, unbeaten teams, a game with significance for the Pac-12 South Division as well as the national picture. It was seen as one of just a few potential stumbling blocks for USC as it fired up its engines for a run at the national title game.
Instead, we have USC getting beaten at the line of scrimmage in 21-14 loss to the Cardinal, and Utah getting whipped every which way in a 37-7 humbling at Arizona State.
Both teams are coming off a bye week. The Trojans already had a bounce-back game in their solid 29-7 win over California. The Utes spent the extra week trying to correct the myriad issues exposed by the Sun Devils -- blocking, in particular.
"The offensive line play has been an ongoing project for us. Obviously a priority," Whittingham said. "We had plenty to work on."
The Utes must get the running game going against USC. They need running back John White to be fully healthy after an ankle injury -- he didn't look at that way at Arizona State -- because the Trojans have produced a potent pass rush this season (four sacks a game), which could make for a long night for quarterback Jon Hays if his play-action fakes aren't working.
The Trojans also have issues on the offensive line, most particularly the health of center Khaled Holmes. He's likely out of the game, which means fifth-year senior Abe Markowitz will be eyeballing Utah's 325-pound nose tackle Star Lotulelei. In last year's meeting, Holmes, probably the best center in the Pac-12, if not the nation, mostly fought Lotulelei to a stalemate. It's difficult to imagine Markowitz won't need a lot of help from his guards.
Utah's hope rests on being able to slow the Trojans' running game and get pressure on Barkley without resorting to a lot of blitzes. While the Utes pride themselves on their man-to-man coverage in the secondary, it's likely they will use a lot of the Cover 2 to help keep Trojans receivers Robert Woods and Marqise Lee in check. That's what Stanford did, and such schemes have kept Barkley's numbers down because opposing defenses are willing to take chances with alignments that invite Barkley to check into running plays.
"If teams are going to play Cover 2 and just send safeties over the top and double-team both outside receivers, you're going to be forced to run the ball where they can't support the run," Barkley said.
Sure, Barkley would like to go deep every other play, but, he added, "I'm not really worried about being flashy and all that if we're moving the ball."
The problem is the Trojans have been hot and cold moving the ball, through the air or on the ground. They are fifth in the Pac-12 in scoring and pass efficiency, and sixth in total offense, rushing and passing yards. They are 11th in third-down percentage.
Those numbers suggest mediocrity, not the offensive greatness most projected for Barkley and company in the preseason.
Yet, it's still early. A lot can -- and likely will -- happen over the second half of the season. Neither of these teams have permanently set a trajectory for how things will go in 2012.
An upset victory for Utah would be monumental for the program in its second year of Pac-12 play. And an impressive performance by USC could land it back on the national radar.
Team of the week: Stanford didn't just beat No. 2 USC, it physically dominated the Trojans in a 21-14 victory, the Cardinal's record fourth consecutive win in the series. First, there was the post-Toby Gerhart Era. Then there was the post-Jim Harbaugh Era. Then there was the post-Andrew Luck Era. Maybe it's just the Stanford Era? The Cardinal is now squarely in the Rose Bowl race. And maybe the national title hunt.
Biggest play: On third-and-10 from the 50 in the fourth quarter, Stanford QB Josh Nunes was under pressure. He scrambled and found himself bottled up and cut off. Yet a player not exactly known for his athleticism juked the USC defense and cut for a 13-yard gain and a first down. Two plays later, he hit TE Zach Ertz for a 37-yard TD and a 21-14 lead, the final margin of Cardinal victory.
Biggest play II: California had No. 12 Ohio State on the ropes. The score was tied with just under four minutes left in the game, and the Buckeyes faced a third-and-7 from their 28-yard line. QB Braxton Miller was forced from the pocket, but the Bears secondary gagged and let Devin Smith get free behind the coverage. The ensuing 72-yard TD pass provided Ohio State its 35-28 margin of victory.
