The new Pac-12 conference arrives this summer amidst lots of fanfare and ceremony. New teams arrive and many changes are to occur that will make this conference unlike its 10-team ancestor.
A few things will be the same as ever, though. The University of Southern California and the University of Oregon will return as the top dogs, the league's late kickoffs will lead to underexposure and UCLA will remain the doormat.
We could talk at length about all of those topics, but focusing in on the USC-Oregon battle for supremacy is the most significant and compelling.
Oregon is coming off a run to the BCS Championship game where the Ducks lost their undefeated season to Auburn. They return with a strong contingent of starters, including their most important skill players.
USC is embroiled in an appeal of their NCAA sanctions that were harshly handed down last summer. They have an elite group of recruits and tons of talent left on the roster, which has been trimmed by the scholarship restrictions. USC is being squeezed by its lack of depth and desperately needs its penalty to be reduced in order to have a chance at regaining supremacy in 2011.
So which perennial Pac-12 power is better in the conference's inaugural season? Here's how they stack up at each position heading into summer workouts.
This is a major weakness for the Ducks in lieu of the graduated stud, Kenny Rowe. Senior Terrell Turner, with 29 career games and 5.5 sacks, represents the most experience of any returning Duck. He will likely be the starter opposite junior Dion Jordan, who played 13 games in 2010 after switching from tight end.
Defensive end is not a position of strength for Oregon and was not aided by incoming recruits at the position.
This is a position of strength for USC, partly because of future pros Nick Perry and Wes Horton, and partly because of incoming prospect Greg Townsend Jr. Though shallow, the defensive end pool for the Trojans is stocked with impact players. Horton and Perry are playing for their paychecks after 2011, so they'll be motivated to dominate.
Redshirt sophomore Wade Keliikipi will lead this young unit in 2011 after appearing in all 13 games last season. There is a logjam to play opposite Keliikipi, with redshirt sophomores Ryan Hagen and Taylor Hart and true sophomore Ricky Heimuli all competing for snaps.
Overall, this unit will not have a huge impact in the wake of losing both Brandon Bair and Zac Clark to graduation.
The Trojans have a ton of depth on the interior with the return of fifth-year senior Christian Tupou from injury. Prized freshmen recruits Antwaun Woods and Christian Heyward will swell the ranks behind seniors Armond Armstead and DaJohn Harris, and redshirt freshman George Uko.
The Trojans won't miss a beat if ineffectiveness or injury sets in. Look for the Trojans to come hard and often up the middle against opposing centers and guards.
Junior Michael Clay will likely step into the starting weak side spot, where he backed up last season, while senior Josh Kaddu returns on the other side. The favorite to grab the middle, redshirt junior Kiko Alonso, has big holes to fill with the graduation of Casey Matthews. Dewitt Stuckey and Jennings Stewart will compete for that spot with Alonso. Anthony Wallace and Tyson Coleman, on the inside and outside respectively, provide high-quality depth and could possibly earn snaps if they don't redshirt as freshmen.
Decent experience and impact players Kaddu and Clay will make this unit formidable. With the inexperienced front line, Kaddu will have to lead these Ducks in flying all over the field to make plays. The future of this group looks bright, and they might not be at their best until the season after next.
Experience reigns for the Trojans at linebacker, with returning impact players Chris Galippo and Devon Kennard at weak side and middle, respectively. The senior and junior will be joined by one of senior Shane Horton or redshirt freshman Hayes Pullard. Freshman Tre Madden and redshirt sophomore Marquis Simmons lurk in case they are needed.
No major recruits to a unit that underwhelmed last year. The talent is there, but the technique and fundamentals were absent, which led to a lot of big plays and more pressure on the secondary. The Trojans will have to be better, and they should be with Galippo getting another season under his belt and Kennard continuing to learn the system.
The Ducks return consensus first team All-America corner Cliff Harris (pictured), a junior and senior Anthony Gildon as starters. These two comprise one of the best cornerback tandems in the country and will routinely lock down the best opposing receivers. Prized recruit Ifo Ekpre-Olomu from Chino, CA, bolsters an already deep group.
The depth shouldn't matter until after Harris and Gildon leave, because the starting corners are locked down for as long as they stay at Oregon.
Senior Eddie Pleasant played in all 13 games last season and capably fills the strong safety role, while junior John Boyett looks to improve on his fantastic second team All-America 2010.
