USC to Win Pac-12? Not Happening

usc from video

Mike Merrell’s Three-and-Out

In the 2012 preseason poll, the media picked what turned out to be the 7-6 University of Southern California Trojans as the top team in the land.

It took three years to recover from being burned by their compulsive love for USC, but like a battered wife who can’t figure out that her prince just isn’t all that royal, the media have forgiven all sins — and this time it will be different. Or so the media think, since they picked USC to be the 2015 Pac-12 football champion.

It’s not happening, and why it’s not is the subject of this week’s Three-and-Out.

1. Cody Kessler is not that great of a quarterback. Much of the hype surrounds the return of Kessler, who racked up some pretty impressive stats last year — on the surface, at least. He completed 69.7% of his passes for 3,826 yards, with 39 touchdowns and only 5 interceptions.

Kessler -- along with the rest of the free world -- beat up on Colorado.

from video

Kessler — along with the rest of the free world — beat up on Colorado.

Unfortunately for USC, Kessler has proven to be at his best when picking on poor defenses, and only mediocre — at best — when playing tough defenses. In just three games against Colorado, Fresno State and Washington State, Kessler racked up 1,113 yards, 16 touchdown passes and no interceptions. In the four games against Arizona, Arizona State, Stanford and UCLA, he totaled 807 yards, with only 2 touchdowns and 2 interceptions.

Kessler’s 2014 performance level simply does not reek of “Heisman” despite what the pundits would have us believe. So are we to believe that he will suddenly be that much better in 2015? Maybe because of all the great quarterbacks Steve Sarkisian produced in his five years heading up the Washington program? Uh, no … I didn’t think so.

So maybe the reason that USC is going to be so much better this year is because of the returning cast of skill players? No, that’s not it, because …

2. USC lost its best skill players at running back and wide receiver — not to mention on defense. You would have to believe that having a receiver such as Nelson Agholor would help a quarterback’s stats just a bit. Last year, Agholor caught 104 passes for 1,313 yards. Bad, bad news for Trojan fans: Agholor isn’t just gone this year. He’s off to Philadelphia to play for former Oregon coach, Chip Kelly.

Nelson Agholor's production will be hard to replace.

from video

Nelson Agholor’s production will be hard to replace.

But the Trojans didn’t just lose their top receiver. Buck Allen, who caught 41 passes for 458 yards and George Farmer (25 catches for 314 yards) are also off to the NFL. That’s three of the top four receivers gone.

If that’s not bad enough, Allen was also by far the team’s leading rusher, with 276 carries for 1,489 yards.

Add it all up, and Agholor, Allen and Farmer accounted for 54% of USC’s 3,856 receiving yards and 71% of its 2,092 rushing yards in 2014. While the Trojans — as always — have some great young talent, replacing this level of production is a tall order to ask of green replacements. And even if the Trojans can effectively replace Agholor, Allen and Farmer, they are still nearly 100 yards per game short of what Oregon racked up last year.

Kessler and The Replacements will be enough to get the job done on offense only if the Trojans can put together a shut-down defense. But last year’s 46th-ranked scoring defense was only ho-hum, and the Trojans must replace all-American defensive end Leonard Williams and the team’s leading tackler, linebacker Hayes Pullard.

So, for the Trojans to win the Pac-12, it will take a stupendous coaching achievement, which brings us to …

3. Steve Sarkisian talks the talk better than he walks the walk. Sarkisian has been quick to point out that last year’s 9-4 Trojans lost three games by a total of eleven points, and that if they could have won just two of them, they would have been 11-2. This is brilliant math. Let’s hope that Vernon Adams does that well in passing his final math class so that he can join the Ducks.

But what Sarkisian doesn’t mention is that the Men of Troy also won four games by a total of 16 points. Pushing those games the other way would have made the Trojans 5-8 — well, actually 5-7, since they wouldn’t have been bowl eligible and wouldn’t have beaten Nebraska 45-42. So, maybe the Trojans were only two field goals away from being 11-2, but they were also only 13 points away from not being bowl eligible. And now they are without their best running back, three of their top four receivers and their top two defensive players from last year.

Even starting a new quarterback, Oregon returns far more firepower in the skill positions, as do many of the Pac-12 South powers.

