It is gratuitously early, but hey, why not?
USC is a rather easy pick here for the title game.
It would be even easier were USC not losing most of what remains from their heavily hyped but ultimately underutilized and underachieving crop of RBs (Joe McKnight et al.), and also guys from the OL as well, and were they also not losing Damian Williams, who basically was their only consistent playmaker at WR since losing Dwayne Jarrett and Steve Smith.
But I say that if Lane Kiffin could get 3,000 passing yards out of Jonathan Crompton and 1,000 rushing yards out of Montario Hardesty despite a terrible offensive line and not much of anything at WR (the few guys they had got hurt) against an SEC that went 6-4 in bowl games (including wins in the BCS championship game, the Sugar Bowl, and the Cotton Bowl), then pondering what legacy Lane can get out of Matt Barkley and the four- and five-star guys surrounding him at USC is, well, scary.
There is the other side of the ball, but they won't be losing nearly as many guys this year as they lost the previous year. Also, with Monte Kiffin as the defensive coordinator, there is NO WAY that the USC defense is going to get torched the way that it did against Stanford. And Oregon. And Notre Dame. And Oregon State. And...well, you get the picture.
Am I saying that USC underachieved in going 9-4 last season under Pete Carroll? Well, look at how BADLY the teams that beat the Trojans and played them tough performed against top non-conference competition and tell me what you think.
Example: Arizona 21, USC 17. Nebraska 33, Arizona 0, and it wasn't even that close! And that was the last game of the regular season for USC with a berth in the Holiday Bowl and a chance at a top 15 or even top 10 ranking on the line AND AT HOME.
So no, I am not saying that legacy Lane Kiffin is a better coach than Pete Carroll. Instead, I propose that Lane and Monte Kiffin will be edgier and hungrier than Carroll has been recently.
Remember folks: Carroll went from being two plays (overtime against Cal, fourth down against Texas) from not losing a game in three years from 2003-2005 to going 1-2 against Stanford from 2007-2009, and also being 0 for his last five road games against Oregon, Oregon State, and Washington.
Methinks that Carroll wasn't getting USC to their full potential because at heart he is an NFL guy, and now he is back where he always wanted to be to begin with.
Of course, legacy Kiffin wants to be in the NFL too, but Kiffin knows that his way to get back there is to be as good—or at least almost as good—as Carroll was at USC from 2002 to 2005.
Let's face it: The Trojans' path in 2010 doesn't have many obstacles. Their road schedule: Hawai'i, Minnesota, Washington State, Stanford (without Toby Gerhart), Arizona (third offensive coordinator in four years), Oregon State (with their third starting QB in three years), and UCLA. See any top 15 teams in that group? For that matter, see any teams that have won more than eight games since 2003? Didn't think so.
Their home schedule: Virginia, Washington, Cal, Oregon, Arizona State, Notre Dame. Now some of those teams have a chance to be pretty good, but they are all still traveling to L.A. to play a much more talented team. USC even has a bye week before the Oregon game.
I say USC does no worse than 12-1 (remember, playing Hawai'i on the road allows you to play an extra game) against a schedule that the BCS computers will love. And yes, that extra game will help them against the ACC, Big 12, and SEC teams who play conference championship games. So, USC will get one title game spot.
Who will get the other? Let's go by process of elimination.
As much as I love to advocate for the Big East, I believe that the Mountain West will be a better conference next season. In the ACC, my opinion is that Miami, Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech, Clemson, FSU, and North Carolina will beat each other up. 2011 will be the year that the ACC produces a title contender.
How about the Big 12 and the SEC, who seem to have a team in the title game every year (with the SEC always winning and the Big 12 generally losing)? Not this time. Texas will win 11 games as always but lost too much to get to 12 or 13. Oklahoma will probably be better than Texas, but still not good enough to run the table.
Nebraska? People who focus on how great Nebraska was in their last two games ignore how suspect they were in the first 12, and oh yes, they lose Ndamukong Suh and several other players from that great defense.
Even if the Big 12 does manage to produce a 12-1 team (and if they do, it will most likely be Oklahoma), the league overall will not be that strong, and the conference's failures in recent big games will cause the pollsters to give a 12-1 team from another major conference a chance.
The SEC? Nope. The conference that was so deep in 2003, 2004, and 2006 is now just Alabama and Florida in terms of national contenders. Auburn, Georgia, LSU, and Tennessee have fallen off. Alabama isn't good enough at QB to overcome all their losses on defense. Florida will still be formidable but has to overcome losing a ton of key players AND coaches on both sides of the ball.