Biggest play III: BYU had a first-and-10 on the Utah 25-yard line, down 10-7 in the third quarter. Lined up in a shotgun formation, QB Riley Nelson wanted to change the play. While he was barking signals, his center delivered the snap, which rolled past an unaware Nelson. Utah's Mo Lee scooped up the loose ball and rambled 47 yards for a TD. The Utes would need those points in a 24-21 win.
Offensive standout: Stanford RB Stepfan Taylor was the best player on the field against USC. He rushed 27 times for 153 yards and a 59-yard TD and caught five passes for 60 yards and a 23-yard score in No. 21 Stanford's upset win over No. 2 Trojans.
Defensive standout: UCLA CB Sheldon Price matched a school record with three interceptions in the Bruins' 37-6 win over Houston.
Special teams standout: Not a lot to choose from. Oregon's De'Anthony Thomas returned four punts for 87 yards against Tennessee Tech, though he did fumble one.
Smiley face: Cal RB Brendan Bigelow brought life to the Bears by doing his best De'Anthony Thomas at Ohio State, rushing for 160 yards on just four carries -- yes, an average of 40 yards per carry! He had touchdown runs of 81 and 59 yards, and both were spectacular. Might he give the Bears offense a weapon that turns around their season?
Frowny face: Can anyone kick a freaking field goal? USC has no kicker, and Arizona, California, Oregon, Stanford and Utah were a combined 1-for-10, with the Bay Area schools going 0-for-6.
Thought of the week: Two of the Pac-12's five unbeaten teams will go down this weekend because of head-to-head matchups. Arizona travels to Oregon, while UCLA plays host to Oregon State. We'll get a better measure of contenders and pretenders this weekend.
Questions for the week: Is Oregon's Thomas ready to make a Heisman Trophy statement against Arizona? The set-up seems perfect: an ESPN game against a questionable defense. With USC and QB Matt Barkley going down, the Heisman race has opened up. Can Thomas be his fancy self and win the affection of the pundits?
Barkley's, USC's coronation was premature: There is no certainty in college football, particularly when you're questionable on the line of scrimmage. That's what USC quarterback Matt Barkley found out. His offensive line couldn't block Stanford's defensive front seven, which sacked him four times and harassed him constantly. Barkley, even with elite receivers Robert Woods and Marqise Lee, completed only 20 of 41 passes with two interceptions in a 21-14 loss. Sure, losing center Khaled Holmes to an ankle injury was a major blow -- the Cardinal exploited his replacement, Cyrus Hobbi -- but the Cardinal's domination up front wasn't about one spot. And that domination was on both sides of the line. The Cardinal, with a first-year starting quarterback, outgained the Trojans 417 yards to 280. Barkley's Heisman Trophy hopes took a major blow, as did the Trojans' hopes for a national title, that bit of unfinished business that brought Barkley back for his senior year.
Luck had nothing to do with it: That was a sign in the crowd at Stanford, duly noted by ESPN analyst Robert Smith. Stanford has billed itself as a physical, run-first team, even when it had Luck. So, without him, it figures the Cardinal would remain themselves. Still, many of us doubted whether the Cardinal would be as physical without now-NFL offensive linemen Jonathan Martin and David DeCastro. They were. Stanford figured out a way to neutralize the Trojans' flash, and then the Cardinal exploited their superiority on both lines of scrimmage. The most telling number? The Cardinal outrushed USC 202 yards to 26. The Pac-12 game of the year still might be Nov. 3 when Oregon visits USC. But if Stanford takes care of business, it might end up being the Cardinal's visit to Oregon on Nov. 17.
Arizona, UCLA avoid letdown: Arizona and UCLA posted big upset wins over ranked teams last weekend and became ranked teams themselves. Sometimes teams that do that fall flat the next week while still drunk on the past instead of focusing on the present. The Wildcats and Bruins did not. They both rolled big and improved to 3-0. Sure, both played overmatched foes, a convenient bit of scheduling. Particularly the Wildcats against South Carolina State. But both now head into interesting matchups -- UCLA hosts Oregon State and Arizona visits Oregon -- riding plenty of positive momentum, sitting prettier than most had imagined in the preseason.
