November 24, 2011

Week 13 preview in the Pac-12

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Don't mind that noise coming from the West Coast. It's just USC players regaining their swagger.

"SC is back," sophomore cornerback Nickell Robey crowed after the Trojans posted a 38-35 upset last week over Oregon - in Eugene, no less.

THE SCHEDULE
FRIDAY
Colorado at Utah, 3:30 p.m.
California at Arizona State, 10:15 p.m.
SATURDAY
Oregon State at Oregon, 3:30 p.m.
Louisiana-Lafayette at Arizona, 4 p.m.
Washington State at Washington, 7:30 p.m.
Notre Dame at Stanford, 8 p.m.
UCLA at USC, 10 p.m.
And he had company.

"This game was mainly to show USC is back," safety Jawanza Starling added.

Actually, USC never really left. The Trojans are just concealed under the clouds of NCAA sanctions and postseason ineligibility. But they do appear on the way to returning to college football's A-list.

The BCS standings won't show it. The Pac-12 championship game won't either. Still, it's quite clear USC has re-emerged as the best team in the Pac-12.

The victory at Oregon - the probable Pac-12 champion - would seem to prove that point.

So would that the Trojans have won six of their past seven - usually in dominating fashion. Their only loss in that stretch was a controversial triple-overtime setback to Stanford, the conference's highest-ranked team.

Indeed, in this upset-infested season, USC has resurfaced as one of the best team in the nation.

And if quarterback Matt Barkley and offensive tackle Matt Kalil, among others, decide to stay in school and bypass the NFL draft, USC could be a national championship contender in 2012.

But that's putting the cart before the Trojan horse.

"We just worry about what we can control and try to keep moving away from the clouds and give our fans and players something to be excited about," second-year Trojans coach Lane Kiffin said. "Fortunately, we've been able to do some of that and we have an opportunity on Saturday to do some more of that."

The latest opportunity comes in the Coliseum, when the Trojans close their season with a chance to notch their 10th victory, continue to climb in The Associated Press poll and perhaps knock crosstown rival UCLA out of the Pac-12 championship picture.

With USC ineligible for postseason play because of NCAA sanctions stemming from the Reggie Bush scandal, the Pac-12 South Division has become a mess.

Should USC defeat the Bruins for the fifth consecutive, the eligible division leaders - UCLA, Arizona State and Utah - could finish in a three-way tie with 5-4 league records.

In that case, Arizona State would represent the South (most likely against Oregon) in the first Pac-12 championship game. UCLA gets in the championship game by beating USC or with an Arizona State victory over Cal combined with a Utah loss to Colorado. Utah reaches the championship game if the Utes beat Colorado combined with losses by UCLA and Arizona State.

If USC beats UCLA, the Trojans would close their season with a two-game lead over every other team in the division, and it would give their fans reason to be excited.

The Trojans have 10 offensive starters and nine defensive starters who could return next season. That includes wide receivers Robert Woods and Marqise Lee and running back Curtis McNeal, who was a backup for much of the season but has a good chance to reach 1,000 rushing yards.

That list includes Barkley and Kalil, juniors who project to be first-round picks if they opt to go pro.

"We either both leave or both stay," Kalil told Los Angeles-area reporters recently. "I think that's the way it will play out."

If they stay, USC will have a proven, experienced starting lineup, a potential Heisman favorite in Barkley and the nation's top offensive lineman protecting him.

"I know where I'm at draft-wise, but I also know the other side of it - Matt and I coming back and doing something really special for this university," Kalil said. "That's really crossed my mind as something I would want to do."

The USC faithful certainly hope they do return.

But until that's determined, USC fans can at least be satisfied with knowing the Trojans are back among the country's top teams.

Best matchup: Stanford run offense vs. Notre Dame run defense. The Cardinal has a solid offensive line and a group of productive tailbacks led by Stepfan Taylor, who has rushed for at least 95 yards in five of the past six games. The Cardinal average 209 rushing yards per game. Meanwhile, Notre Dame's defense, led by LB Manti Te'o, is solid against the run. The Irish have held eight opponents to 145 or fewer rushing yards. The Irish have allowed just eight rushing TDs.

Players on the spot: Arizona State's defense. The Sun Devils have allowed more than 400 yards in each of the past five and no fewer than 29 points in each of the past three games. As a result, Arizona State, which once seemed in control of the Pac-12 South Division race, needs a victory over Cal to stay alive. The Sun Devils have given up 896 passing yards in the past two games. That's an ominous figure considering Cal's receiving duo of Keenan Allen and Marvin Jones is among the best in the conference.

Keep an eye on: Utah RB John White. The Utes are 7-0 when White rushes for 100 yards. He has hit triple digits in five of the past six games and has scored two touchdowns in each of the past three. His 14 rushing touchdowns equals the single-season school record. White faces a Colorado defense that is ranked 97th in the nation against the run and has allowed four 100-yard rushers this season.

