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College football: A returning power

USC picked to win Pac-12 at conference’s media day; UCLA sports SCV talent

Posted: July 25, 2012 1:55 a.m.
Updated: July 25, 2012 1:55 a.m.

USC head coach Lane Kiffin takes questions at the Pac-12 football media day on Tuesday in Universal City.

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UNIVERSAL CITY — Hopefully, the rest of the Pac-12 football teams enjoyed life without worrying about USC while it lasted.

But the punishment has been served, and the Trojans are all the rage of the conference now that they’re postseason eligible for the first time since 2009.

Though Oregon comes in as three-time defending conference champions, USC was the talk of the Pac-12’s 2012 Football Media Day on Tuesday at Universal Studios.

“We’re two years removed from (NCAA penalties) handed down and a lot of people were saying for five or 10 years, SC is over,” said third-year USC head coach Lane Kiffin. “And to be in a conversation about being a preseason No. 1 team two years later is extremely exciting.”

FOXSports.com has USC at No. 1 in the nation while ESPN has it as No. 2 in a 2012 preseason analysis.

Given that, members of the media covering Pac-12 teams not surprisingly voted the Trojans as overwhelming favorites to win the South Division and then knock off North Division-favorite Oregon in the conference championship game on Nov. 30.

Utah was tabbed to finished second in the South with UCLA following at third.

The Bruins are coming off a 6-8 season after finishing with back-to-back losses to Oregon in the inaugural Pac-12 title game and Illinois in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl.

In reality, UCLA finished behind USC in the final standings, but got into the conference title game by default due to USC’s postseason ban.

Taking the place of dismissed coach Rick Neuheisel, first-year head coach Jim Mora made his position on the 2012 season clear.

“We’re not looking at the past, we’re looking at the future,” Mora said.

With seven starters coming back on offense and eight on defense, the future holds a lot of potential.

One of those returners on defense is senior linebacker Patrick Larimore, a Hart High graduate who recorded a team-high 80 tackles last year.

“I don’t know that we have a tougher player on our team,” Mora said of Larimore. “He just plays with a ferocious intensity that you really admire if you admire that type of football.”

On the offensive side, senior running back Johnathan Franklin figures to be the marquee player as he comes in with 2,269 rushing yards an 18 touchdowns in his UCLA career.

Behind Franklin on the depth chart is another Santa Clarita Valley product, Steven Manfro, who made a lot of noise this spring.

Mora said the Valencia graduate and redshirt freshman will have a chance to play in multiple offensive positions as well as special teams this year.

“He’s not just a running back, he’s a guy that can work well in space as a receiver, and I think he’ll be a big contributor to us,” Mora said.

Mora was one of four new head coaches in the conference being introduced to the media on Tuesday.

There was also Arizona’s Rich Rodriguez, Arizona State’s Todd Graham and Washington State’s Mike Leach.

Rodriguez talked about his installation of the spread offense and the transition into a new system with new starting quarterback Matt Scott, while Graham took more time to discuss a culture change on campus.

The Sun Devils return a conference-low 10 starters this season.

Leach gave perhaps the most off-the-wall press conference of the day, discussing bear hunting with coaches and which Civil War generals best compared to his players.

When it came to football itself, the media had Arizona behind UCLA at fourth in the South, Arizona State fifth and Colorado sixth.

Oregon received the majority of the first-place votes in the North following an 11-2 finish and a Rose Bowl victory over Wisconsin to finish last season.

The Ducks will, however, have to replace running back LaMichael James, the top rusher in the nation a year ago, and record-breaking quarterback Darron Thomas.

With James now in the NFL and Thomas having left the program after declaring for the NFL Draft and not being selected, Oregon will try to fit new players into its fast-paced spread offense which has been so successful in years past.

Picked to finish in order behind Oregon in the North is Stanford, Washington, California, Washington State and Oregon State.

Cal features the third and final SCV product in the conference, West Ranch High graduate Jeff Coprich, who was recruited as a cornerback according to head coach Jeff Tedford.

Elsewhere in the San Francisco Bay Area, Stanford was picked second in the division — the same finish as last year — despite losing quarterback Andrew Luck when he was picked No. 1 in the NFL Draft in April.

Head coach David Shaw was quick to address the issue of life after Luck.

“There are a lot of storylines that don’t involve the quarterback position but, once again, we will put the pressure on our leadership,” Shaw said.

No team in the conference returns more starters than USC, which brings back 19, including star wide receivers Robert Woods and Marqise Lee along with Heisman candidate and NFL hopeful Matt Barkley.

At the end of last season, Barkley was projected as a first-round pick in the NFL draft, but the senior quarterback opted to finish his four-year career as a Trojan.

Media Day was also a chance for Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott to discuss the launch of the Pac-12 Networks, which are a series of seven TV stations and one digital network set to go on the air Aug. 15.

The family of networks will air 35 football games involving Pac-12 teams this season.

Presumably, it will give more nationwide exposure to the Pac-12, which could come in handy when the sport expands to a four-team playoff to determine a national champion beginning in 2014.

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