Arizona State's reinvention remains a work in progress: Arizona State had three turnovers in its first two games. It had four in its 24-20 loss at Missouri. QB Taylor Kelly had zero interceptions in the first two games. He had two against the Tigers. The Sun Devils had five penalties for 35 yards in the first two games combined. They had seven for 54 yards at Missouri. The point: As cleanly as the Sun Devils played in the first two games, their becoming a disciplined team on a consistent basis is still a work in progress. That probably shouldn't be surprising. It's hard to completely reinvent a team culture in just two games. And the Sun Devils' fourth-quarter surge, coming back from a 24-7 deficit, showed backbone. That's a positive.
California and Utah can't be overlooked: Cal lost its opener to Nevada, spoiling the debut of remodeled Memorial Stadium. Utah lost at Utah State in Week 2, ending a 12-game winning streak in the series. Both losses were greeted with gnashing teeth by the respective fan bases. Their performances on Saturday, however, showed that both are certainly not easy outs and could become factors in their Pac-12 divisions. Utah beat a 25th-ranked BYU team that waxed Washington State. The Utes' defense remains formidable, no matter the issues on offense. And the Bears were just a couple of plays away from pulling the upset at No. 12 Ohio State before succumbing 35-28.
Oregon is fifth. LSU is second, Alabama third and Oklahoma fourth.
Trojans QB Matt Barkley is officially the leading preseason candidate -- shocker, I know -- for the Heisman Trophy after capturing 9 of 11 first-place votes in the Heismanpundit/CBSSports.com Heisman Straw Poll.
The poll is a weekly survey of actual Heisman voters from across the country. Barkley was on 10 of 11 ballots, which means somebody decided to be quirky and cute with their vote instead of taking it seriously.
Barkley had 29 points. Wisconsin senior running back Montee Ball, who placed fourth in last year's Heisman vote, was second with 12 points, West Virginia senior quarterback Geno Smith was third with six points, while Michigan senior quarterback Denard Robinson was fourth with five points.
Senior quarterbacks EJ Manuel of Florida State and Collin Klein of Kansas State each received a first-place vote to pull into a tie with Oregon sophomore running back De'Anthony Thomas for fifth place. Manuel and Klein were the only players besides Barkley to merit a first-place vote from the panel.
The Trojans welcome back their top rusher, top three receivers, four starting offensive lineman and a guy by the name of Matt Barkley.
The Trojans looked like a preseason top-10 team a month ago. They looked like the preseason Pac-12 South Division favorites. But when Barkley announced Thursday, "I have not yet finished my journey as a Trojan football player," it sent a shockwave across the college football landscape.
Remember that little girl staring at the TV snow in "Poltergeist"? All together now: "They're baaaaack!"
Barkley makes USC a national title contender. Barkley makes things around Heritage Hall feel like it's 2002-2008 all over again. Barkley means Trojans fans can stop thinking about the injustice it suffered when the NCAA whacked it with severe sanctions and start dreaming of BCS bowls again.
Just FYI: Miami on Jan. 7, 2013. What happened the last time the Trojans played in South Florida with big stakes?
Ah, the Oregon fans have just arrived. To borrow a phrase: Not so fast, my friend.
The Ducks are the three-time defending Pac-12 champions. They've got a whole bunch of key guys coming back in 2012, too. They, too, are a certain top-10 team, perhaps top-five. They will be the overwhelming favorites to win the North Division.
Both have highly favorable schedules. USC's nonconference schedule: Hawaii (with head coach Norm Chow!), at Syracuse and Notre Dame. Oregon's is, well, pitiful: Arkansas State, Fresno State and Tennessee Tech.
Oh, then there is this little date for both in LA next year. The Pac-12 schedules aren't official yet, but the conference confirmed to the Pac-12 blog that USC and Oregon will play in the Coliseum next fall. That regular-season game, not hard to project as a matchup of top-five teams, very likely could lead to a rematch in the Pac-12 title game, which could be a gateway to the national title game for the winner.
