The suspense was ruined when the marching band and Song Girls showed up to the press conference. But in this case, the gift is too good not to celebrate: Quarterback Matt Barkley is officially coming back to USC for his senior year, foregoing a certain spot near the top of the NFL draft to finish his career as a Trojan, sanctions free.
His decision continues something of a trend among top-rated quarterbacks, beginning with Oklahoma's Sam Bradford, who turned down a shot at becoming the No. 1 pick to return to school in 2009. Last year, it was Andrew Luck, who turned down millions to finish his degree at Stanford. Before Barkley, there was Matt Leinart at USC, fresh off a BCS championship and a Heisman Trophy win in 2004. All three came back for one more year to chase a national championship as the Big Man On Campus, and all three wound up leaving as top-10 draft picks, anyway. (Bradford went with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2010 draft despite missing almost all of the previous season with a shoulder injury. Draft boards have never wavered on Luck as the top pick next April.) For Barkley, the hype begins now.
For starters, he'll open next season as the runaway favorite for the Heisman Trophy, with every USC passing record in his sights after a blistering finish to the 2011 campaign. He'll succeed Luck as the undisputed No. 1 prospect in the 2013 draft, and enjoy the fruits of being the 21-year-old Face of College Football in Los Angeles.
And with an NCAA-mandated, two-year bowl ban expiring after this year, he'll have one last opportunity to finish the job he began this November: Restoring USC to its familiar status among the national elite.
When he showed up as a true freshman, Barkley was the golden boy, the No. 1 incoming quarterback in the 2009 recruiting class, the heir to a line of five-star Orange County quarterbacks at USC — Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart, Mark Sanchez — who had combined for two Heisman Trophies, two national championships and a 61-6 record as starters since the start of Palmer's senior season in 2002. Along with John David Booty, they led SC 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 10 at any point in the season.
That was the mantle Barkley inherited in 2009, when he was promoted to the top of the depth chart over a pair of blue-chip veterans, and it was only over the last month of the 2011 season that anyone began to suggest he had picked it up. Prior to that, the narrative was one of steady decline: USC lost four games in 2009, lost Carroll to the NFL, 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 in the national conversation. 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. Now, he's decided to grasp the opportunity to finish the job as a senior.
Bowl ban behind them and star quarterback in tow, the Trojans can resume their familiar role as Pac-12 favorites next fall with arguably the most loaded roster in America. 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: That roll reads sophomore, freshman, freshman, freshman, freshman, freshman.
The lineup isn't as strong as it would be if it included left tackle Matt Kalil and defensive end Nick Perry, a pair of likely first-rounders (Kalil is almost certain to go among the top five picks) who have already decided to follow the money into the draft. Perry's exit means the defensive line is replacing three of four regular starters, and Kalil's decision leaves Barkley without the best offensive lineman in the Pac-12 protecting his blindside.
Still, the 2012 Trojans are scheduled to bring back 20 of the 25 players listed as possible starters for the season finale against UCLA, including the leading rusher, the top three receivers, four of five starters on the offensive line, three freshmen linebackers and the entire secondary. Eleven of that number are currently freshmen and sophomores. With Barkley back, the question may not be if USC opens at the top of the preseason polls, but by what margin.
Last month, after closing the season with six touchdown passes in a 50-0 blowout over UCLA, Barkley said it's always been his dream to play in the NFL. He had a chance to make that happen with no lingering questions about his health, arm or maturity and millions guaranteed. Instead, he opted for the mission of bringing the Trojans full-circle. The money will still be there, but the chance to pass a championship legacy on to the next golden-armed quarterback only comes once.
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