The Trojans experienced a lot of turbulence at corner last year, which should only lessen slightly this year. Sophomore Nickell Robey surprised the coaching staff by earning the majority of playing time as a freshman last year and will solidify his starting role this year.
Who starts opposite him is the big problem. Shareece Wright, who wasn't that great anyway, graduates, leaving senior T.J. Bryant, junior transfer Isiah Wiley and redshirt freshman Anthony Brown vying for the other starting gig.
The safety positions are a little more experienced and stable. The strong safety spot is not certain, though whomever wins the job out of seniors Drew McAllister and Marshall Jones and junior Jawanza Starling will at least be adequate. My guess is that Jones wins the job. Junior T.J. McDonald is a star at free safety and represents the brightest star in the USC secondary. He will certainly be playing on Sundays soon, and needs to raise the level of the rest of the Trojan defensive backfield.
Senior left guard Mark Asper leads a unit that opened all kinds of holes for Darron Thomas and LaMichael James last season. Junior Nick Cody will likely start at left tackle, where he started nine games last season. Junior Carson York will be one of the best right tackles in the country in 2011 and enters his third year starting there. Darrion Weems, a senior, has been the Ducks' top reserve lineman for two seasons and is in line for the right tackle job. Junior transfer Ryan Clanton is the early leader to anchor a stout offensive line at center.
With two returning starters and three experienced new ones, Oregon's offensive line will be as dominant as it was last season.
After left tackle Matt Kalil, the Trojan offensive line picture is a mess. John Martinez and Khaled Holmes are competing for the center position, with Holmes likely to take it after returning from injury. Martinez is also in the running at left guard with Giovanni Di Poalo and transfer Jeremy Galten. Martinez could win that one with the little experience that he has. Right tackle is a two-horse race between redshirt sophomore Kevin Graf and senior Martin Coleman, with no clear indication as of yet.
Di Poalo, Galten or Holmes will win the left over right guard job. That is, if the No. 1 guard prospect, Cyrus Hobbi, doesn't walk onto Howard Jones field when he arrives in LA and win the job immediately. Hobbi is the real deal and should compete right away with the more experienced linemen to win the guard spot.
Obviously the Trojans had bigger problems last season, but the offensive line was below par. It needs to improve quickly to enhance the vaunted Trojan rushing attack, and all the current flux does not aid in that process.
Senior David Paulson returns for the Ducks after 24 catches and four touchdowns last year. He will be backed up by redshirt sophomore Curtis White and senior Brandon Williams.
Overall, this is a non-impact spot for the Ducks, who focus elsewhere in the spread attack.
A USC staple is the go-to tight end who runs the drag across the middle on the quarterback rollout. The last two years, the Trojans had a void at receiving tight end. Not inconsequentially, the passing game has struggled more than ever.
That's all about to change with the bumper crop of tight ends. The four-star Junior Pomee enters USC behind returning starter senior Rhett Ellison (pictured), redshirt freshmen Xavier Grimble and Randall Telfer and sophomore Christian Thomas. The latter three all came in as highly-touted recruits last year and none played. This spring, Thomas is outrunning receivers and Grimble is catching everything in sight. None of the above will unseat Ellison as the starter, but the opportunity for significant snaps and catches is available.
With a logjam of several talented tight ends, look for Trojan quarterbacks of the future to re-establish the position in the passing game as a dependable last resort.
With the losses of Jeff Maehl and D.J. Davis, the Ducks are left without a proven receiver for Darron Thomas to use. Josh Huff was used a lot in his freshman season and should start opposite senior Lavasier Tuinei, the returner with the most receptions.
Sophomores Keanon Lowe and Blake Cantu and junior Justin Hoffman are talented backups. All should see the field in the five-wide sets that Chip Kelly will frequently use.
This is a young but promising crew that will need a little time to develop. Whether that happens over the summer or into the season will determine how effective the Oregon pass attack is.
I've been waiting to write about this position for the entire article. Where do we start with this unit? Sophomore Robert Woods (pictured), a returning starter, is probably a good one to start with. He was considered the less talented part of the Serra High package that would net the Trojans No. 1 2011 receiver George Farmer. Woods turned out to be Matt Barkley's favorite receiver in his freshman year and looked like one of the best in the country all year long.