Ducks and Trojans: Feel free to talk amongst yourselves.
Meanwhile, Barkley, by passing up a chance to be a top-10 NFL draft pick as Matt Leinart and Andrew Luck did before him, immediately established himself as the leading 2012 Heisman Trophy candidate. His status as front-runner is only slightly less firm than Luck's was last year when he announced a shocking return.
And that point -- thump -- should provide a speed bump of moderation for our foray into admittedly hysterical hyperbole about Barkley and USC. Just about every time you try to write a college football season's story before it plays out, you end up being wrong.
Preseason predictions can be completely off: Oklahoma was the consensus preseason No. 1 this year. Or they can be slightly off: Luck and the overwhelming Heisman favorite in August. Or they can fall just short in the end: USC as the best team in college football history in 2005.
Or, then again, sometimes they are spot-on: USC in 2004 was preseason No. 1 as well as the postseason national champion.
Still, while grand scenarios are merely reasonably conceived potential endings for something that is a year away and laden with unforeseen variables, there is no downside on this day for USC. In fact, it spiderwebs positives throughout the program, from making the future at QB more secure, to bolstering the present recruiting effort, to getting USC fans excited and reinvested again, ready to fill up the Coliseum next fall.
By the way, USC folks aren't the only ones smiling. Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott is grinning ear-to-ear. He sees another bright, articulate Heisman Trophy candidate who conducts himself with class acting as the face of the conference, as Luck did this past fall. He sees two big ticket national title contenders in 2012, just as the conference's new TV contract kicks in. He's got broadcast partners -- ESPN and Fox -- as well as a new Pac-12 Network that are going to be thrilled that the conference's ratings-driving bell cow is back under the klieg lights in LA.
Toss in four new, high-profile coaches, and there are plenty of sexy story lines for the Pac-12 in 2012.
The week started with USC fans slapping their foreheads over Ohio State's middling NCAA sanctions for severe infractions. It was a frustrating reminder of the seeming cosmic forces that conspired to end the USC dynasty, including Pete Carroll skipping town back to the NFL.
But the week ends with an early Christmas gift for USC. Matt Barkley telling it, "I am staying because I want to finish what I started."
Yes, college football fans across the country pricked up their ears Thursday and thought, "Drat. I hear those darn "Tribute To Troy" drums again."
Next year? Not so certain.
Of course, if USC quarterback Matt Barkley opts to return for his senior year, he'll instantly become the favorite. But who's betting he'll return? James also could return, but that seems unlikely. The same could be said for Washington running back Chris Polk.
USC receivers Robert Woods and Marqise Lee? Washington quarterback Keith Price? Arizona State quarterback Brock Osweiler? Cal wide receiver Keenan Allen? Washington State wide receiver Marquess Wilson? Utah running back John White?
My take: Woods and Oregon's multipurpose threat De'Anthony Thomas are the Pac-12's top candidates, as of today.
But this uncertainty is not just a Pac-12 thing. As the venerable Heisman Pundit points out, it should be a wide open race nationally. It's quite possible that the preseason list of Heisman candidates won't include the eventual winner (and, really, who had Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III in their Heisman pool in August?).
The race for the 2012 Heisman appears to be wide open, especially assuming you can cross the following names off this year’s top 10 in the voting list due to either early entry into the NFL draft or expiration of eligibility:
1. Robert Griffin III
2. Andrew Luck
3. Trent Richardson
4. Montee Ball
5. Tyrann Mathieu
6. Matt Barkley
7. Case Keenum
8. Kellen Moore
9. Russell Wilson
10. LaMichael James
Whereas this past season had five of the top six finishers in the Heisman race returning, it’s very likely that nine of 10 from this season will not return (something that hasn’t happened since 2005). That means the race for the 2012 Heisman is likely to be wide open, with no real front runner in place.
And HP is not a believer in Mathieu coming back and winning next fall.
He does, however, make his own list, which includes Thomas but not Woods. He also includes USC running back Curtis McNeal.
