- Brock Huard, ESPN Insider
The "College Football Live" spring top 25 ranking is out, and to no one's surprise the SEC dominates the top 10 with five of its member institutions represented. The LSU Tigers and Alabama Crimson Tide reside in the top 5, along with the Oklahoma Sooners and a pair of Pac-12 schools: the USC Trojans (No. 1) and Oregon Ducks (No. 4).
These two West Coast programs have, over the past decade, developed a national staying power amid coaching changes, conference realignment and, in the case of USC, sanctions and bowl and scholarship restrictions. The question for 2012 is whether either program has enough talent and depth to unseat the six-time defending BCS national champion: the SEC.
The case has been made for the Men of Troy, and the early preseason No. 1 ranking shows that I'm not the only one willing to look past the questions along USC's defensive line and the overall depth concerns within the program, instead focusing on the fact the most prolific and balanced offense in college football in 2011 is returning nearly intact. (USC was the only FBS school with a 3,500-yard passer, a 1,000-yard rusher and two 1,000-yard wide receivers last season.)
As for Oregon, there is a reason the Ducks are three-time defending Pac-12 champions: Chip Kelly can coach. At 34-6, no coach in conference history has matched Kelly's start, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers wanted to entrust their future to the 48-year-old this offseason before he said "no thanks" at the 11th hour.
The Ducks will get off to a fast start in 2012. The key will be whether this year's team can finish strongly enough to get past the Trojans and possibly earn its second BCS title game appearance in three seasons. Like USC, the Ducks will need to find more significant contributors defensively, and unlike the Trojans will have to develop difference-makers at wide receiver.
That said, I think Oregon has what it takes, in large part because Kelly has three key ingredients to mix into a championship-level recipe that he hasn't yet had in his tenure (at least not to this extent), and one of them in particular should be very familiar to the past SEC title winners.
1. A game-changer at QB
Cam Newton and AJ McCarron won BCS titles the past two seasons as first-year starters under center. McCarron filled the role of game manager, while the Heisman Trophy-winning Newton was the ultimate game-breaker. For Oregon in 2012, either redshirt freshman Marcus Mariota or sophomore Bryan Bennett will be under center as a first-year starter, a point that isn't lost on Kelly, but also one that doesn't scare him, either.