Numbers game: Oregon junior RB LaMichael James already has set school records with 4,562 career rushing yards, 1,731 single-season rushing yards and 288 single-game rushing yards. He's also the leader in all-purpose yards with 5,310. Next, he needs one more touchdown to set the Ducks' scoring record. James currently has 318 career points to trail Jared Siegel by five points.

Quotes of the week

"Why not us? Why can't we win it all?" - New Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez

"I'm living in the present right now. I'm living for this football game and so are my team and my staff. We can't worry about the hot seat or anything like that. I don't make that decision." - Arizona State coach Dennis Erickson, on his uncertain future

"I think about it all the time. But I have to worry about that when the times comes. Right now, I'm just really worrying about the game." - Oregon's James, on whether he'll enter the NFL draft

"All I've hard all year is the computers don't like Stanford. The computers haven't programmed themselves. To have a one-loss Pac-12 team behind a one-loss ACC team [Virginia Tech] means that the computer values the ACC more than it values the Pac-12. I don't believe that is accurate." - Stanford coach David Shaw, on the flaws of the BCS system

Poll watch: No. 6 Stanford and No. 10 Oregon are the only Pac-12 teams in the BCS standings. They could move up with victories, but don't figure to climb much. USC has surged to No. 10 in The Associated Press poll, but is ineligible for the coaches' poll, the Harris Poll and the BCS standings, though the Trojans' results are taken into account by the BCS computers.

Etc.: With a victory in the "Civil War," Oregon would clinch the North Division berth in the Pac-12 championship game and would be the host for the game. Arizona QB Nick Foles has passed for 3,982 yards. He needs 77 more to move into second place on the Pac-12's single-season list, but he is hurt and could miss Saturday's game. Stanford RB Stepfan Taylor has exceeded 1,000 rushing yards for the second consecutive season. He joins Darrin Nelson and Toby Gerhart as the only players in school history to have multiple 1,000-yard rushing seasons. USC sophomore WR Robert Woods has 99 receptions and needs four more to break Keyshawn Johnson's Pac-12 single-season record. RB Curtis McNeal needs 119 rushing yards to reach 1,000. Utah has posted at least seven victories in all seven of its seasons under coach Kyle Whittingham. Arizona State QB Brock Osweiler has set a single-season school record with 275 pass completions and has at least two - and maybe three - games left this season. He's also just the fifth quarterback in school history to throw for 3,000 yards in a season. Stanford QB Andrew Luck has thrown 76 career touchdown passes and needs one more to match John Elway's school record. UCLA is 14-0 for coach Rick Neuheisel when holding opponents to less than 20 points. … Washington's defense is allowing 34.5 points per game, which is the second-highest total in school history. The only time the Huskies were more generous was in 2008, when they allowed an average of 38.5 points. That team went 0-12. Arizona WR Juron Criner has tied the school record of 30 career touchdown receptions. Arizona State's Gerell Robinson is the Sun Devils' first 1,000-yard receiver since 2005. X-rays on the knee of Cal WR Michael Calvin showed no ACL tear and he could play Friday night. Colorado WR Toney Clemons has caught a touchdown pass in four consecutive games. He needs one more to tie the school record. Oregon QB Darron Thomas has thrown at least one touchdown pass in 23 consecutive game, which is the second-longest streak in the nation behind Wisconsin's Russell Wilson, who has thrown a touchdown pass in 35 games in a row. Washington RB Chris Polk has rushed for 100 yards in eight of 11 games and has set a school record with 19 career 100-yard performances. Washington State redshirt freshman QB Connor Halliday (lacerated kidney) will miss the Apple Cup. Colorado TB Rodney Stewart has 91 career receptions, which is the most by a Buffaloes running back. Stewart needs 41 receiving yards to reach 1,000 and complete his career with 3,000 rushing yards and 1,000 receiving yards. Seniors James Rodgers and Darrell Catchings are the only Oregon State players to experience a victory over Oregon. They were redshirt freshmen when the Beavers prevailed in 2007. Rodgers, meanwhile, has set a school record for career receptions and now needs two touchdown receptions to set the school record. He now has 19. UCLA sixth-year senior Sean Sheller is the only player on the Bruins roster who has experienced a win over USC. He's been out since the second game of the year with a broken arm. Stanford TE Zach Ertz (knee) has returned to practice, but his playing availability is uncertain. WR Chris Owusu (concussion) is out. Colorado freshman WR Austin Vincent has been suspended following an arrest for indecent exposure. Oregon State DE Scott Crichton has forced five fumbles. Stanford has scored at least 30 points in 14 consecutive games. UCLA junior RB Johnathan Franklin said he will consider entering the NFL draft.

Olin Buchanan is a senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.

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