On Thomas: "An electric will o’ the wisp who can score on the ground, in the air or by returning kicks and punts. Should be the star of yet another fine Oregon team."
On McNeal: "The USC running back position is a favorite of Heisman voters. McNeal averaged 120 yards per game and nearly 7 yards per carry in his last six games, which could point to an even bigger season in 2012."
Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson likely starts out the 2012 season as the favorite, which probably means he won't win -- see Luck. After that, everyone is just going to list returning offensive players who had good numbers in 2011.
Instead, he opted to return for his redshirt junior year, spent much of the season as the prohibitive Heisman favorite but finished second to Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III on Saturday.
If any of you are worried about Luck being crushed by disappointment, we'd like to reassure you that things will likely be OK for him. Something is sure to come up in terms of career options, we suspect. We hear he's got some real talent as an architect.
Matt Barkley, QB, USC: If Barkley returns for his senior year, he will be on everyone's preseason shortlist. He might even be considered the favorite. He'd have a high-profile team that should win, plenty of name recognition, and a supporting cast that could help him put up big numbers.
LaMichael James, RB, Oregon: Most would project James entering the NFL draft. But perhaps this will intrigue him: If he returns for his senior year and produces a fourth consecutive 1,500-yard season, he'd become the conference's all-time leading rusher, easily breaking USC's Charles White's 6,245 mark, set from 1976-79. That also, of course, would probably get him another invitation to New York for the Heisman ceremony.
Robert Woods, WR, USC: Woods will be a consensus preseason All-American. If Barkley comes back, Woods likely would play second fiddle. But if Barkley leaves, Woods still figures to put up good numbers, even with a first-year starter at quarterback. On the downside -- which is really an upside -- fellow receiver, sophomore Marqise Lee, is also an All-American candidate.
De'Anthony Thomas, WR/RB, Oregon: Thomas was just freak-show good in so many different ways in 2011 as a true freshman that he seems almost certain to become a Heisman candidate. In fact, he might be the most likely player on this list to get invited to New York because he's definitely coming back and a lot of folks already know who he is.
Chris Polk, RB, Washington: Polk is likely off to the NFL, but if he opts to return he and quarterback Keith Price would make plenty of preseason Heisman lists. Polk should put up big numbers as a rusher but his ability as a receiver would also give him a chance to put up big numbers. The Huskies will need to take another step in terms of win-loss record, though, for his candidacy to gain any momentum.
Marquess Wilson, WR, Washington State: Wilson has been highly productive for two seasons. But what if new coach Mike Leach helps him put up ludicrous numbers and the Cougars start winning? Hey, you never know.
Is QB Matt Barkley going to put on a big show in his final game at USC? Or is this not going to he Barkley's last game at USC? In any event, UCLA's only chance to win this game is if Barkley is off, which he hasn't been of late. And, if Barkley throws another four TD passes or so, does he deserve some Heisman Trophy consideration? Or at least, does he have a chance to steal All-Pac-12 first-team honors from Andrew Luck?
Does Oregon State have any chance in the Civil War? Oregon is a four-TD favorite over Oregon State. The Ducks appear headed to a third consecutive Pac-12 title and BCS bowl game, while the Beavers are headed toward a second-consecutive losing season. That combination has Oregon State fans a tad grumpy. So, can the Beavers come into Autzen Stadium and challenge the Ducks? It will take a perfect game. But Oregon State's beating Washington last weekend showed that the Beavers still have some fight and can't be completely written off.
Does Arizona State have any fight left? Speaking of teams with dubious fight, there's Arizona State. The Sun Devils collapse has been odd because their three consecutive embarrassing losses, nonetheless, haven't stopped this from being true: The Sun Devils are still in the Rose Bowl hunt. If Arizona State wins and UCLA loses and Utah wins this weekend, the Sun Devils win the South Division and play for the Pac-12 title on Dec. 2. But after three consecutive defeats, it doesn't appear the Sun Devils care much. Maybe they will be motivated by the 50-17 humbling they suffered at Cal last season. Or maybe they'll just wake up and play up to their capabilities. Or maybe they'll just stink it up and watch coach Dennis Erickson walk away.
