The folks at Athlon asked the right question when they wondered what were "The 10 Most Important Storylines in the Pac-12" this season.
And they came close to the right answer here, ranking USC's "Uneven Offensive Line Play" No. 3 behind "the Maturation of UCLA's Josh Rosen" and the "Rebuilding of the Stanford Defensive Line." They just missed in the 1-2-3 rankings.
But they made a good case. Here it is verbatim:
"The pieces for USC's offensive line never quite seem to fit with the results. As anyone who follows recruiting would expect, all of the Trojans offensive linemen arrive on campus as top prospects. Four of the five top returning USC linemen have received some sort of Pac-12 honors from first-team to honorable mention status and the fifth was a Freshman All-American two years ago. By a handful of measures, this talented, veteran unit which loses only five-game starter Max Tuerk, should be the best in the Pac-12.
"But as we've seen in recent years, talent hasn't always translated at USC, especially on the line. The Trojans haven't ranked higher than seventh in the Pac-12 rushing since 2011 and have ranked 99th or worse in sacks allowed the last three years. That said, USC's line deserves perhaps a break. New position coach Neil Callaway, a journeyman assistant throughout the Southeast and a former head coach at Alabama-Birmingham will be the group's fifth coach in the last five years.
"After Tuerk went down after the fifth game last year, USC had three different starting centers in the final nine games. The position was further thinned when the next player at the position, guard/center Toa Lobendahn missed the final seven games with his own knee injury. And then three-year starter, left tackle Chad Wheeler, didn't play in the Holiday Bowl after a December encounter with police. Having everyone healthy and available wlll be critical for Callaway -- not to mention for USC's first-time starting quarterback. The question remains: Even if the linemen are on the field at the same time, will they be on the same page?"
OK, the part about Callaway as a "journeyman" we'll attribute to the writer just not understanding what the word means. USC's new O-line boss is anything but.
Maybe they don't realize that the former Bear Bryant Most Outstanding Athlete at Alabama owns a record 10 SEC football championship rings, most of anyone ever, we're told, thanks to years as O-line coach and offensive coordinator at Alabama and Georgia and for four SEC titles as O-line coach at Auburn.. A long, interesting journey from his Macon, Ga., hometown to LA, we'd say, but Callaway is anything but a "journeyman."
Just ask any USC O-linemen. This year is different They're different. And the demanding, tough and meticulous Callaway certainly is.
"He's what we've needed," Wheeler said at the end of spring.
But not what the rest of the Pac-12 needed. Because if USC's offensive line performs, if the Trojans are able to run the ball mistake-free, expecially with power to go along with the speed and experience of Justin Davis and Ronald Jones in those early games against Alabama and Stanford, they will be an absolute load for the rest of the Pac-12.
Sure, Utah and Washington will make you earn everything you get. But a USC team that can run the ball early behind what could be the nation's biggest five-man front will force defenses to come up with answers for that. And as anyone who can recall how that worked out a decade ago, teams can't take away the passing game if they have to cheat to stop the run.
That's what this USC team must do. Do this, get it right and pretty much everything else takes care of itself. With the number of explosive weapons this offense will have, against defenses that have to set themselves up against the run and cannot get to the quarterback, USC gets to dictate the way the game will be played.
But what about Alabama?
So, Max Browne, how big a motivator is it to have Alabama's defending national champs staring down at you in Game 1? "It's definitely out there," the USC quarterback says as the Trojans look at three final weeks of summer after getting off for the Fourth of July week. "The guys are aware of it. But it's not like they think of it every day. We have 13, 14, 15, 16 games to think about." Well, 15 maybe, USC fans can only hope, with a 13th game at the Pac-12 title game again followed by a two-game College Football Playoffs finish.
The numbers: 99 and 11
Two more reminders of just how tough USC's "nation's toughest" schedule really is: How about these from Athlon. First, the 12 USC opponents won a total of 99 games last season, an average of 8.4. That's unreal. And of those 12 opponents, 11 went to bowl games. Only Colorado missed. And not only did Alabama win the national title, Stanford won the Rose Bowl, Athlon notes, and Notre Dame missed making the CFB Playoffs by a field goal. So you're up, USC.
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