Top 3 keys: Two-way, big-play dominance

U.S. Presswire/Jayne Kamin-Oncea

Matt Barkley is trying to point his team through a season in which it starts and finishes No. 1.

With the AP preseason Top 25 poll out, let’s take a closer look at the top three teams and some key stories to watch as the season approaches.

1. USC

USC will try to become the first AP preseason No. 1 to finish the year ranked No. 1 since it did so in 2004.

What are some of the key things to watch from the team in 2012?

Notable storyline: Barkley’s deep-ball dominance

Quarterback Matt Barkley threw more touchdowns (13) on throws of 20-plus yards last season than he did in the last two seasons combined (4).

Barkley did not have one interception on 49 attempts of this distance, after having five in the previous two years.

Notable storyline: Marqise Lee’s role

Robert Woods was targeted 64 more times than Marqise Lee in USC’s first eight games of 2011 (101 for Woods vs 37 for Lee). But Woods was banged up at the end of the season, which has allowed Lee to emerge as a viable second option for the Trojans going forward into next season.

In the last five games, the ratio of Woods targets to Lee targets was 63-to-58. Lee actually finished with seven more catches (46) and four times as many 20-yard catches (12) than Woods.

Notable storyline: Potential defensive weakness

Over the last two seasons, USC has allowed 389 plays that gained 10 yards or more, including 190 plays on first down.

Only, Memphis allowed a higher percentage of plays to gain 10-plus yards on first down than USC in that span.

2. Alabama

Defending champ Alabama is ranked No. 2 in the preseason poll for the second straight season and is a top-two preseason team for the third straight year, the first time it has done that since the three-year run spanning 1978 to 1980.

What is a notable statistical storyline to watch heading into its season?

Notable storyline: McCarron vs the Blitz

Quarterback A.J. McCarron completed at least 60 percent of his passes when opponents sent five or more pass rushers on a play in seven of his last eight games, including the BCS Championship Game.

Before that stretch, McCarron had never accomplished this feat in any game during his career.

The improvement in his completion percentage against the blitz from his first five games to his last eight games was stark (33 percent to 69 percent) as was the number of 20-yard plays he generated (two in the first five games, 10 in the last eight).

3. LSU

LSU, in the news after the recent departure of its top returnee, still ranked No. 3 in the preseason poll. The database maintained by collegepollarchive.com noted that this is the 48th straight poll appearance for LSU, a streak that now stands as the third-longest in school history, surpassing a 47-week run from 1971 to 1974.

Notable storyline: Replacing a secondary that was second to none

Replicating the success of 2011 will not be easy after the team lost three of their top four defensive backs: Morris Claiborne, Tyrann Mathieu and Brandon Taylor.

LSU opponents completed only 16 percent of passes on throws of 20 yards or longer this season. They were a combined 10-for-61 with nine interceptions, including 5-for-34 with seven interceptions in SEC play.

Sharon Katz contributed research to this piece