The future -- at least as far as this fall -- is becoming a little more clear for college football's pundit class. And for USC which enjoyed the rarefied air of a No. 4 projection for 2015 in ESPN's "Way Too Early Top 25" back in January, there's a bit more reality setting in.
But with college football's playoff class limited to the rop four teams, that's an all-important move even if it's all just blowing smoke. Ask TCU and Baylor how important it was to be just inside -- or outside -- that first four.
The consensus has USC and Oregon at the top of the Pac-12 but where USC was ahead of Oregon in January, the Ducks have jumped back on top post-spring.
ESPN, or at least one of ESPN's two pickers, now has the Ducks moving into the top four at No. 3 with USC No. 5. But another, picking the bowl participants for every single postseason game, has USC in the College Football Playoffs with Oregon in the Rose Bowl.
Steele starts his look at 2015 with Oregon also ahead of USC, but again, just barely, with Oregon at No. 5, USC at No. 7.
But no need to flip a coin in the fall. If things play out the way the pundits predict, these two could face off twice and settle it themselves.
But if there's a rationale for USC to get jumped here, maybe it's this. For a program not yet fully filled in with 85 scholarships just yet, despite back-to-back outstanding recruiting classes, losing the likes of first-round NFL draft picks Leonard Williams and Nelson Agholor in addition to Josh Shaw, Buck Allen and Hayes Pullard, matters.
Other top challengers for 2015 -- Ohio State, TCU and Oregon -- didn't suffer as many losses. And Oregon picked up top grad school transfer Vernon Adams, the dynamic quarterback from Eastern Washington, to jump in for Marcus Mariota, they hope.
Here's how ESPN's Mark Schlabach sees USC at No. 5: If the Trojans stay healthy in Year 2 under coach Steve Sarkisian, they might have enough talent to challenge Oregon for a Pac-12 title and a spot in the playoffs. Quarterback Cody Kessler is one of the country's more underrated passers, and Juju Smith and Adoree' Jackson are emerging playmakers. Safety Su'a Cravens leads a talented USC defense that will have to replace All-American defensive end Leonard Williams."
In the ESPN Top 25, Ohio State returns to No. 1, jumping now No. 2 TCU with Oregon No. 3 and Auburn at No. 4. Here's what ESPN has to say about the Ducks: "How will the Ducks replace departed Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota, the school's all-time leading passer with 10,796 passing yards and 136 total touchdowns? Perhaps they'll look to a guy who threw for more than 10,000 yards in three seasons at an FCS school. Eastern Washington transfer Vernon Adams arrives in Eugene this summer, and he'll have plenty of weapons around him in the Ducks' high-flying offense. He'll have to beat out junior Jeff Lockie, however, who went 9-of-9 for 223 yards and three touchdowns in Oregon's spring game on Saturday."
Steele drops Oregon and USC two spots each to fifth and seventh, elevating Albama and Baylor ahead of No. 5 Oregon (with Ohio State and TCU) and Michigan State ahead of No. 7 USC.
On USC, Steele says: "USC got a nice blowout win over Notre Dame and a bowl win to finish last year at No. 20. This year, the sanctions are gone, the depth returns, they have 14 returning starters and two key things happened in the postseason. QB Cody Kessler opted to stay, and he was the best QB you never heard of last year, throwing for 3,826 yards (69.7 percent, 39 touchdowns, five interceptions), and they also brought in one of the best recruiting classes in the country. Their starting 22 can match up with almost every other team in the country, and those final two factors put the Trojans into the top 10."
Here's his Oregon take: "While he's not guaranteed a starting job (see Jake Coker with Alabama last year), bringing in Vernon Adams is huge for Oregon, as he had great success against the two Pac-12 teams he faced the last two years and threw for 10,438 yards with 110 touchdowns and 31 interceptions, while twice being the runner-up for the Walter Payton Award (FCS equivalent to the Heisman) at Eastern Washington. Adams should be a fine replacement for Marcus Mariota, and the Ducks have a great deal of depth at RB and WR with seven offensive starters back. Oregon does play Michigan State, Arizona State and Stanford on the road, but it¹s been pretty much an automatic as the Ducks' preseason ranking has been No. 3, No. 5, No. 3 and No. 3 the past four years.
But from USC's standpoint, maybe we're overplaying this Trojans-Ducks head-to-head here because if there's anything the predictors tell us, the Pac-12 South is the division where more competition is going to occur for a second straight season.
Steele has UCLA at No. 11, Arizona State at No. 16 and two of his top three teams just outside the Top 25 are Utah and Arizona. And as far as the USC schedule is concerned, Notre Dame checks in at No. 13 with Stanford No. 25.
For those keeping score at home, despite opening against Arkansas State and Idaho, USC, with six top 27 opponents, will earn its place atop the strength-of-schedule, maybe as high as No. 2 behind only Utah, which has to travel to both Oregon and USC and opens against Michigan.
ESPN's Top 25 has an equally imposing challenge for USC after No. 3 Oregon with UCLA also at No. 11, Notre Dame No. 12, Arizona No. 13, Arizona State No. 19 and Stanford No. 23. Not much margin for error there.
There's one other predictor out there now. ESPN is filling out its bowl brackets with Brett McMurphy joing Schlabach to predict the opponents for every single postseason game here including the CFB Final Four matchups. And the USC-Oregon scenario plays out there.
The two agree on their first three -- Ohio State against Auburn in the Orange Bowl and TCU landing the third spot. But for the fourth team, McMurphy tabs USC for a Cotton Bowl CFB playoff spot New Year's Eve against TCU that would have USC the road team in Dallas-Ft. Worth while sending Oregon to face Michigan State the next day in Pasadena.
Give this to McMurphy, he got three of the four CFB participants right a year ago. Schlabach has Oregon in the Cotton Bowl playoff spot instead of USC with the Trojans hosting Michigan State at the Rose Bowl.
Both, however, have the Pac-12 losing to TCU while they split on the other team with Schlabach seeing Ohio State in the Jan. 11 championship game in Glendale, Ariz. while McMurphy is going with Auburn.
So there you go. An awful lot of things have to happen before any of this plays out but here's what we can say: USC is in the conversation now, as it should be. But being in the conversation and in the College Football Playoffs for the first time are two very different things.
One is just talk. The other isn't.
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