I don’t know if I have been drinking too much of the Oregon Ducks’ Kool-Aid or what, but I think people are jumping on the 2012 USC train awfully quick. Don’t get me wrong, USC is a very good team—easily a top-ten team—but I really don’t think they should be considered the team to beat in the Pac-12.
Oregon is coming off a Rose Bowl win with a team that was not nearly as good or as talented as the 2010 unit. With the exception of running back, quarterback and safety, no position was as strong in 2011 as it was in 2010.
Wide receiver was a position of weakness all season long. There was no Jeff Maehl or D.J. Davis, Josh Huff took a step backwards, and Lavasier Tuinei didn't have quite the season that most people envisioned from him. If it wasn’t for the emergence of De'Anthony Thomas, the Ducks wouldn’t have had any bright spots in the receiving game.
The offensive line lost three starters and one regular rotation player in Jordan Holmes, C.E. Kaiser, Bo Thran and Max Forer.
Tight end, one of Oregon’s presumed strengths at the beginning of the season, was close to nonexistent.
The defensive line lost starters Brandon Bair, Kenny Rowe and Zac Clark after the 2010-11 season and had to rely on several new guys to step up.
The linebacking corps saw two guys leave for the NFL in Casey Matthews and Spencer Paysinger. And Bryson Littlejohn, one of the team's regular rotation players, had graduated.
Talmadge Jackson, the team’s first-team corner in 2010-11, was gone. Anthony Gildon, who had a great game against LSU, sat out more than half of the year with an injury.
Which Pac-12 team will win the conference next season
Cliff Harris, the man who puts the cheese on the nachos, sat out nearly the entire season because he couldn't decide whether he would rather play in the NFL or try his luck at NASCAR.
And LaMichael James, the Doak Walker Award winner and Heisman Trophy finalist, sat out two-and-a-half games with a dislocated elbow.
THAT TEAM JUST WON THE ROSE BOWL!
The Ducks are losing some key guys on both sides of the ball, but it will not equal what they lost after the national championship.
LaMichael is irreplaceable. But the combination of Kenjon Barner, DeAnthony Thomas and incoming recruit Byron Marshall should make his loss manageable.
The Ducks also must replace 24 wins and 66 touchdowns from Darron Thomas, but keep in mind that Kellen Clemens, Dennis Dixon and Jeremiah Masoli all seemed irreplaceable at the times of their departures.
Yet every quarterback tabbed for replacement had more success than his predecessor. Charles Edward Kelly is a quarterback savant. And as long as he is running the show in Eugene, he will find a quarterback who will win in the Pac-12.
The best hands I have ever seen in David Paulson will be missed, but he was so under-utilized this year that his departure will barely be noticed. Not to mention, Oregon has so much talent at tight end that it will essentially be addition by subtraction.
Josh Kaddu really had a breakout season this year, but backup Bo Lokombo has split starter’s minutes with him for the past two years and will not be a drop-off at all.
The protection that Mark Asper provided for Darron all season is immeasurable, but he only played tackle for one season, and Oregon’s O-line class from the 2011 recruiting cycle was one of the best in the nation and probably the best O-line class Oregon has ever had. There shouldn't be any real problem finding replacements.
On the D-line, Dion Jordan, Isaac Remington, Ricky Heimuli, Wade Keliikipi, Taylor Hart and Tony Washington will all be back in 2012. In addition, they will be joined by high school studs DeForest Buckner, Alex Balducci and Arik Armstead.
The incoming receiving corps who just finished their redshirt season includes two kids from last year’s ESPN 150 and another kid who looks like Ray J. That should be a huge improvement over the 2011 unit.
I do realize USC has A LOT coming back—18-19 starters including most of the starters on defense, the conference’s top QB, a 1,000-yard rusher and the best pair of wide receivers in the conference.
But what it does not have is depth. USC has absolutely no depth and has only 15 guys coming in from this recruiting cycle. If anything happens to a starter, can USC fans say they won’t see a drop-off at the position? Maybe in certain spots, but not in many.
Oregon has depth everywhere. When Darron went down against ASU, Oregon lost nothing in turning to Bryan Bennett. And they wouldn't lose much if they were forced to turn to Marcus Mariota or Jake Rodrigues.
If Matt Barkley went down, do you really think Max Wittek or Cody Kessler is going to get you to a BCS Bowl?
My biggest issue is that I think people are seriously overselling USC’s performance this season. Let’s not forget that this USC team still lost to an ASU team that went 6-7 and finished the season with five straight losses.
In addition, they barely beat a Minnesota team that won only three games on the season and lost to an FCS school—not quite the resume of a juggernaut.
I cannot discredit USC’s victory over Oregon at Autzen Stadium. That is something that does not happen very often. But when you analyze that game a little more, take notice of the fact that USC had a lot of things go right for them leading up to that game.
Oregon had just beat Washington and Stanford on the road and essentially locked up the Rose Bowl. Oregon had already accomplished its goal. It went into that game with less intensity and focus than it had in the previous two games.
And key players Dion Jordan and Dewitt Stuckey were out with injuries. If there was ever a good time to play Oregon, USC found it.
Lastly, I think people are seriously underestimating what a big loss Matt Kalil is going to be come next season. Kalil, who is opting for the NFL, may end up being the best offensive lineman to come out of the draft in the last five years.
It makes a QB’s job pretty easy when he’s being protected by an absolute monster. His presence will be missed tremendously, and I don’t think the guy who will be stepping in for him can be nearly as great a protector as Kalil has been.
USC does have a great team coming back next season and very well may end up being the top team in the conference, but even with No. 21 leaving for the NFL, Oregon’s squad is going to be as good or better at every position in 2012. And until somebody unseats the Ducks, they are the team to beat in the Pac-12.