USC tradition (front), empty seats (back)

from video

USC tradition (front), empty seats (back).

None of this serves to slow what flows from Sarkisian’s mouth. During the Pac-12 Media Days, he took a jab at Oregon by playing the “tradition” card and pointed out that his Trojans wouldn’t be taking the field in 13 different uniforms.

Sarkisian can talk the talk, and he seems to promote the same within his team. As quoted in a recent ESPN.com article by Ted Miller, USC linebacker Su’a Cravens said, “We don’t need all the cameras and we don’t need all the spotlight. That comes with USC, but we don’t need it. I think that’s what makes us great.”

Talk is cheap, but can Sarkisian and the Trojans walk the walk? While at Washington, Sarkisian went 0-5 against Oregon, losing by an average score of 45-19. And Pete Carroll’s era aside, the Trojans are traditional under-performers.

But what the heck? USC was almost 11-2 last year and if you don’t think they’re great, just ask them. And here’s one Sark maybe hadn’t thought of — if only an average of two Oregon touchdown passes per game against Washington had been pick sixes the other direction, Sark would be 5-0 against the Ducks.

The media is convinced that the 2015 Trojans are the best the Pac-12 has to offer. It all has to do with tradition — which apparently includes not wearing 13 different uniforms.

Just one minor detail though — last year, the Ducks didn’t take the field in 13 different uniforms. They took the field in 15 different uniforms, and if USC is the biggest thing standing in the way, they will do the same in 2015.

Top photo from Video

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Mike Merrell

Mike Merrell

Mike (Editor-in-Chief) is a 1970 graduate of the University of Oregon where he attended the Honors College and received all-conference honors as a swimmer. After college, Mike ran for the Oregon Track Club and narrowly missed qualifying for the US Olympic Trials in the marathon. He continues his involvement in sports with near-daily swimming or running workouts, occasional masters swim competition (where he has received two Top-10 World rankings), providing volunteer coaching to local triathletes and helping out with FishDuck.com. Mike lives on 28 acres in the forest near Sandpoint, Idaho, where he has served as a certified public accountant for most of his working career. His current night job is writing novels about Abby Westminster, the only known illegitimate daughter of Britain's finest secret agent who has to bring down arch-villains plotting dastardly deeds. And, yes, Abby is also a DUCK!

  • FD

    BRING IT, MIKE.

  • dreambeliever11

    Awesome Mike!

  • MarcTheDuck

    Love it!

  • D’orhk!

    USC’s picked to be on top for two reasons: (1) On the two-deep depth chart, 80% of the players are 4 and 5 star recruits, not taking into account the four 5-star recruits from this year’s class (Imam Marshall, Chuma Edoga, Osa Masina and Rasheem Green); (2) All five of the starting offensive linemen return, with three of them starting last year as true freshmen.

    Before Tre Madden was injured, he and Buck Allen split reps nearly evenly, with roughly the same efficiency on runs and catches, and the guy he’s going to be splitting time with — Justin Davis — was a former 5-star, so you might be mistaken if you believe there’s a drop-off.

    Agreed on the Sark thing, though — he hasn’t proven that he can take a team to the next level, yet, and with the talent level so much higher than when he was at UW, the spotlight’s on his coaching. But c’mon, there are two Ducks coaching on defense — Justin Wilcox and Peter Sirmon — so the defense should be solid, right?

    • Mike Merrell

      D’orhk! —

      Thanks for reading and commenting. USC has always excelled at getting four and five star recruits. Getting four and five star performances out of them once they’re on campus — not so much.

      In 2013 Tre Madden proved that he can carry the rock 138 times for 703 yards. Can he make a full season at 20+ carries per game? Time will tell. By any means, chances are he would be about # 4 on Oregon’s depth chart. I would definitely take Oregon’s Freeman and Tyner (plus an occasional Marshall) over Madden and Davis.

      I’m sure USC’s offensive line will be improved, but the box scores on Kessler’s rushing yardage sure had a lot of minus signs in front of them last year.

      And again, the loss of Agholor is huge — as is Oregon’s loss of Mariota. The difference — Oregon has five returning receivers who have caught 600+ yards in a season and enough proven running backs to run a race track — along with choosing between a quarterback who has understudied a Heisman winner for three years and one who lit up the FBS for three years. USC — an inconsistent quarterback backed by largely unproven high school flashes.

