If there's one thing I'll never do in this space, it's advise any player to pass up a professional opportunity to stay in school, or vice versa. Chance to finish a degree? You'll never regret getting an education. Chance to fulfill a dream in the NFL? Make that paper, son. I'm not a career counselor. Frankly, if you're one of the tiny fraction of humans in the position of making that decision, you're probably going to be alright either way. It's not really a question you can screw up.
That said, I'm not oblivious to the relevant details involved in the decision, either. And if any locked-in, can't-miss, 100-percent first-round draft pick has ever had a compelling reason to come back to school, it's Matt Barkley at USC.
You could make that a lot of reasons, actually, if you're inclined: The Orange County Register has ten of them this morning, specific ones, including a shot at a Heisman Trophy, a BCS championship, the No. 1 slot in the draft and the undying adulation of an entire campus and most of a tri-county area featuring the greatest concentration of aspiring models and actresses on the planet. Plus if he leaves now, he might wind up getting drafted by the Redskins.
All of which is true, any of which could tip the scales decisively towards a return. But he really only needs one reason: He can leave USC the way he found it.
"Legacy" is a dangerous word, but it's safe to say Barkley's predecessors in the "Will He or Won't He?" spotlight didn't have to spend a lot of time considering it. When he was making his decision last year, Andrew Luck had just led Stanford to its first BCS win and its highest finish in the final polls in 70 years. Sam Bradford had just won the Heisman Trophy and led the highest-scoring offense in Division I history to the BCS Championship Game. Matt Leinart and Tim Tebow had Heismans and national championships, plural. Among the elite quarterbacks who decided to take the bait, Mark Sanchez and Vince Young had just won the Rose Bowl and Cam Newton had just won every trophy known to man. Alex Smith had just led Utah to an undefeated finish in the Fiesta Bowl, easily the greatest season in school history.
All of them had a chance to go out on top, with their teams on top, hoisting trophies over their heads. (At least one of which was topped by a festive sombrero.) Their legacies were secure: Realistically, there was nothing left for them to accomplish.
If he opts for the draft, Barkley will go out will go out wearing an unauthorized t-shirt that proclaims the Trojans the champion of a mediocre division it wasn't even eligible to win. At USC, over the last decade, that's not the top: It's the minimum.
Or at least it used to be. From close up, after the last two years, a closing act that includes an upset at Oregon, a 50-0 romp over UCLA and top-10 finish in the polls may look like a legitimate triumph. Go back four years and present the same scenario to a 17-year-old Barkley as he prepared to enroll at USC, though, and it looks a lot less like a culmination than a glimpse.
At that point, Barkley was the golden boy, the No. 1 incoming quarterback in the 2008 recruiting class, the heir to a line of five-star Orange County quarterbacks — Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart, Mark Sanchez — who had combined for two Heisman Trophies, two national championships and a grand total of five losses as starters since the start of Palmer's senior season in 2002. Along with John David Booty, they'd led USC to seven consecutive Pac-10 titles and six wins in BCS bowls. No Trojan team since Pete Carroll's first season (2001) had finished lower than fourth in the final polls. Only one — an injury-plagued outfit in 2007 — had even fallen outside of the top ten at any point in the season.
That was the mantle Barkley inherited as a true freshman, when he was promoted over a pair of blue-chip veterans in 2009, and it's only in the last month that anyone has begun to suggest he's picked it up. Prior to that, the narrative was one of steady decline: USC lost four games in 2009, lost Carroll to the NFL, hired an underqualified retread, got hammered with the most severe NCAA sanctions of the last 20 years, lost five games in 2010, didn't go to a bowl game and jogged into 2011 as an afterthought. The Trojans spent six of the first eight weeks of the season unranked, suffering through close calls against Minnesota, Utah and Arizona and a 20-point loss at Arizona State.
That's not all on the QB, and the fact that major awards and championships are on the table at all in 2012 is a testament to the dominance of the November surge. But it's also a crisp reminder of the missions Barkley hasn't fulfilled — no major awards, no All-America teams, no conference championships or BCS games — and what a golden opportunity he has to finish the job as a senior.
I've said this before, but it's hard to overstate just how loaded USC is going to be next fall, with or without its star quarterback. Junior tailback Curtis McNeal went over 1,000 yards for the season, despite spending the first half of it relegated to third string. Sophomore Robert Woods and freshman Marquise Lee are the most lethal 1-2 receiving punch in the nation already, with more than 2,400 yards and 28 touchdowns between them on 184 catches. Freshman tight ends Randall Telfer and Xavier Grimble had nine touchdowns on 39 grabs. Freshman receivers Kyle Prater and George Farmer — arguably the two most hyped athletes on the roster after arriving at the top of their respective recruiting classes in back-to-back seasons — are still trying to get a few snaps in edgewise. Again: Sophomore, freshman, freshman, freshman, freshman, freshman.
Including Barkley, the 2012 Trojans are scheduled to bring back 22 of the 25 players listed as possible starters for the season finale against UCLA, including all five starters on the offensive line, a future top-10 pick at left tackle, the No. 1 pass rusher in the Pac-12, three freshman linebackers and the entire secondary. Eleven of that number are currently freshmen and sophomores. If it still includes Barkley, the question isn't if USC will open at the top of the polls, but by what margin. Everything he came to USC to do and to be is right in front of him.
Then again, maybe the notion of Barkley as keeper of the flame is a little too narratively fulfilling from the perspective of an observer rather than a player who actually has to live with the pressure of fulfilling it. On the other side of the scales, there's a gargantuan contract and the start of what should be a long, fruitful career at age 22 instead of age 23. Barkley will have his degree in the spring, and (more importantly) he'll have his health, which he can't guarantee if he comes back. He's said before that it's always been his dream to play in the NFL, and he can make it happen.
If that dream outweighs the mission of bringing the Trojans full circle, he should do it. But only one decision leaves both opportunities on the table.