The majority of reporters who cast their votes in the Associated Press’ college football poll work east of the Mississippi. Unlike ACC, Big Ten, Big 12 and SEC teams, coverage of Pac-12 football is usually limited to just those teams that are in the national spotlight.
That, of course, would apply to Oregon, which has appeared in three consecutive BCS bowls, and USC which has been a Pac-12 football power for over a decade.
With last year’s two premiere college football quarterbacks, Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III, now both in the NFL, Matt Barkley, a four-year starter at USC, became the odds-on favorite to win the Heisman Trophy. A team with a four-year starter who also happens to be the Heisman Trophy front-runner will usually find itself in the preseason Top 10.
Throw in two potential All-American wide receivers like Marqise Lee and Robert Woods and a defense that returns most of its starters, and that should make USC the preseason No. 1.
But there is one drawback that Eastern reporters who do not follow Pac-12 football on a daily or even a weekly basis have overlooked—the effects of having 10 less scholarship players to bolster the depth chart.
That may not have seemed very important back in February when pundits began discussing USC as a potential BCS champion. But it looms large in mid-August with the college football season less than two weeks away is short 10 scholarships.
Two years ago, Lane Kiffin, USC’s head coach, had to ban tackling in practices to preserve the remaining scholarship players on the depth chart following transfers due to NCAA sanctions. That lack of tackling was the main reason for a mediocre 8-5 season.
Last year, with a full complement of recruits and scholarship players, Kiffin allowed tackling at practices and scheduled no less than three complete scrimmages during fall camp. The result was a 10-2 season and a Top Five AP ranking.
This season, the first year that the scholarship limit has gone into effect, Kiffin has cut back on tackling to a great extent and has only had two scrimmages at the Coliseum. Though Kiffin would love to have a third, he just doesn’t have enough troops to do that.
So, limited tackling and scrimmages should have given some reporters cause to rethink that No. 1 ranking. If they had also taken the time to read some of the injury reports, they would have found that the defense was starting to weaken and would need to depend on inexperienced players at least to start the 2012 campaign.
Devon Kennard (a starting linebacker in 2010 and starting defensive end in 2011) is possibly out for the season with a torn pectoral muscle. Freshman defensive end DeVante Wilson will miss the entire year with a torn ACL.
Other defensive injuries include: Wes Horton (starting defensive end); J.R. Tavai and Greg Townsend Jr. (both defensive ends) projected starters after Nick Perry opted for the NFL; Cody Temple (reserve nose tackle); Lamar Dawson (starting middle linebacker); Dion Baily (starting strong-side linebacker); Torin Harris (starting cornerback); and Brian Baucham (reserve cornerback).
With both starting defensive ends, two starting linebackers and a starting cornerback unable to practice, I would seriously doubt ranking USC No. 1. Pac-12 offenses are just too explosive. The Trojans offense must put up a lot of points if USC expects to run the table.
And that Trojan offense has suffered its share of injuries as well. Aundry Walker (starting left tackle) has just returned to the lineup. Robert Woods, recovering from ankle surgery and George Farmer, the No. 3 receiver (hamstring injury), both missed all of spring practice and the first week of fall camp.
To prevent more losses from injury in scrimmages, Kiffin has had to keep some of the starters on the offensive line on the sidelines for a half while walk-ons took their place in scrimmages. One can imagine what this does to the offense’s rhythm or lack thereof.
Does this mean that USC cannot run the table? Certainly not. But a sports poll should reflect objective reality as much as possible. And that reality to me, in any case, says USC should not be at the top of the AP poll.