Pac-2012: Oregon, USC on collision course

Oregon and USC never got their rematch in 2011. It won't be an issue for the overwhelming Pac-12 favorites come next season.

PASADENA, Calif. - De'Anthony Thomas is just too fast.

Too fast to be caught from behind by Wisconsin defenders. Too fast to look back at his historic freshman campaign. Too fast to reflect on a historic Rose Bowl win, Oregon's first since 1917.

No, the electric all-purpose threat was already looking ahead to next season, to 2012, to getting better.

"I'm just ready to work hard again in the offseason. Get a lot faster, get a lot stronger, learn the offense more," Thomas said.

Get a lot faster? That's what he said, after ripping off touchdown runs of 91 and 64 yards.

Thomas believes the Ducks can also get better, so why waste time on the season that was.

"I feel like we're going to be even more awesome next year," he said.

USC feels the same way.

Though the Trojans' season ended one month earlier, they felt like a team that had matured into one capable of beating anyone in college football, especially a return visit to Autzen Stadium for the inaugural conference championship game or a bowl game.

Of course, USC was banned from postseason play, leaving everyone to wonder what might have been.

Would quarterback Matt Barkley have continued his aerial barrage on the Oregon defense? Would Ducks running back LaMichael James have found his stride and lifted an offense that was sluggish for three quarters in the 38-35 loss, their only setback at home under coach Chip Kelly to date?

Would a win have been enough to push Oregon back into the BCS title conversation? Would a sweep have put the white-hot Trojans in the mix to play in New Orleans?

No one knows, but the Pac-12 clearly has a thought or two. Why else schedule the rematch that never happened on the same day as the rematch of the rematch of the game of the century, Nov. 3?

And not that the game will be lacking for selling points, but unlike LSU-Alabama, there's a good chance you will see more than one offensive touchdown.

With Barkley and Oregon signal-caller Darron Thomas both returning, combined career 146-50 touchdown-to-interception ratio, scoring points won't be an issue, even with USC brining back its starting back seven, Oregon 16 of 22 in its defensive two deep.

Barkley also returns the best supporting cast in the nation. There are the two 1,000-yard receivers in Marqise Lee and Robert Woods, who caught a Pac-12 single-season record 111 passes while hampered by lingering ankle, elbow, and shoulder injuries. Diminutive tailback Curtis McNeal rushed for 1,005 yards, despite seeing just 24 carries in the first five games. There are four of five offensive linemen back from a group that allowed eight sacks last season.

Oregon returns 17 offensive players from its two-deep, after accounting for more than 46 points per game.

But neither team is perfect. James, who rushed for more than 1,500 yards in each of his three seasons and 53 career touchdowns, should be ably replaced by Kenjon Barner and Thomas, who plans to bulk up to about 190 pounds this offseason.

The bigger concern might be a receiving corps that struggled for most of the season, instead relying on Thomas and departing senior tight end David Paulson for production.

Consider that Lavasier Tuinei, who ended up leading the team in catches and touchdowns, entered the Rose Bowl with 20 percent of his yardage coming in a pummeling of Missouri State.

To say his 158-yard, two-touchdown performance to earn Offensive Player of the Game honors on Jan. 2 came out of nowhere would be a dramatic understatement.

A group of speedy but unproven wideouts, such as redshirt freshmen Devon Blackmon and Tacoi Sumler, will need to step up.

USC will be relying on youngsters too, but along the line of scrimmage. Replacing left tackle Matt Kalil is the glaring issue for a team without great depth on the line and will likely need true freshmen as backups to both bookends.

Same goes on the defensive line, where veteran tackles DaJohn Harris and Christian Tupou anchored a stout run defense. Replacing defensive end Nick Perry and his conference-high 9.5 sacks will also be a challenge.

Still, Oregon and USC will be overwhelming favorites in the North and South, as evidenced by their presence in the top five of the earliest 2012 rankings, perfectly set for a BCS title run.

In the Coliseum, they will be playing for home-field advantage in the conference championship, positioning for a trip to South Beach and a chance to show the SEC what a real quarterback looks like.

The countdown is already on. And it's hard not to imagine it will end with the biggest stakes seen on the West Coast since 2004 USC-Cal or 2010 Oregon-Stanford.

As Thomas said, "And next year, it's going to be great."

He is also much too fast to be wrong.

Dan Greenspan is the publisher of Cal Sports Digest and covers the Pac-12 for Fox Sports/Scout.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanGreenspan.


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