John White, John White, John White: At this moment, you could make an argument that Utah running back John White is the best running back in the Pac-12. Yes, better than Oregon's LaMichael James and better than Washington's Chris Polk. White leads the conference with 1,377 yards rushing and is second with 14 TDs, ahead of both James and Polk. Anyway, suffice it to say, White is really good even though the opposing defense knows White is coming because the Utes don't throw much. Colorado has the worst run defense in the conference. That's trouble. Two hundred rushing yards for White might guarantee him first-team All-Pac-12 status.
Nick Holt vs. Marshall Lobbestael: Washington's defense was supposed to be good this year. It hasn't been. Nick Holt is the Pac-12's highest paid defensive coordinator not named Monte Kiffin. Marshall Lobbestael is Washington State's No. 3 QB. He started the season as Jeff Tuel's backup, played well while Tuel was hurt, then was displaced by talented freshman Connor Halliday. But both Tuel and Halliday are hurt for the game, and the gritty Lobbestael now faces Holt's defense. Who wins?
Arizona reaction on Rodriguez week: Arizona notched a huge win over rival Arizona State last weekend. It was emotional and surely satisfying during a lost season. But now the Wildcats have to get up for another game against Louisiana-Lafayette. How will the Wildcats respond after an emotional win, playing against an opponent that won't inspire much awe, but one that is -- oh, by the way -- 8-3. Will there be any reaction to the hiring of Rich Rodriguez? The Wildcats new coach is watching, and he likely will raise an eyebrow at players who step up. And those who don't.
Barkley's big moment? While much was made of USC quarterback Matt Barkley saying that Oregon didn't seem to be as good this season as the previous two years, a minor tweak won't decide this game. What it did do, however, is brighten the spotlight on Barkley just that much more. He's been the face of the Trojans for three years. This is likely his last college game that will attract national interest. He can secure his legacy by producing a big game on the road in the Pac-12's toughest venue. And even if that isn't enough to produce a victory, it will get the attention of NFL scouts.
Luck rises again: Not much to say here. Just expect Stanford QB Andrew Luck to turn in a tour de force performance in his final Big Game, one that gets him back to the top of Heisman Trophy lists.
Can the Cougs stop John White? Utah is fairly simple on offense: RB John White. The Utes rank last in the Pac-12 in passing and 10th in passing efficiency, while White ranks second in the conference with 119 yards rushing per game. That he averages five yards a carry despite defenses knowing he's coming is pretty darn impressive. The Cougars have been decent against the run this year, yielding 155.8 yards rushing per game. If they hold the Utes to that, they should be in pretty good shape to notch an upset.
Erickson's last stand? Arizona State coach Dennis Erickson looked like a Pac-12 coach-of-the-year candidate a few weeks ago. But after consecutive losses to UCLA and Washington State, he's back on the hot seat. Losing at home to Arizona not only would put a big dent in the Sun Devils South Division title chances, it might end Erickson's chances for survival into 2012.
Neuheisel's last stand? Each time UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel has looked dead this year, he's resurrected himself with a big win. But at some point that stops working and folks simply point at the lack of consistency as being as bad as losing. If the Bruins lose at home to 2-9 Colorado, perhaps blowing their chances to win the South Division and earn bowl eligibility, it's hard to imagine Neuheisel not getting fired, even if he pulls another rabbit out of the hat and beats USC in the season finale.
James makes Heisman statement: USC is tough against the run, ranking second in the Pac-12 in run defense, but Oregon RB LaMichael James did just fine against the conference's No. 1 rushing defense: Stanford. The Trojans are faster on defense than Stanford, but the home crowd should give James some extra juice. If he produces another 150-yard, multiple-touchdown evening, he should sew up another trip to New York for the Heisman Trophy ceremony.
