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Pac-12 football Media Day: My picks in the league race

Matt Barkley

When quarterback Matt Barkley decided to come back for his senior season, everyone started predicted big things for USC in 2012. Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea-US PRESSWIRE

I teamed with Bob Condotta of the Seattle Times to make the preseason Pac-12 rankings for Lindy’s College Football Annuals, and I’m sticking with those predictions on the eve of the conference media day in Los Angeles.

The top of each division is a simple call: USC in the South and Oregon in the North.

Lindy’s selected the Trojans No. 2 in the nation behind LSU; Athlon projected a national championship for USC.

There’s little dispute that Lane Kiffin’s team has a starting 22 as talented as any in the country. The question will be if the Trojans can navigate the season while their fingers are crossed about scary-thin defense at running back, offensive line and on the interior of the defensive front.

And the Trojans likely will have to beat the dangerous Ducks twice — once in Los Angeles on Nov. 3 and again, if projections hold, in the Pac-12 championship game.

There appears to be a big gap between USC and Oregon and the rest of the conference.

Who’s next?

Give me Stanford, which has the issue of replacing Andrew Luck (that falls to Brett Nottingham or Josh Nunes) but has a defensive front seven as good as any in the conference.

Utah squandered a chance to win the South last season when USC was ineligible. The Utes should have one of the league’s best defenses — headlined by defensive tackle Star Lotulelei — and quarterback Jordan Wynn is physically stronger after missing most of last season with injuries.

Washington will have quarterback Keith Price and a dynamite offense, but couldn’t stop anybody last season, prompting a re-working of the defensive coaching staff. Hello up-and-coming coordinator Justin Wilcox.

The rest of the South has reason to think it can compete for the best-of-the-rest title. Cal hopes the second-half improvement of quarterback Zach Maynard yields season-longer results. Passing game guru Mike Leach could immediately rejuvenate Washington State, turning loose quarterback Jeff Tuel and receiver Marquess Wilson. Oregon State is pinning a bounce-back on sophomore quarterback Sean Mannion, a second-year starter.

Arizona, in a best-case scenario, is looking at a low-level bowl game.

If you’re optimistic, you’re looking at the benefit of having fifth-year senior quarterback Matt Scott, a schedule with eight home games and a weak division. But none of the rest adds up to a wildly successful season: Changes in scheme on both sides of the ball, a lack of a proven pass rush, depth issues at linebacker (made worse by the offseason loss of Brian Wagner) and in the secondary, and an overall level of talent that produced only two wins in 15 tries against BCS-conference competition.

Arizona State is hitting the reset button, too, with new head coach Todd Graham. We’ll give Arizona the benefit of the doubt over the Devils for now; seems appropriate giving Arizona’s win in Tempe last season.

The new Pac-12 coach with the most raw materials to work with is UCLA’s Jim Mora, who lacks college experience but he surrounded himself with a superb coaching staff and built momentum with a surprisingly good recruiting class.

Colorado has the biggest rebuilding job and will turn to a transfer quarterback — either Connor Wood (Texas) or Jordan Webb (Kansas) — as it attempts to at least match last season’s two conference victories.

The results of the league-wide media poll will be released Tuesday morning. My conference picks:

Pac-10 South
1. USC
2. Utah
4. Arizona
5. Arizona State
6. Colorado

Pac-10 North
1. Oregon
2. Stanford
3. Washington
4. Cal
5. Washington State
6. Oregon State

1. USC
2. Oregon
3. Stanford
4. Utah
5. Washington
7. Cal
8. Washington State
9. Arizona
10. Arizona State
11. Oregon State
12. Colorado

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