Crystal Ball Run Preseason Top 10: No. 1 USC

It’s been a long Top 10 Week here at Crystal Ball Run, but finally we’ve made it to No. 1. And with that we’ve got a surprise for you…

Ok, who are we kidding, it’s USC.

Lane Kiffin’s club enters 2012 off as everybody’s No. 1, with a Heisman Trophy favorite, talented defense and more skill position talent than half the teams in the NFL. At the same time, the Trojans also have plenty of questions, with most surrounding their depth, as well as a pair of probable matchups with another Top 5 team, Oregon. Simply put, the road to the BCS National Championship Game won’t be paved with golden bricks for the Trojans. Instead, there will be plenty of potholes.

Can the Trojans avoid them all and end up Miami? Let’s take a look.

No. 1 – USC Trojans

USC in a Word: Ready

Look, I could sit here all day and spout facts at you. I could tell you that Matt Barkley threw for more touchdowns in a season than anyone in Pac-10/12 history last year. I could tell you how Robert Woods and Marquise Lee each went over 1,000 yards receiving, how Curtis McNeal went for over 1,000 yards rushing, or how three freshmen linebackers made somebody’s All-American team.

I’ll save the stats for another time though, because right now, the word is “ready.” USC is ready to take back their crown as one of the elite teams in college football. They have survived sanctions and survived two years away from bowl games, and are ready now to compete for Rose Bowls and National Championships.

Every kid on this team grew up watching USC and wanting to get to Troy to play in the biggest games and under the brightest lights. It may have taken a little longer than anticipated, but USC will be ready this fall.

Why USC Will Live Up to its Billing:

It’s simple really. There isn’t a team that returns a better combination of elite talent, experience across the field, quality coaching and a manageable schedule like USC does. Every team needs certain variables to win a title, and the Trojans have just about every single one of them working in their favor.

In addition, it’s no secret that this Matt Barkley kid can ball, and that to quote Charlie Weis, he gives USC a “sizeable schematic advantage” every time he steps on the field. Had USC been under a bigger spotlight last year, I firmly believe Barkley would’ve made his way to New York as a Heisman finalist, after finishing with a Pac-12 record 39 touchdown passes, as well 3,528 yards passing and a 69 percent completion percentage. Instead, he has to settle for being the overwhelming favorite in 2012.

Factor in the returning talent around him (which includes 16 fellow returning starters), and it’s easy to see why they’re so many people’s title favorites.

At the same time…

Why USC Will Disappoint:

The Trojans also have more question marks than either team.

The obvious ones come on defense, where this group is incredibly talented… and also incredibly thin. Scholarship sanctions have hit this club also over, but the defense is where the most damage was done. Simply put the Trojans can’t afford injuries, can’t afford underperformance and frankly they can’t afford anything other than every player on the unit playing up to their potential.

Then, there’s the offense. The big theme that everyone wants to discuss is “what would happen if Matt Barkley got hurt,” except, well, that isn’t entirely fair. Barkley is not only durable, but also a master at not taking sacks. He isn’t Tyler Wilson, who seemed to get knocked down on every play last year (through no fault of his own, mind you), but instead, a guy who has a natural feel for the rush, a quick release and a freakish ability to end the game with a crisp, clean, white jersey. Assuming nothing freaky happens, Barkley will be on the field all season long at USC.

The bigger question though is what about the running backs? Amir Carlisle transferred and Tre Maddon is injured, leaving the unit surprisingly thin after Curtis McNeal. Granted, the senior rushing for over 1,000 yards last year, but if he were to go down (an idea that seems much more feasible than Barkley getting hurt), it’d be up to a redshirt freshman with 43 career carries (D.J. Morgan) or a true freshman (likely Nelson Agohlor) to take over the load.

USC has a lot to like. They also have plenty to be concerned about.

That also includes…

Key Game: Oregon (November 3)

I don’t think I’m breaking any news here to say that a visit from Oregon on November 3 will make or break both team’s seasons. Barring anything truly shocking, both should be undefeated and ranked in the top five entering this game.

Where it gets interesting though, is that the winner also has the inside track in the race to the Pac-12 title. With USC now eligible for the Pac-12 title game, it means that in all likelihood, the winner of this game will unofficially clinch home-field advantage in that game. The loser will not only have a loss on their resume, not only have to work their way back into the good graces of the pollsters, but also have to go to the other team’s home field to win the conference the first weekend in December. In all likelihood, the winner there will be playing for a BCS title.

But hey, no pressure or anything guys.

On the Spot: Matt Barkley

Weird that we’re going with the surest bet in college football here, huh? Not totally.

If anything, Barkley could be very well inheriting the impossible pressure that Andrew Luck had last year. If you remember, no matter what Luck did in 2011, it wasn’t good enough. If he didn’t complete every pass and throw a touchdown on every possession, someone, somewhere was calling him a disappointment.

Well what about Barkley? Again, this is a guy that just set a Pac-12 touchdown record, so in theory, anything under 39 touchdown passes this year will be considered a “disappointment.” Add in a new starting tackle and the lack of depth we discussed at running back, and it won’t be as easy for Barkley as some think.

Beyond that is a simple truth: It doesn’t matter what Barkley does. It doesn’t matter how good he is. If USC isn’t playing on the last Monday of the season in Miami, the blame will fall on him.

Final Verdict:

USC is talented, hungry and ready to compete for a 2012 title. They also aren’t the overwhelming favorites everyone has made them out to be. They’ve got plenty of questions, and a road to Miami that will likely require them to beat Oregon twice.

There’s great reason to think that USC can play for the title. There’s also plenty of reason to be nervous if you’re a Trojans fan.

Best Case Scenario: 14-0, Pac-12 champions, BCS champions

Worst Case Scenario: 11-2, Rose Bowl

For all his articles, opinions and insights into college football, please follow Aaron on Twitter @Aaron_Torres.

About Aaron Torres

Aaron Torres works for Fox Sports, and was previously a best-selling author of the book 'The Unlikeliest Champion.' He currently uses Aaron Torres Sports to occasionally weigh-in on the biggest stories from around sports. He has previously done work for such outlets as Sports Illustrated, SB Nation and Slam Magazine.