So while Auburn, Georgia, and LSU won't be good enough to contend nationally in 2010, they will be good enough to deal Florida and Alabama the pair of losses that it will take to knock them out of the national title game. As a matter of fact, it wouldn't be a total shock to see Les Miles come up with the big season that he needs in 2010 to either save his job at LSU or replace Rich Rodriguez at Michigan.
Speaking of Michigan, that brings us to the conference that will produce the other participant in the BCS title game: Ohio State.
Don't look at the fact that Ohio State went 11-2 and finished No. 5 last season. Instead, consider that Ohio State would have gone 13-0 if Terrelle Pryor played better against USC and Purdue, and that Pryor would indeed have played better if he had the superior athletes at RB and WR around him that the Craig Krenzel-Troy Smith-Todd Boeckman teams did.
Well, next season, Pryor, who has already done more on the college level than has, say, JIMMY CLAUSEN, will be a junior, which lest we forget is when most QBs BEGIN their starting QB careers.
Matt Leinart, for instance, first became a starter as a redshirt sophomore. Mark Sanchez became a full-time starter as a redshirt junior. Even a lot of the guys who did get early playing time, like Sam Bradford and Colt McCoy, were redshirted and didn't really take off until their second or third seasons anyway.
Amazing how so many of the people that call Pryor an "underachiever" and "a bust" and "he should have played WR or defense" are willing to ignore such details and pretend that every five-star QB recruit becomes an All-American (or even all-conference) as a true freshman.
Instead, Pryor is at the stage when most QBs mentally and physically grow into the college game, and yes, he will have a loaded team around him: the great defenses that Ohio State always does, plus he will have more speed at WR (led by DeVier Posey) and RB (where several fast recruits will push Brandon Saine and Dan Herron for playing time)
A lot of the Pryor bashers have no idea that the guy threw for nearly 2,100 yards at 56 percent (and that was being plagued by drops) for 18 TDs, or that he ran for 770 yards and seven TDs. If Pryor shows the big improvement that often comes from a player's sophomore and junior years, he will be a Heisman candidate leading a very strong team.
And the schedule? Favorable. Miami will be a tough non-conference game, but it is in Columbus, as will be Marshall, Ohio, and Eastern Michigan. For the Big Ten schedule, Purdue, Indiana, Penn State, and Michigan are all at home. The Buckeyes only leave Columbus to play Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Minnesota. Illinois and Minnesota are no real threats. Wisconsin and Iowa are, however.
My position remains that Ohio State, which has nine starters returning on offense (only five on defense, but the last time Ohio State had even an AVERAGE defense under Jim Tressel was 2003), only has to split its games with Wisconsin and Iowa to finish 11-1 and play USC for the national title.
Can an undefeated mid-major sneak in? Possibly. But I say that Virginia Tech, who is returning a ton of players from teams who finished in the top 10 in 2008 AND 2009, will beat Boise in that neutral site game (FedEx Field, where the Washington Redskins play).
As for the MWC, Utah and TCU are loaded by mid-major standards. Also, Utah plays Pitt at home and travels to Notre Dame. TCU for their part plays Oregon State and Baylor at home and SMU on the road. Still, asking the Mountain West to produce an unbeaten team for the third consecutive season is a bit much. This year's BCS buster will most likely be Houston from Conference USA.
So Ohio State-USC. Mark it down. May the best team take all the marbles, or more accurately the BCS trophy.
In the game itself, I don't think any team has ever beaten Tressel three years in a row, either at Ohio State or in his prior—and even more impressive—stint at Division I-AA Youngstown State. USC would have to be the first. To do so, they would have to defend the very sort of running QB that gives them fits (Ell Roberson, Vince Young, Dennis Dixon, Jake Locker, Jeremiah Masoli) in Terrelle Pryor.
Whether Monte Kiffin would be better at scheming a running QB than was Pete Carroll is debatable. On one hand, Kiffin did contain Tim Tebow while at Tennessee last season. On the other, A) Pryor would run circles around Tebow and B) before last season at Florida, Kiffin had been in the NFL defending its dropback passers for decades.
USC fans would certainly counter with the fact that Matt Barkley has already seen an Ohio State defense that loses a lot of guys, and that is an excellent point.
So, that makes it a toss-up. Trojan fans may want to say that their No. 1 recruiting class, as I believe that Seantrel Henderson will ultimately sign with the Trojans, should push them over the top as compared with Ohio State's No. 18 recruiting class. That is compelling.
I will lean with the junior dual-threat Terrelle Pryor leading nine returning starters over the sophomore Barkley in his first year in Lane Kiffin's offense.
My prediction: Ohio State 21, USC 20