Farmer, a top-five overall prospect in his class, will start immediately in the slot next to Woods. The amount of havoc these two can wreak on defenses is frightening. Pac-12 defensive coordinators are already having migraines trying to figure out how to slow them down.
It gets worse. Kyle Prater, last year's No. 1 receiver, is recovering from a foot injury that caused him to redshirt last year. The 6'5" dynamo is another Mike Williams or Dwayne Jarrett in the making.
Throw in redshirt freshman Markeith Ambles, sophomore De'Von Flournoy and senior Brandon Carswell, and the Trojans have the best set of receivers in the country, bar none.
This conversation starts with Heisman front-runner, junior LaMichael James (pictured). The 5'9" dynamo accumulated 24 touchdowns last season on nearly 2000 yards of offense. Many thought he'd jump to the NFL, where he would be a top 10 pick today. Instead, he's back for a third year to torch Pac-12 defenses. Oregon isn't a one-headed horse, however.
Fellow junior Kenjon Barner was a valuable member of the offense and could take on more of a role this season. Barner is every bit a starting running back, but is unfortunately trapped behind James, who is electric.
Oh yeah, remember on Signing Day when De'Anthony Thomas, the top prospect for both USC and Oregon chose the Ducks? That makes a huge difference down the road for Oregon. He will be a top NFL pick in four years.
Marc Tyler, the redshirt senior, returns as the starter for Lane Kiffin, but for how long? Redshirt freshman D.J. Morgan getting rapidly bigger in Tyler's rear view, and Dillon Baxter, the top RB from 2010, still lies in wait, though dormant. Freshmen Javorius Allen and Amir Carlisle are highly touted, though likely to redshirt because of the depth. Curtis McNeal, a junior, could compete for carries as well if Baxter continues to slide and if Morgan or Tyler gets injured.
Overall, this is an extremely talented backfield with no clear-cut starter. The depth is better than that of Oregon, but the Ducks are much more dangerous at the top.
Junior Darron Thomas is a Dennis Dixon clone, which is high praise in the lineage of Oregon quarterbacks. His physical gifts are as spectacular as his 35 touchdowns and 151 QB rating. He and James aren't the gas for the Oregon car. They are the car.
Thomas' NFL future as a signal caller is questionable, but we're not worried about that here. He has national championship experience and one a year of starting for Chip Kelly under his belt. Could Thomas and James lead the Heisman voting as teammates?
Look for huge things out of the Oregon backfield this year.
Junior Matt Barkley will be a contender for the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft whenever he decides to come out. His arm strength, size and dropback style have scouts drooling over the 20-year-old. He was the only true freshman to ever start for USC, and the two years of starting experience will pay off big time this year.
Barkley showed a ton of improvement in decision making last year, improving his accuracy to 62 percent and limiting interceptions to 12 while throwing 26 TD. His command of Lane Kiffin's offense is expanding, as is his confidence.
When I asked him in passing last week about having a WR stable full of purebreds to play with, his smile went ear to ear as he said he couldn't wait, especially for Kyle Prater. Look for that million dollar smile to appear repeatedly this year after a touchdown pass.
USC prevails in position battles, five to four over Oregon.
Oregon will undoubtedly be ranked in the top two when the polls release in the summer, and deservedly so. They return a great portion of their important players, including Darron Thomas and LaMichael James. They are as strong as anyone in the country at this point in early April and will get stronger when the freshmen arrive in the summer.
USC is a mystery. Are they good enough to be in the top 10? Top 20? Will they win their appeal and be eligible for the 2011 postseason? So many unanswered questions surround the team, which is certain to be better on the field.
It's clear that the Ducks, who have owned the Trojans for two years running, are supreme in the Pac-12, but by what margin? A positional breakdown clearly shows that the Trojans should be able to compete with Oregon for the Pac-12.
Does this mean that USC will beat Oregon? Not necessarily; the Ducks get Lane Kiffin's Trojans at home this year, November 19 at Autzen Stadium. Oregon has a raucous crowd and the keys to expose USC's weaknesses.
However, no one should be surprised when the Trojans in Eugene in November brimming with confidence from a surprisingly successful season to-date and grapple with the Ducks for the Pac-12 regular season lead.
Watch out, Oregon. That horse with a Trojan on it in your rear view mirror is a lot closer than it appears.