Halliday encore? What is Washington State QB Connor Halliday to do after throwing for 494 yards -- a conference freshman record -- and four touchdowns in an upset victory over Arizona State? Even the confident Halliday admitted it might be impossible to duplicate those numbers. And Utah's defense is a different animal than the Sun Devils'. The key for Halliday is to keep playing within the system and let the game come to him. Don't force throws. Don't hold the ball too long. Don't look for the bomb when the short out is open. The Utes don't have a high-scoring offense. This game doesn't figure to be a shootout. It will be about field position and not making mistakes.
Maynard needs to match up: California's formula for success during a modest two-game winning streak has been run the ball and play good defense, thereby taking pressure off struggling QB Zach Maynard. That might work against Washington State and Oregon State at home, but the Bears will be hard-pressed to make it work against Stanford on the road. Maynard will have to make plays in the passing game and he will have to avoid stupid mistakes. When he gets flustered, his accuracy goes south. It will be interesting to see if the Cardinal can fluster him.
Barkley vs. Luck: Stanford Andrew Luck is the best quarterback in college football, the Heisman Trophy favorite and is almost certain to go No. 1 overall in this spring's NFL draft. USC's Matt Barkley is pretty good, too, and could be picked in the first round. He certainly could help his stock -- and his team -- by outplaying Luck on Saturday. For USC to notch the upset, Barkley almost certainly will need to match or, more likely, exceed Luck's numbers. Last year, these two combined for six TDs and no interceptions as Stanford won 37-35 with a field goal in the waning moments.
Return of Onyeali: Arizona State appears poised to dash to the Pac-12 South Division title, and a visit from 1-7 Colorado doesn't figure to slow the Sun Devils down. But the return of defensive end Junior Onyeali from a knee injury is big news. Onyeali, the conference's defensive freshman of the year in 2010, was hurt Sept. 17 at Illinois. The Sun Devils defense has mostly played well in his absence, with Greg Smith and Davon Coleman stepping up opposite Jamaar Jarrett. But four good DEs is a good thing. A really good thing.
Maynard sharp II? California QB Zach Maynard had perhaps his best game in the Bears' 34-10 victory over Utah, passing for 255 yards and a touchdown and rushing for 36 yards and a score. He rolled out and moved around in the pocket and seemed to be sharper, more confident and, most important, more accurate with his throws. Was the win over the Utes a turning point game for him, and therefore the Bears offense? If so, the Bears should roll over UCLA, which is awful on defense.
Where's the O, Utah? Speaking of the Utah-Cal game, the Utes offense didn't show up. It turned the ball over four times -- three interceptions from QB Jon Hays -- and gained just 178 total yards, including just 13 yards rushing. It's certain that the Utes won't have a juggernaut offense anytime soon. They didn't have one approaching that even when Jordan Wynn was playing quarterback. But if the season is to be salvaged, they are going to need to figure out ways to get a few points on the board. A solid defense can keep things close, but it's hard to win if you can't score.
Price vs the Arizona secondary: Four Arizona players are suspended from Saturday's game at Washington for their role in a brawl with UCLA just before halftime last week. All four are from a secondary that has already lost two starters to injury. Cornerback Shaquille Richardson and nickelback Jourdon Grandon are suspended for the entire game; cornerback Lyle Brown and strong safety Mark Watley are suspended for the first half. While Richardson is the only starter, things are still going to be tough against a Huskies passing offense led by quarterback Keith Price and a deep crew of receivers. Price leads the Pac-12 with 22 touchdown passes and ranks sixth in the nation in passing efficiency. Even before the suspensions, the Wildcats ranked last in the conference in pass efficiency defense, with opponents completing 71 percent of their throws.
Other than Woods? Before showing balance at Notre Dame, USC's offense was all about Barkley throwing to receiver Robert Woods. Stanford's defense, which got gashed by Barkley-to-Woods last year, figures to be all over Woods with bracket coverages with safeties helping cornerbacks on just about every play. Woods still figures to have his moments. It's not like he's a secret, yet he still ranks second in the nation with 129 receiving yards per game. But the Trojans need other receivers to step up and help Barkley. Or, even better, what if the running game, which piled up 219 yards against the Fighting Irish, comes through again?