Breaking down team schedules is always fun. It's even more fun when it involves the USC Trojans and a spanking new Pac-12 Conference.
The Trojans enter their second year under Lane Kiffin with a strong class of recruits and plenty of incumbent talent. The impending sanctions, impacting as they may be, are the only traces of a two-year fall from grace and rebuilding phase.
Now, the Trojans are ready to roll again.
The Pac-12 schedule incorporates conference newcomers, the Utah Utes and Colorado Buffaloes, to the annual rotation. USC will play both every year as part of the aligned South division.
The new conference proves tough as you read week by week through the schedule. The Trojans will have to bring their A game every week if they have hopes of reaching the Pac-12 Championship on December 3 (if the sanction appeal wins).
Here is a game-by-game breakdown of USC's inaugural Pac-12 season.
Last September, the Trojans took the first of this home-and-home series in Minneapolis, 32-21.
It was not pretty for USC, which did not take the lead until the third quarter against a Gopher squad that finished 3-9 on the season.
The Trojans should have a little easier time with Minnesota this year in the Coliseum to kick off the season. Before hitting a low point in a loss to Notre Dame last season, the Trojans had not lost a non-conference home game since Pete Carroll arrived.
The Trojans should jump all over a Minnesota defense that allowed 33.0 points per game last season. Matt Barkley and Lane Kiffin will be itching to show off their new toys at receiver, George Farmer and Kyle Prater.
This game, if all goes as it should, will get ugly for the Gophers real quickly.
The Pac-12 doesn't waste any time getting its in-conference games started. Utah and USC will play the conference's first game when they square off at the Coliseum in Week 2.
Utah returns a lot of talent from its 10-3 team, including quarterback Jordan Wynn and receiver DeVonte Christopher.
It also boasts a top 25 defense from a year ago, which will be necessary in stopping what should be a vaunted USC offensive attack.
Even if the Utes get behind in L.A., they'll never be out of the game because of their ability to pass. Utah ranked No. 37 in passing yards per game last season, which was above USC. Jordan Wynn's decision making dictates that Utah also won't make it easy on the Trojans by turning the ball over.
With USC's biggest weakness being pass defense, this could be a close shootout. What a way to kick off the new conference that would be.
This game concludes the Trojan run of home games to start 2011. If the recent past is any indicator, this could be a major confidence booster as the Trojans enter the throes of the Pac-12 on the road.
Syracuse was a frisky team last year, finishing at 8-5 and 4-3 in Big East play. However, a breakdown of the schedule reveals non-con dates with Akron, Maine, Colgate, Washington and Boston College. Not exactly a Murderer's Row of opponents.
Not surprisingly, the two BCS conference teams present, Washington and Boston College, roundly beat the Orange.
Syracuse's strong defense, which boasted the No. 17 ranked point average, is the only thing that will keep them afloat in a hostile environment 3000 miles away from home. If they can't muscle up some big plays and cause a couple turnovers, USC will overwhelm them with talent from every spot on the field.
This road date usually played tough for USC in the Pac-10.
In 2009, the Trojans, who were ranked No. 12, edged the Sun Devils 14-9.
In 2005, it took a rally from 18 down at half for USC to win, 38-28.
The Sun Devils were a pedestrian 6-6 last year with a 4-5 conference record, but those numbers might belie their competitiveness. Three of their losses came to Wisconsin by a point, Oregon after leading most of the game and Stanford by a narrow four points. Another loss came by one at USC on a last-second field goal.
Their conference wins were impressive: Washington on the road, blowouts of Washington State and UCLA and a double-overtime triumph at rival Arizona to close the season.
The Trojans will be wise to give this opponent its rightful respect, because quarterback Steven Threet and monster linebacker Vontaze Burfict could easily spoil the road trip to Tempe.
The Trojans are sure glad to have the Cats visiting them in the Coliseum, because this will be a strong challenge.
Arizona returns its main missiles from 2010's ninth-ranked passing attack, QB Nick Foles and WR Juron Criner. These two accounted for 11 touchdown connections and Criner's 1233 yards. Foles threw for 20 TD and a shade under 3200 yards despite missing almost 25 percent of the Arizona season with an injury.
Arizona's defense is not nearly as bad as advertised. They ranked better than USC in every major yardage and scoring category, even rush defense, which is typically the Trojans' biggest strength.
Mike Stoops' squad faltered down the stretch with four straight losses to Stanford, USC, Oregon and Arizona State before falling to Oklahoma State in Alamo Bowl. Prior to that, his team was 7-1 and running at the top of the Pac-10 standings.
This kind of excellence is something that Arizona is capable of, and it should continue in 2011.
The Trojans are just glad they get this one at home.
One of the noticeable cons of the new Pac-12 schedule for USC fans is the fate of annual Weekender. Early every October, USC students and alumni invade Union Square in San Francisco for a Friday night pep rally before the road game at Cal or Stanford and a weekend of fun in the bay.
The composition of the new schedule makes it very difficult to accomplish the traditional Saturday road game in the bay. This year, what would be the Weekender game falls on a Thursday night, rendering the famed rally obsolete.
The Trojans obliterated the Bears at Memorial Coliseum in 2009, and there's no indication that 2011's game at AT&T Park will be any different.
This game will be played on ESPN in West Coast prime time where USC typically shines. Cal's stout pass defense will be heavily leaned on by Jeff Tedford to keep this game close. Otherwise, in a neutral site game that will draw a big USC crowd, the Bears could be quickly overpowered.
