November 23, 2011
For the better part of two years, the general feeling at USC has been one of decline, or at least bracing for decline. Pete Carroll bolted for the NFL, the new coach had no track record to speak of, the NCAA dropped its most heavy-handed sanctions in years. After six years spent almost entirely in the top 10, the Trojans have spent most of the last two clinging to the fringes of the top 25, or out of the polls altogether.
They lost four games in 2009, Carroll's final season, and five in 2010, Lane Kiffin's first. The lost to Oregon State and blew and eight-game winning streak over Notre Dame and dropped back-to-back games against both Stanford and Washington. They dropped five of six against ranked opponents. In September, they barely scraped past Minnesota and Utah and got waxed by Arizona State. This season, the second year of a bowl ban and an enforced absence from the BCS standings, looked like just another one to bear under the banner of "rebuilding."
The notion that it might possibly be anything else doesn't seem to have occurred to anyone before last week's 38-35 upset at Oregon, up to and including the pollsters who ranked the Trojans 18th going into the game, or the oddsmakers who installed them as two-touchdown underdogs. It doesn't seem to have occurred to anyone in the athletic department, either, according to athletic director Pat Haden, who admitted today he regretted only just getting around to a Heisman campaign for quarterback Matt Barkley, after the golden-armed junior rocketed up the charts by dropping four touchdowns on the Ducks in the night of his life:
"There's buzz now, but he's been playing great for a good month," Haden told ESPNLosAngeles.com. "He's been playing sensationally and he's clearly done his part, so I wish I would have initiated it earlier, thought about pushing it earlier.
"But it is what it is, and he's getting some good traction and he's certainly worthy of consideration. It's up to him to play great Saturday night [against UCLA]."
Haden said there wasn't much of a thought to create some buzz after Barkley led USC to an upset win on the road at Notre Dame last month, as some fans clamored for. But after the win over Oregon last weekend, Haden met with USC coach Lane Kiffin and the school's head sports information director to discuss starting up a campaign.
That's just how fast USC morphed back from fading also-ran to, well, to USC, perennial Pac-12 powerhouse. In the polls that still bother to rank them in the probation years, the Trojans are suddenly back in the top 10. Suddenly everyone wants a piece of Matt Barkley. Kiffin is the runaway favorite to win Pac-12 Coach of the Year.
If they beat UCLA for the fifth consecutive year Saturday, as expected, they'll be the unofficial Pac-12 South champs, and may still finish as the highest-ranked team in the conference. As they've promised to prove to the Bruins this week, the Trojans are suddenly looking like something very close to who they used to be.
Which brings us to The Big Question: Is Saturday night Barkley's swan song in the Coliseum before his inevitable ascension to the first round of the NFL Draft? Or will he be back in Cardinal and Gold next year to fulfill the last stage of his progression from blue-chip freshman to senior superstar? Are USC fans coming out to send off another homegrown favorite to the next level, without so much as an all-conference nod to show for his up-and-down career? Or will they be savoring a preview of the team that stands to return the Trojans to the national elite?
Because outside of Barkley, next year's lineup is looking kind of loaded. Just start with the surrounding cast on offense. Junior tailback Curtis McNeal is on the verge of a 1,000-yard season despite spending the first half of it relegated to third string. Sophomore Robert Woods and true freshman Marquis Lee are the most lethal 1-2 receiving punch in the nation already, with more than 2,000 yards and 24 touchdowns between them on 159 catches. Freshman tight ends Randall Telfer and Xavier Grimble have eight touchdowns on 35 grabs. There hasn't even been room for freshman receivers Kyle Prater and George Farmer, arguably the two most hyped talents on the roster after arriving at the top of their respective recruiting classes in back-to-back seasons.
Altogether, the 2012 Trojans are scheduled to bring back 22 of the 24 players listed as possible starters against UCLA, including all five starters on the starting 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 that list includes Matt Barkley, they're instant frontrunners for the Rose Bowl and very likely the top of the preseason polls.
Late-breaking campaign notwithstanding, Barkley is almost certainly not going to win the Heisman Trophy next month. He won't get to play in a bowl game, either. But those are only two of the opportunities he'd be passing up for an NFL paycheck: After two-and-a-half years of debates about his "potential" and whether he's overrated or underrated or fit to carry the torch of his prolific predecessors at the position, Barkley has put himself in position to be everything he came to USC to be as a senior — the biggest name in college football, surrounded by the most talent, on a team with the highest ceiling both on the field and (with the postseason ban lifted after this year) in the polls. Every goal he ever set for himself, and every expectation ever thrust on him by anyone else, is within his grasp.
But of course, "everything" in this case also includes an NFL paycheck, which may very well be enough to lure him to the next level as-is. He'd leave with a degree in the spring, and no one will say he's not ready to make the leap compared to any other quarterback who tries. If Saturday is his last game at USC, Barkley will go out as a good kid who ultimately made good under circumstances he never bargained for when he showed up for his first spring practice in 2009. Fans will respect him and wish him luck and wonder what might have been.
If it's not, though, it could be a prelude to a season that bring the Trojans full-circle to the frontrunner status they enjoyed for so long under Carroll, with all the hardware — and yes, all the hype — that comes with it. After last week's breakthrough in Eugene, it could be the final brick that makes USC USC again. If Barkley is really considering passing that up after one final game against a 6-5 rival that can't advance his team to a bowl game or any other type of reward, man, he'd better make it count.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.