      Wilcox & Sirmon? — I’ll just say that Wilcox’s production as a defensive coach has certainly gone downhill since targeting was made an issue. It took away what he coached best.

      • D’orhk!

        On development of 4 and 5-star athletes: If USC wasn’t developing them, then USC wouldn’t be at the top of all schools in churning out NFL draft picks, and they most certainly wouldn’t be hauling in a top-5 class annually.

        Would Tre Madden be fourth on the depth chart at Oregon? That’s tough to speculate on, because he wasn’t a running back recruit; technically, he wouldn’t even be on the RB depth chart at Oregon. I can tell you that he was a good enough linebacker to play in games as a true freshman, and was recruited by Oregon. But aren’t you being overly harsh on USC running backs? Both Tre Madden and Justin Davis are on the Doak Walker watch list, just like Royce Freeman and Thomas Tyner, after all.

        Don’t blame Kessler’s negative rushing yards on the o-line. You’ve watched him, yes? He has a tendency to hold onto the ball too long when in the pocket. This is why having a veteran offensive line matters; if he has the luxury to sit back there, he can hit any target down field in stride. Or maybe he’ll release the ball faster, this season.

        Would you prefer your 6 receivers to Juju and Adoree? Please, tell Juju and Adoree that the talent at Oregon is so high that they wouldn’t start.

        • dreambeliever11

          Glad you didn’t mention depth as an excuse, I’m sure it will be a great game this year with no excuses. Take a lesson from Pete Carrol!

          • D’orhk!

            I think Sark used the lack of depth as a terrible reason to go to prevent-defense in the second half of games. Ed Orgeron famously used just 13 players on defense to beat Stanford in 2013.

          • Godux

            Now. Orgeron is somebody worth putting on that list of things to admire about USC, before you consider the way they treated him.

          • Godux

            Carroll, who got out of Dodge before the bomb he built exploded, and laid the foundation for Sark’s success at UW, before doing something nice with players he could admit were paid. :)

        • Mike Merrell

          Well, yes, USC cranks out NFL players and is in the top 5 recruiting annually. But when was the last time the Trojans finished in the top 5? If you are arguing that playing at USC is a waste of talent, then I’m with you.

          Harsh on the USC running backs? In 2014 the Ducks had four RBs who averaged better than Davis’s 4.6 yards per carry. The Ducks are so strong at RB that Byron Marshall, who had over 1000 yards rushing in 2013 — and averaged 6.2 yards per carry — was switched to receiver. As for the USC RBs being on the Doak Walker watch list — far be it from me to argue that the Trojans don’t get enough pre-season hype.

          Smith’s 13.4 yards per catch would have put him eighth among Oregon’s receivers having at least 20 catches last year — and they are all coming back, Carrington’s injury aside. And this doesn’t even count Bralon Addison, who had 61 catches for 890 yards in 2013, as the number two receiver. Jackson was great at the NCAA track meet, but last year he only had 10 catches, and outside of the 71 yard TD pass he had against Nebraska, he averaged 7.4 yards per catch. That would not place particularly high on Oregon’s depth chart.

          Beyond that, Oregon’s receivers are expected to block, as reflected in Oregon’s superior numbers in yards per play. So, sorry to break it to you, but Smith and Jackson would have their work cut out for them to earn playing time at Oregon. I’m not in a position to tell that to Juju and Adoree, but please feel free to pass the word along if you run into them.

          • D’orhk!

            I’m so glad that you’ve tried to say, without saying it outright, that Adoree and Juju couldn’t start at Oregon. It’s going to be a hell of a game at Autzen!

          • Mike Merrell

            D’orhk!

            With all due respect, my argument that USC’s chronic failure to end up in the top 5 despite getting top 5 recruiting classes regularly has nothing to do with “how much better Oregon’s players are.” And you’re the one who brought up the issue of whether Smith and Jackson would start at Oregon. I wouldn’t say they couldn’t start, but they would certainly not be guaranteed starts, given the level of competition.

            I’m sure that we can agree that it is a tough conference and much of anything can happen between now and late November. At this point it looks like it should be a great game, but last year at this time everybody had Oregon-Stanford circled. Much can happen, and either of us could be elated or crushed long before then.