Last season, the Irish got to celebrate on the Coliseum field for the first time in several trips to L.A. An improved Notre Dame team weathered the storm (literally), composed itself and won a close game on the road against a rival. The win spoke volumes about the strides that Brian Kelly had made with his team in his first year in South Bend.
This time, the Trojans visit Notre Dame Stadium, which they escaped in 2009 with a barn-burner victory. Both teams are better now than they were then, but how much better is anyone's guess.
One thing is for sure: Notre Dame is regaining its place on the college football map. Top 10 recruiting year in and year out is starting to reap fruit on the field with studs like Michael Floyd and Dayne Crist. Incoming freshmen DE Ishaq Williams and Stephon Tuitt should continue to shore up a defense that had been in shambles the last few years.
The Irish beat the Trojans last year and gave Michigan State and Pittsburgh all they could handle before dismantling Miami in the Sun Bowl.
That bowl game might be a harbinger for Notre Dame's fate in 2011. The outlook is good, and the trip to South Bend for the Trojans will not be an easy one.
Last year's Weekender resulted in heartbreak for USC, losing on a last-second field goal to the eventual Orange Bowl winner. I watched from a restaurant in San Francisco with dozens of dejected Trojan fans and students as Stanford stormed the field in an "upset" despite being favored and ranked higher in the game.
The Cardinal returns a lot of its core players for next year's visit to the Coliseum, most notably Andrew Luck. One that will not return, however, is coach Jim Harbaugh, who now coaches another team in the bay, the San Francisco 49ers of the NFL.
Losing Harbaugh will have a bigger impact on the team than most realize. It wasn't Luck who turned the program around; it was Harbaugh. David Shaw is probably a capable replacement, but he will always be overshadowed by Harbaugh's success, and probably won't reach the standard that his predecessor set.
The Trojans have lost three out of four to Stanford, two in utter heartbreak. Stanford has come away with a victory in each of its last two trips to the Coliseum and will not be afraid to take that field on my birthday weekend.
After the last two losses to Stanford, the Trojans will be hungry for revenge.
Not a ton to say about this matchup or the Pac-12's new member. The Trojans should waltz into Boulder for the first time as conference foes and beat the Buffs handily.
This will be a rough few years for Colorado as they move from being the doormat at the Big 12's house to being the doormat in front of the Pac-12's house. Before the benefits of being in the Pac-12 kick in to recruiting, Colorado will be routinely beaten by the incredible parity in their new league.
The Trojans get a nice break with this game in between tough dates with Stanford, Washington and Oregon.
Former USC assistant Steve Sarkisian joined his team in celebrating a last-second field goal that gave Washington the win over USC last October 2. It was the second time since leaving USC for the head coaching job in Seattle that Sarkisian beat his old school. He clearly knows how to beat his old team.
In a weird scheduling quirk, Washington will play at USC again in late 2011. Sark and his Huskies are certainly not lacking confidence against the Trojans with their recent head-to-head success.
They will bring their experience from last year's game with them and will try to establish the pace of the game with stud rusher Chris Polk. He took a backseat to graduated QB Jake Locker in the rushing game, but still managed 92 yards and a TD to go along with 50 receiving yards.
That rushing game and the strong pass defense will be key in this late season conference game that could have big implications in the standings. Both teams will be gunning for each other in this game, and the Trojans are hoping they can finally get out from the oppression of Steve Sarkisian.
Last October's meeting between the Ducks and Trojans ended the same way as most Oregon games do: with them ahead by about 20 points.
The way the game got to that point was somewhat rare, though.
Before the onslaught started in the middle of the third quarter, USC held court with a 32-29 lead and a serious shot at knocking off No. 1. Then, Oregon's patented no-huddle barrage began, and before anyone could react, the Ducks were up 53-32. Watching the Ducks hang 24 straight on the Trojans from the raucous USC student section was a sight to behold.
The Trojans stand little chance of beating the Ducks this year, who will be every bit as good as the 12-1 squad from a year ago. The Ducks return QB Darron Thomas, RB LaMichael James and many other key players.
The noise level and fury of the Ducks on their home turf at Autzen Stadium will be too much for the Trojans to overcome.
This is the one game so far that I'm almost positive the Trojans will lose. The rest seem uncertain, which is a good sign for Kiffin's team.
The Trojans cap off a long and arduous season with the Battle for the Victory Bell at home against rival UCLA.
UCLA entered the Rose Bowl in December and roundly beat the Bruins. It wasn't flashy, but every pair of eyes in that stadium saw how USC controlled the game from start to finish.
UCLA has beaten USC just once since 1998, a shocking 13-9 win in 2006 that ended the USC national championship run just one game before it was set in stone.
The Trojans have obviously recovered from that shock, having beaten UCLA four consecutive times by a combined 106-45.
With the Bruin program in shambles over in Westwood, look for USC's dominance over its rival to continue to cap off the 2011 campaign.
Could the Trojans play in the Pac-12 Championship as early as this year?
It will be a long shot, given their season performance and the impending sanctions appeal, but it is possible.
If USC wins their appeal, which will be ruled on this summer, and wins the games they should while beating everyone in the South division, they'll be in.
All that means is that USC has to beat the Arizonas, Utah, Colorado and UCLA, plus win the appeal.
Hey, its possible. How great would it be to see the Trojans shock everyone with a top 10 season, then go into Autzen Stadium on December 3 as the South Champion to avenge a loss to Oregon from two weeks earlier?
Some are holding out for a winning season. I'm holding out for a rematch with Oregon in the inaugural Pac-12 Championship Game.
Here's to wishing...