At Least Two Trojans will be pivotal in this year's Cal-USC showdown
After a 7-6 season and another middle of the pack finish for the Bears, Cal hopes to ride high off the reopening of Memorial Stadium and make a push towards a Pac-12 title. If the Bears plan on finishing better than their mediocre 4-5 in conference record, the defense will again have to be stellar.
With the return of Matt Barkley at USC and the rise of Keith Price in Washington, Cal has its work cut out for it. If a rather porous secondary starts out slow, the Bears could be looking up in the standings early in the season.
In order to make some noise on the West Coast, Cal will need to lock up these five players if it plans on reaching its first Rose Bowl in over 50 years.
One of the Heisman favorites is poised to lead the Trojans back to contention
It starts with the man behind center at USC. With Cal's Pac-12 opener on the road at the Coliseum, Barkley will be looking to wear down the Bears with a consistent aerial attack and a ferocious running game. Coming off a huge win in Eugene, in what Trojans fans dubbed their bowl game, Barkley and co. will be looking to take the Trojans back to Pasadena.
Barkley's numbers last year were impressive, and he is sure to improve with another year under his belt. After converting roughly 69 percent of his passes while tossing 39 touchdowns to only seven interceptions, Barkley's arm can put secondaries in a hole quickly.
In a 30-9 win against the Bears in San Francisco last season, Barkley converted 54.3 percent of his passes, threw two TDs, while posting an impressive passer rating of 119.9. At the time, Cal was among the conference leaders in most defensive categories. With Andrew Luck in Indianapolis, the early Heisman favorite will be looking to run Cal off the field a la their 2010 drubbing and take SC back to the Rose Bowl for the first time since 2009.
Matt Barkley's favorite target should compete for this year's Biletnikoff Award
Also from USC, the Trojans all-world receiver will cause fits for the Bears defensive backs next season. Barkley's No. 1 target was good all over the field last year, pacing the Trojans with 111 receptions for 1,292 yards and 15 touchdowns.
Expect Woods to contend for next season's Biletnikoff Award for the nation's best receiver. According to rivals.com, USC boasts the eighth-best recruiting class and tops in the Pac-12 South. Adding to their impressive recruiting class will be 5-star wide receiver will be Nelson Agholor, regarded to be the third-best wide receiver recruit in the nation.
Couple Woods with receiver Marqise Lee, and the Trojans suddenly have a three-headed monster at receiver. Double-coverage on Woods could lead to a career year for Lee and a solid freshman stint for Agholor. Regardless, Woods will lead the receiving corps, posing serious defensive mismatches for most opposing secondaries.
Barner looks to run wild for Oregon this year
After posting the third-most impressive offense last season and potent rushing game at 299.2 yards per game, Oregon looks to defend its Rose Bowl title and dominance in the Pac-12.
While LaMichael James is now in the NFL, Chip Kelly has shown the nation that his high octane system produces video-game like scores, and more importantly, consistent victories.
The Ducks now look to Kenjon Barner to replace James's production and keep Oregon's running game as lethal as ever. Despite getting nearly 100 less carries than James last season, Barner still compiled an impressive stat line of 939 rushing yards and 11 rushing touchdowns. With questions about the ceiling for Cal's linebacker corps, Barner could run free against the Bears in Berkeley.
Last year, the Ducks went off against the Bears on their way to a 43-13 victory at Autzen Stadium. Oregon ran for 365 yards, including 239 and a touchdown for James. Barner also got in on the fun, running 10 times for an impressive 88 yards and a score.
The Bears will surely be hungry for redemption, after the then No. 1 Ducks escaped Memorial Stadium with a 15-13 win in 2010, en route to their trip to the National Championship. Dismantling the Ducks' potent running game will start with taking Barner out of the equation. While a win against Oregon still seems like a Giorgio Tevecchio long field goal away from happening, stopping Barner could be the remedy Cal needs to end Oregon's Pac-12 dominance.
Washington's speedy quarterback hopes to take the Dawgs to the Rose Bowl
The speedy junior quarterback Keith Price will be seeking some redemption in the Pac-12 after the Huskies lost a shootout to Baylor in last year's Valero Bowl. With Andrew Luck out the picture at Stanford, Washington hopes that this will be the year that it contends with Oregon for the Pac-12 north crown.
If the Huskies hope to achieve this goal, they will need an even more spectacular year for Price. After Jake Locker left Washington for the pros, Price added some surprising consistency for the upstart Huskies.
Last season Price passed for over 3,000 yards while tossing 33 touchdowns. If the Huskies are looking for a date in Pasadena, Price will need to make the right reads and improve from the 11 interceptions he threw last year. The offensive line will also need to step up, having allowed Price to be sacked an incredible 26 times last season.
In a contentious game in Seattle last season, in which the Dawgs beat the Bears 31-23, Price completed over 70 percent of his passes for 292 yards and three touchdowns. Price feasted on the Bears shaky secondary and seemingly lethargic defensive line. If Cal hopes to down the Huskies in Berkeley this season, they will have to attack Price with some new defensive schemes.
Braxton Miller will be crucial in bringing the Buckeyes back to their winning ways in 2012
With an early out of conference game in Columbus, a win at The Shoe would do wonders for a young Bears team. After a disappointing 6-7 season and a 24-17 loss to Florida in the Gator Bowl, the Buckeye faithful are looking for a return to their winning ways.
While the Buckeyes were often indecisive with their offensive schemes last season, a productive offseason and confidence from his coaching staff should help in Miller's ascension. The Buckeyes expect quarterback Braxton Miller to produce early and consistently. The experts also feel the same way as Brian Bennet over at ESPN's Big Ten Blog expects Miller to be in the 3,000 yard club next season for Big Ten quarterbacks.
According to rivals.com, Ohio State boasts the fourth-best recruiting class, including 4-star running back Bri'onte Dunn and three 4-star offensive linemen.
Lately, Ohio State has fallen behind in the Leaders Division to powerhouses like Wisconsin and Penn State. Embroiled in previous scandals and the aftermath of Terrelle Pryor and Jim Tressel, there will be a tremendous amount of pressure on Miller to succeed.
If Miller starts producing early, Ohio State could find itself 4-0 entering conference play at Michigan State. Conversely, a win on the road could be the confidence booster that Cal needs for its date at the Coliseum with USC the following week. How coach Jeff Tedford decides to handle Miller and the Buckeyes could be a pivotal moment in the Bears season.