10 predictions for '11

Expect Marqise Lee to duplicate Robert Woods' freshman success, Oregon to stumble and Stanford to send QB Andrew Luck out in a big way.

Matt Barkley posts his best year yet, but still throws 12+ interceptions
Good news or bad news first? Even with concerns about the offensive line, the junior will post his best statistical season for the Trojans, throwing for more than 3,000 yards and 30 touchdowns with a dynamic one-two punch at receiver, quality tight ends and running backs capable of catching the ball and the experience and savvy to get it to them.

Unfortunately, Barkley is and will always be a gunslinger at heart, trying to force one or two passes per game despite knowing he should throw it away or take a sack. That aggression will result in interceptions, averaging out to one or more per game over the course of the season. With the strength of the offense in the passing game, USC head coach Lane Kiffin will have to live with those mistakes.

Marqise Lee really is Robert Woods 2.0
The athleticism, the work ethic and dedication, the big-play ability. Really by whatever measure you use, the two Gardena (Calif.) Sera receivers are mirror images of each other, separated by one year.

And now that coaches know they didn't get the ball to Woods nearly enough last season, giving Lee touches will be a point of emphasis from the beginning. He will match Woods' freshman season with more than 700 yards receiving, six touchdowns and recognition as Pac-12 Freshman of the Year.

Trojans defense improves by at least a touchdown per game
They can't be worse. They will be better. You'll see it in plenty of areas – a better pass rush, more confident secondary, more takeaways, better at getting off the field on third down – but the most obvious improvement will come on the scoreboard.

USC allowed at least 32 points six times last season, giving up far too many explosive plays. With more depth, better understanding of the system and most importantly, better tackling in the back seven, it won't happen again.

Big Three combine for 20+ sacks
Look out Pac-12 quarterbacks; Devon Kennard, Nick Perry and Wes Horton are coming to get you.

That terrific trio of defensive ends was nearly unblockable in fall camp and should bring that same intensity every Saturday.

It shouldn't be a surprise. Perry and Horton are healthy after being hindered by nagging injuries all last season. Kennard was an elite pass rusher coming out of high school and immediately recaptured that form after moving back from middle linebacker over the summer.

With the ability to deploy all three in different combinations, perhaps even at the same time, they will account for more than 20 sacks this season. Heck, Perry wants 15 by himself. He might come close.

John Baxter will oversee the top special teams unit in the conference
Baxter has the nickname "Mr. Miyagi" among beat writers for his unconventional coaching style, but it worked as the Trojans saw huge gains in every area of special teams last season.

Now in his second season, more improvement is coming. Freshman kicker Andre Heidari will finally give USC a reliable option, especially from distance. Woods showed his electric skills returning kicks and fellow sophomore, corner Nickell Robey, certainly has the athleticism to replace Ronald Johnson handling punts.

Safety T.J. McDonald and running back Curtis McNeal have a knack for blocking kicks.

Even a newcomer like linebacker Tre Madden will make his presence felt covering kicks and punts.

Stanford can't ride November push to New Orleans
The Cardinal have a late-season schedule tailor made for pushing into BCS title contention. Games against Oregon, USC and Notre Dame will have the entire nation watching.

And because all those games are at the end of the year, new head coach David Shaw will have the rebuilt offensive and defensive lines addressed. Stanford can rely on a dominant rushing offense, multiple versatile tight ends and a strong linebacking corps as it puts everything together before November.

Plus there's some guy named Andrew Luck playing quarterback.

But because they open the season sixth in the USA Today Coaches Poll, behind Oklahoma, Alabama, LSU and Florida State and barely ahead of Boise State, even wins on must-see TV won't be enough to push into the top two.

Instead, the Crimson Tide and Broncos play for the crystal football.

Oregon will stumble at least twice
Forget Charlie Sheen. LSU coach Les Miles is the real warlock. There's no other explanation for the Bayou Bengals' consistently improbable success.

LSU will find some way to knock off Oregon on Saturday because that's just how Miles rolls. No Jordan Jefferson? No problem. They'll figure out some other insane way to leave Jerry World victorious.

The other likely loss is against Stanford. Luck just knows how to shred the Ducks' zone blitzes, totaling 592 yards and five total touchdowns in their two previous meetings. Does anyone doubt he and the Cardinal would have held on to its 21-3 first-quarter lead anywhere else besides Autzen Stadium last season?

10-2 is not a bad season, just not what the Ducks have come to expect.

Utah capitalizes on favorable schedule to represent Pac-12 South
This prediction looked a lot better before the Utes' opener against Montana State on Thursday night, staggering to a 27-10 win. If Jordan Wynn gets thrown on his surgically repaired throwing shoulder and is reinjured, disregard it entirely.

Still, Utah avoids heavyweights Oregon and Stanford in the regular season and gets Arizona State at home in its first run through the Pac-12. Coach Kyle Whittingham knows how to get the best out of his players and disregard the last three years at UCLA because offensive coordinator Norm Chow hasn't lost his magic.

The stunning run of injuries that befell the Sun Devils and rival Arizona will catch up to them, UCLA still doesn't have a quarterback and Colorado has a major rebuilding effort.

Utah will be the last team standing and replace USC on Dec. 2.

Andrew Luck caps his career with Heisman, Rose Bowl
It's not a BCS championship, but the highest individual honor in college football and playing on New Year's Day are pretty nice consolation prizes.

Luck, who surprised everyone by returning for another season, is already regarded as the best player in the nation. He won't need huge statistical marks to be in contention again for the Heisman and gets his two biggest games in Palo Alto. Stanford Stadium should also end up hosting the inaugural Pac-12 championship game, one more chance late in the year to show his wares.

After a season and summer marred by scandal, voters won't pass up the chance to recognize a player that represents what the game ideally should be in Luck.

USC finishes 9-3
Maybe I'm selling the Trojans short. With all of last season's turmoil, they were still seconds away from winning 11 games and put a serious scare into Oregon. They will get better play from the defense. Barkley is back and has plenty of skill around him. The coaches have their scheme in place and know how to put these players in position to succeed.

That adds up to a return to double-digit wins, the chance to mess things up by winning the Pac-12 South and maybe more.

Maybe I'm ignoring the Trojans' flaws. The offensive line is completely rebuilt. No running back was able to separate himself from the pack. Outside of Woods and fullback Rhett Ellison, the rest of the receivers are unproven. Same goes for much of the linebacking corps. Will the secondary actually make a tackle? There are plenty of tough games, at Arizona State, at Notre Dame and hosting Stanford. Even a trip to Colorado on a short week looks dangerous for a young team without the prospect of a bowl at year's end.

That adds up to another eight-win campaign.

So when in doubt, split the difference. Nine wins, with a chance for bigger things in 2012 if Barkley, McDonald and left tackle Matt Kalil all return for their senior seasons.


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