          • D’orhk!

            Come now, you’re not giving me any due respect whatsoever; this is just lip service, so to speak.

            Every time I tried to keep the argument centered on why USC’s got sufficient talent behind last year’s starters (who’ve departed) to avoid a drop-off in production, your retort has been to compare USC’s players to Oregon’s. You brought up the point that USC’s two RBs wouldn’t start for Oregon, and that you’d take Oregon’s 6 receivers over USC’s 5-star athletes, did you not?

            Show us that you actually respect USC: I challenge you to name five things you admire about the USC football program.

          • Mike Merrell

            1. Pat Haden’s status as a Rhodes Scholar, even if he isn’t smart enough to stay off the sidelines.

            2. The band’s ability to play the same monotonous song over and over again without going nuts.

            3. OJ’s attorney’s ability to beat the murder one charges.

            4. The income of whatever plastic surgeon has the contract for the girls in the sweaters.

            5. Steve Sarkisian’s ability to sell recruits on the idea that he’s a great coach.

            That only took about two minutes. USC — what’s not to love?

          • D’orhk!

            I knew you couldn’t do it without being cynical.

          • Mike Merrell

            Pass. I’ll take universities located between Hollywood and Disneyland for $400.

          • D’orhk!

            I believe that’s Long Beach Community College. (OR CSU Dominguez Hills.)

          • Mike Merrell

            Sorry — both are substantially southwest of the line between the two, LBCC is not a university and your response was not in the form of a question. Mike for $400?

            What is USC?

          • D’orhk!

            USC is a 20 minute drive to Hollywood while Disneyland is an hour away. CSU Dominguez Hills is roughly equidistant from Hollywood (50 min) and Disneyland (40 min).

            LBCC’s got a rich history of sports, that even the Ducks recruit LBCC players.

          • Godux

            Not really a fair list. I would say that anything on the list of things I admire is getting pretty moldy and none of them were witnessed by Sark while he was on the pay-roll.

          • Mike Merrell

            My error — Carrington’s suspension.

    • Godux

      You for got a allow for at least a couple bone headed, game costing coaching strategy errors. Sark does not think well on his feet. (or probably any other position) :)

  • MAITAIDUCK

    I agree with all of your statements but it takes more than 4 and 5 star players to be champs it takes great Coaching and Sarkisian sucks! ASU will win the south but Oregon will be the North Champs and winners again in the Championship1

  • Roger

    Love this article Mike!

  • GoDucks

    USC has much to prove, with one thing being if they can actually put all of their 4 and 5-star talent together. How many times have we seen schools not be able to do this?

    The main thing they have going for them is that they will get two shots at Oregon, the second being the one that matters, if both schools make it to the Title Game.

    • Godux

      Excellent evaluation. I think it less likely USC will be there, especially if they have to carry a loss to Oregon on their tally.

  • Godux

    I agree with two of your points which were well explained. However, I don’t doubt USC has plenty of talent to replace what they lost from last season. They have not had a recruiting class devoid of a lot of talent for many years. The bottom was chopped off, which deprived them of late bloomers and hidden nuggets, during their well earned sanctions but they really don’t need a lot of those. Fortunately, Point three is the best reason to believe they won’t improve much.
    In the PAC12, the transition of receivers is pretty seamless for the top teams, as is the replacement of running backs. Look at the preseason trepidation regarding Oregon’s crew last year and how that turned out.. Quarterback is a different story. The Ducks may drop down to about where USC is … or not … but USC is stuck with a known quantity, well described in your first segment. Oregon will utilize a much better group of running backs, more team speed, and a stronger coaching staff, most likely depriving them of a conference championship, and possibly even appearance in the conference title game.
    That sounds more arrogant than I want it to, but when it comes to conference competition it seems fairly accurate. Our most of important game will not be USC but Michigan St, and the toughest task will be to avoid a surprise from Arizona State, Cal, or Stanford, not beating the Trojans once or twice.
    The media is about as tuned into reality as Sark is, but at least they have a reason for their misguided prognostication. SoCal is a big market area for them.

  • Mike Green

    usc is really good when their O line protects the QB…

    heres to the Ducks sacking the heck out of usc