Barkley, USC favored to win Pac-12

Published on June 4 at 9:52 p.m. Eastern.

By Brian Edwards

Southern Cal has been made the minus-150 favorite to win the Pac-12 thanks to the return of senior quarterback Matt Barkley, who threw for 3,528 yards and 39 touchdowns compared to only seven interceptions in 2011. The Trojans are finally poised to put the Reggie Bush Saga behind the program, as they are eligible to go bowling for the first time since the NCAA slapped a two-year postseason ban on them prior to the 2010 campaign.

Barkley has one of the nation’s premier wide receivers in Robert Woods, who hauled in 111 receptions and 15 TDs last year. The running game will be strong, too, with Curtis McNeal hoping to improve on his 1,005 rushing yards from last season.

Lane Kiffin’s squad was named preseason No. 1 by Athlon’s and was tabbed as the country’s second-best team by Lindy’s. Also, as of June 4, had USC as the plus-400 ‘chalk’ (risk $100 to win $400) to win the national championship, with LSU and Alabama sharing the second-shortest odds (+500).

The Trojans get their toughest game of the year at home, facing Oregon at The Coliseum on Nov. 3. However, they play at Stanford, at Utah and at Washington in a four game-stretch.

Oregon lost a ton of talent when QB Darron Thomas and RB LaMichael James bolted early for the pros, but Chip Kelly has highly-regarded replacements lined up at both of those positions. Most importantly, Kelly turned down a lucrative job offer from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and is back for his fourth season after going 34-6 from 2009-2011.

There are two candidates to take over under center, Bryan Bennett and Marcus Mariota. Both are athletic guys that fit the mold for Kelly’s high-octane offense. Bennett has the edge in experience, throwing for six touchdowns without being intercepted in limited duty last year.

There’s also a pair of dynamic RBs ready to step in for James, who was the featured back the last three years when he combined to rush for 5,082 yards and 53 TDs. De’Anthony Thomas averaged 10.8 yards per carry as a true freshman and combined to score 18 TDs (seven rushing, nine receiving, two kick returns). Senior Kenjon Barner rushed for more than 100 yards four times last year and tallied 14 scores (11 rushing, three receiving).

How big is the gap between USC and Oregon compared to the rest of the conference? Well, the Ducks have plus-150 odds to win the league’s championship game, while Washington has the third-shortest number at plus-1150 (risk $100 to win $1,150).

Steve Sarkisian probably has the Pac-12’s second-best QB in Keith Price, who threw for five TDs and ran for three more in a 67-56 loss to Baylor in the Alamo Bowl. Price will have a new offensive coordinator in Eric Kiesau, who has two years of OC experience at Colorado under Dan Hawkins. The offense must replace its workhorse RB in Chris Polk.

As evidenced by its incredible ineptitude against RG3 and the Bears, UW’s defense needs a lot of work. That job will fall to new DC Justin Wilcox, who held the same job at Tennessee the last two years.

California has 18/1 odds and long-time head coach Jeff Tedford is on the hot seat. The Bears have an elite WR in junior Keenan Allen, who had 98 catches for 1,343 yards despite mediocre QB play.

Zach Maynard played better down the stretch and the lefty should be improved in his second year in Tedford’s system. We’ll know if the Bears are any good early because they play back-to-back games at Oho St. and at USC on Sept. 15 and Sept. 22.

David Shaw’s Stanford team has 22/1 odds to win the Pac-12. The Cardinal no longer has the likes of Jim Harbaugh, Andrew Luck, Coby Fleener, Jonathan Martin or David DeCastro, each of whom has moved on to the NFL.

But Harbaugh recruited well and Shaw just put together a 2012 class that Athlon ranked fifth nationally and best in terms of offensive linemen. Stanford still has RB Stepfan Taylor, who is shooting for a third straight 1,000-yard season.

The Cardinal ranked third in the nation against the run last year and brings back its front seven, including All-American linebacker Shayne Skov, who tore his ACL in 2011. Chase Thomas returns from an 8 ½-sack campaign.

Stanford must go on the road to take on foes like Washington, Notre Dame, Cal, Oregon and UCLA.

Arizona has moved on from Mike Stoops in favor of Rich Rodriguez, who was extremely successful at West Virginia before enduring a miserable three-year tenure at Michigan. The Wildcats and Utah have 33/1 odds.

**B.E.’s Bonus Nuggets**

–Southern Cal’s Matt Barkley is the plus-350 favorite to win the Heisman Trophy at 5Dimes. He has -160 odds to finish in the top three of the voting.

–USC’s season win total at 5Dimes is 9 ½, but the ‘over’ requires an enormous -275 risk (risk $275 to win $100). Gamblers taking the ‘under’ can earn a plus-195 return if it hits.

–Oregon also has a 9 ½-win tally with the ‘over’ costing -195. The ‘under’ is +155.

–Stanford’s QB race is between Brett Nottingham and Josh Nunes, who have 10 career combined passing attempts at the collegiate level.

–Will Jim Mora Jr. be the answer at UCLA? The Bruins have fallen on hard times since firing Bob Toledo following the 2002 year. They have five losing seasons since and have tasted postseason wins just four times in the last two decades.

–Washington St. made the nation’s best off-season hire when it inked Mike Leach, who has a spectacular WR in Marquess Wilson.

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