Tracking the buzz of college football's hive mind.
Even if they're USC fans (or perhaps especially if they're USC fans), most readers have probably resigned themselves already to the notion of the Trojans as just another underachieving Pac-10 also-ran, no longer entitled to the deference in the preseason polls that they took for granted for most of the last decade – before a coaching change, two meh seasons on the field and heavy-handed NCAA sanctions off it. So they won't be surprised that the round of premature polls for 2011 omitted USC entirely last month. At this point, even the fall of Troy is old news: Nationally, the once-mighty Trojans have fallen in with Florida State, Miami and Notre Dame as unusually talented afterthoughts.
The prevailing question for 2011, in fact, is likely to be how closely this team can resemble its more celebrated predecessors while laying the groundwork for a resurgence in the near future. Last year's team had no momentum coming into the season, save its standard trove of glittering recruiting stars, and certainly didn't generate any, in part thanks to late losses at the hands of Oregon State and Notre Dame. That's part of the reason the malaise has drifted into the offseason, leaving SC behind even Arizona State in forecasts for the newly-formed Pac-12 South. Then, of course, there's the postseason ban.
And then there's the fact, as tallied Monday by the Orange County Register's Michael Lev, that the combination of the NCAA's liberal post-sanctions transfer policy for older players and Lane Kiffin's conservative redshirt policy for younger players has left one alarmingly green roster across the board:
At almost every position, this Trojans team is young. Even at spots featuring veteran starters such as quarterback (junior Matt Barkley) and tailback (redshirt senior Marc Tyler), the top backups are second-year players (Jesse Scroggins and Dillon Baxter, respectively).
Here’s how USC’s 2011 roster breaks down:
• Total scholarship players: 80
• Seniors/redshirt seniors: 13 (16.3%)
• Juniors/redshirt juniors: 16 (20.0%)
• Sophomores/redshirt sophomores: 14 (17.5%)
• Freshmen/redshirt freshmen: 37 (46.3%)
Almost half of USC’s roster never has played a down of college football, including 26 incoming freshmen.
Considering a few of the veterans haven't played a significant down, either, it's safe to say that fully half the roster is still waiting for its eyes to open completely. On that point alone, you could cast 2011 as another "investment" year spent on forging the young guns into a force that can compete for championships when the sanctions begin to lift in their junior and senior campaigns.
That may be the prevailing attitude, in which case success is recast as improving from the start of the season to the finish and closing with a pleasant surprise or two that reignites a sense of progress rather than decline. Fair enough. But the addition of all those fresh faces in the program shouldn't obscure the potential of a lineup that includes:
• Sixteen players (seven on offense, nine on defense) who started at least five games in 2010, and five others who have started at least one game in their career.
• A two-deep that will likely feature seven senior starters and at least 25 players – most notably Barkley, four-fifths of the starting offensive line and a dozen regulars on defense – entering their third, fourth or fifth year in the program.
• Eleven players in the likely two-deep who were rated by Rivals as five-star prospects out of high school, 31 who ranked among the top 100 incoming recruits in their class and 44 (at minimum) who earned at least four stars.
The prevailing youth movement looks like an issue in terms of depth, but on the front line, all but four positions in the starting 22 will be manned either by upperclassmen or a sophomore with a full year of starting experience under his belt in 2010 – and even that number assumes hyped up-and-comers beat out viable veteran candidates at wide receiver and defensive tackle.
If experienced bodies are few and far between, then, at least they figure to be useful bodies, although they haven't proven themselves as a very distinguished group to date – among the vets, only junior safety T.J. McDonald has been honored with an All-Pac-10 nod, first or second team. That's a picture of general decay, not repositioning for an uncertain future. If the program is in the process of the latter, it still needs a step forward to nine or ten wins this fall to stave off the decay.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.