Outlook: The University of Southern California is back, and they have unfinished business! That was the message of one Matt Barkley as he addressed the media, telling them that he would be returning to the Trojans for one last hurrah. For 2 seasons now, USC has been banned for the past 2 seasons from post-season play and were stripped of some earlier victorious seasons in the process of the Reggie Bush investigation. Simply put: USC is hungry, and they’re really, really good.
The Boys from Troy went a respectable 10-2 in 2011, but looked quite pedestrian and disappointed their fan base in the process of beating a horrific Minnesota team by 2 to open the year at home and then got pounded in their 4th game by a fiery (but we found out bad) ASU squad in the Desert. After that game however, a switch flipped, and suddenly the offense that everybody expected came to life and became practically unbeatable. The rest of the season was a practice run toward 2012, with just one hiccup in an “instant classic” with Stanford in triple ot. That game was all but forgotten after the Trojans beat up on the still reigning Pac-12 Champions from Oregon and then put the entire woodshed to Ucla and their already fired Coach.
This year will test USC early with trips to Syracuse, Stanford, Utah and Washington within their first 6 games and the #1 ranked defense two years running will visit in week 5 when Cal comes to The Coliseum. Syracuse and Washington may seem like a cake-walk but USC typically hasn’t traveled well over the past 4 or 5 seasons, especially in the trips to UW. Once that stretch is over and if they come out unscathed, only the Ducks remain as a true threat to USC’s run into the BCS National Title Game. Ucla and Notre Dame will end the year with their shot, but to be quite honest, if the Trojans 10-0 or even 9-1 going into those games… let’s just say I don’t expect USC to let their most hated rivals ruin their shot.
The Good: Team Swagger. After USC demolished Ucla in L.A., they wore T Shirts that spelled out their “stolen” Pac-12 South Title. Going into this season the biggest threats are in the Pac-12 Conference with no marquee out of conference matchups until their final game against the Irish. USC generally has a target on their back in one of those early games by a team that can match them athlete for athlete, but this season they are the hunters as much so as any season in recent memory.
Matt Barkley: The beat goes on with premier quarterbacks coming out of California with MB as arguably the #1 candidate for a Heisman Trophy and the top spot in the NFL 2013 Draft, just one season after Luck did it with the Cardinal. He passed for a Pac-12 record 39 touchdowns in 2011 while throwing for over 3,500 yards and all of his best receivers are returning.
Weapons: The prime difference between Barkley and Luck is the amount and quality of weapons that Barkley will have at his disposal this season. Robert Woods, Marquise Lee, Xavier Grimble, Randall Telfer and Curtis McNeal highlight a deep and talented group of players at every skill position on the offensive side of the ball. Woods caught a Pac-12 record 111 passes in 2011 as just a sophomore, Marquis Lee joined Woods at over 1,000 yards receiving, Grimble and Telfer had 9 combined td catches from the tight end positions and Curtis Mcneal went over 1,000 yards while running for nearly 7 yards per carry. Firepower is everywhere.
Defense: 8 starters return for USC, including Safety TJ McDonald. What Barkley is to the offense, McDonald is for the USC defense, as he has racked up 163 tackles, 6 interceptions and an All American Award in his career. McDonald is also a Preseason Thorpe Award Finalist, which is given to the consensus best defensive back in the country. But TJ has plenty of help with the return of his 2 year partner at Safety Jawanza Starling and cornerback Nikell Robey (who is himself a Preseason Thorpe Award Finalist) with 6 interceptions in his career. Also returning are All American Freshman linebackers Dion Bailey (who also was the Pac-12 defensive player of the year in 2011) and Hayes Pullard. There are so many legit stats among this group and it’s almost scary to say that this team was very inexperienced last season. Nuff’ said.
Fan support: The Trojan fan base is even hungrier than the players at this point. They’ve been through the roughest stretch in school history and arguably the roughest stretch of any elite program in the last 2 decades. The school has continued to put out a quality product but it’s not the same when you have nothing to look forward to at the end of the year. USC fans at the Coliseum are generally a little bit quiet for how good they are anyway, but their team has been crushed in the media and by other fan bases recently. This is a redemption year for the entire USC Nation and they know that the team is fully capable of a Championship run. Expect for the Coliseum and L.A. to be rockin’ when Stanford comes in for week and all the way through New Year’s if everything goes according to plan.
The Bad: If there is any bad, we already mentioned the early road schedule and that’s got to be the concern. The only thing that can keep USC from their goal is the one or two games that any team will typically “take off” mentally during the season. Nobody knows where those will take place but I expect USC will go flat for at least a half against UW, Utah or Arizona in the middle of the season. Either team has enough fire power to put the Trojans in a hole and USC is not historically great at fighting back in a hostile environment when they start slowly (think OSU at Reser the past 2 trips and ASU last season). We don’t expect them to fall, just sayin’.
Offensive Line: USC lost their best offensive lineman to the NFL draft in Matt Khalil. Still there is plenty of talent up front, but the first few games may be a bit of chemistry rebuild, so hopefully Barkley doesn’t take any unnecessary shots that may get him injured.
Summary: USC has always exemplified the Pac 10(12) moniker as the “Conference of Champions”, and again it is primed for a historic season, there’s no doubt about it. Matt Barkley’s farewell tour, along with year 3 in Lane Kiffin’s system (typically the biggest leap year in any system due to the learning curve), along with a soft out of conference schedule all point toward the Trojans being able to capture early momentum and ride it through to a Championship shot. There will be moments of anxiety in more than a few Pac-12 games because the Conference is just that good offensively, but to me that’s where this defense makes the most difference. Overall we can expect USC to be in rare star-studded form (yes, even for them), rivaling in every way the USC hype-train that followed the 2005 Trojans all the way to Pasadena against Texas.
Next week we’ll check out the Colorado Buffaloes and see if they’ve made any progress heading into their second year in the Conference. Continue getting Coug sports news as we fight through the summer to get to football season here at “All Coug’d Up!”