• What we know. For now, Matt Barkley is the only USC quarterback in the last decade whose resumé fails to include any major awards, conference championships or BCS games. He also happens to be the most celebrated player in college football after dropping 23 touchdown passes on opposing secondaries in the Trojans' final six games last fall, a blistering finish that looked like the long-awaited fulfillment of every blue-chip accolade that met his arrival on campus in 2009. No use beating around the bush: If November 2011 was the rough cut for 2012, USC will be playing for the BCS Championship in Miami, period.
A lot of variables go into that if, beginning with Barkley's health. (He's missed only two starts in his career, both USC losses.) But the surrounding cast certainly is not one of them. Senior tailback Curtis McNeal turned in a 1,000-yard season on the ground despite spending the first half of it relegated to third string; another member of the 1,000-yard club, Silas Redd, transferred in from Penn State just in time for fall camp. On the other end of Barkley's bombs, Robert Woods and Marqise Lee finished their first season together as the most lethal 1-2 receiving punch in the nation, bringing down more than 2,400 yards and 28 touchdowns between them on 184 catches. Behind them, sophomore George Farmer and incoming freshman Nelson Agholor — hyped, five-star athletes in their own right — are just hoping to get in a few snaps in edgewise. Tight ends Randall Telfer and Xavier Grimble had nine touchdowns on 39 grabs as redshirt freshmen. Four of five starters are back on the offensive line.
The only way the starting lineup could be stronger is with the presence of departed left tackle Matt Kalil, whose early exit for big NFL bucks leaves Barkley without the best offensive lineman in the Pac-12 protecting his blindside. First crack at Kalil's job in the spring went to colossal sophomore Aundrey Walker, who has all the makings of another first-round giant in two years, but for now has yet to start a college game and is struggling through injuries in preseason practices. But man for man, pound for pound, this is the most stacked offense in the country.
• What we don't. On a roster just beginning to feel the crunch from NCAA-imposed scholarship restrictions, the front four on defense rivaled tailback as the most pressing concern on the depth chart. With Redd's arrival in the backfield and an untimely pectoral injury that may sideline senior end Devon Kennard for the season, the defensive line stands alone.
Even before the injury, the d-line stood out like a big, vulnerable thumb thanks to the graduation of starting tackles DaJohn Harris and Christian Tupou and the early departure of All-Pac-12 end Nick Perry for the first round of the draft. Sans Kennard, USC has only one other experienced defensive lineman, senior end Wes Horton, who has started 22 games over the last three years and came in last year for a second-team all-conference nod. So far, so good. But the candidates for Kennard's spot are a junior college transfer (Morgan Breslin, who was enrolled for spring practice) and a pair of returnees who have yet to see a significant snap in their college careers (junior Kevin Greene and redshirt freshman Greg Townsend). Freshman end DeVante Wilson is out for the season after tearing his ACL earlier this week. On the interior, the defensive tackle rotation consists of sophomore George Uko (two career starts) and a trio of second-year guys (Christian Heyward, Antwaun Woods and J.R. Tavai) who remain anonymous beyond their recruiting rankings.
This being USC, those rankings are inevitably impressive. Across the board, though – with the lone exception of Wes Horton – it will be a thin, essentially brand new lineup at a position at which other teams in this series go six or eight deep.
• Where it can all go wrong.The road schedule looks like one trap game after another – three of the first four conference games are at Stanford, at Utah, at Washington, followed by trips to Arizona and UCLA down the stretch – but the game the game circled in cardinal marker is the Nov. 3 visit from Oregon. Last year, USC stunned the Ducks in Eugene, snapping a host of winning streaks – 21 straight at home, 19 straight in conference games, 16 straight in home conference games – and bouncing Oregon from the BCS championship race in the process. Oregon would love to return the favor in the L.A. Coliseum, and subsequently force USC to come north for a potential rematch in the Pac-12 title game.
• Visions of champions past. Ideally, USC would probably prefer to avoid comparisons to the 2005 Trojans, who a) Wound up having all 12 of their wins vacated by the NCAA as a result of the Reggie Bush Affair, and b) Famously blew the coronation, anyway, by allowing Texas quarterback/undercover mutant Vince Young to score two late, go-ahead touchdowns in the Rose Bowl. Then as now, though, Lane Kiffin is calling the plays (he was a young offensive coordinator in 2005), with a decorated, All-American local at quarterback (Matt Leinart then, Matt Barkley now) and arguably the best concentration of offensive talent in the country.
True, statistically speaking, the '05 team set a fairly untouchable bar at 49 points on 580 yards per game, well ahead of any USC offense before or since. And the 2012 edition may be slightly more pass-oriented – Bush and backfield mate LenDale White combined for an incredible 3,042 yards rushing in '05, a number Redd and McNeal have no prayer of matching, though Woods and Lee conceivably could on the receiving end if given the opportunity. But this attack is still fundamentally balanced, and when it decides to put the pedal down, it may wind up looking every bit as unstoppable.
It's also worth considering that the '05 team occasionally had to keep the pedal down to make up for a talented but ultimately mediocre defense that proved to be a fatal Achilles' heel. (Future draft picks on the 2005 D included Brian Cushing, Rey Maualuga, Sedrick Ellis, Keith Rivers, Lawrence Jackson and Terrell Thomas, all freshmen and sophomores that season.) The 2012 D may fare slightly better on the stat sheet, but remains a relatively young group itself, and has a long, long way to go to match the chart-topping defenses in 2003 and 2004.
• Crystal ball says… There are obvious questions about the overall depth under NCAA sanctions, the inexperience on the defensive line and the prospect of having to beat Oregon not just once but twice to punch a ticket to Miami. If Walker fails to hold down the left tackle job, throw that in there, too. But compared to the nagging questions and weaknesses among the other contenders – new cornerbacks and uncertain passing attacks at Alabama and LSU, injury-ravaged offensive line and combustible secondary at Oklahoma, peennial inconsistency at Florida State – the presence of the best amateur quarterback in America looks like one heck of a trump card.
Give him two first-rate targets, and it's only a matter of keeping them all in one piece throughout an entire season. There will be a few shootouts, but when they're on, there are no bigger guns in one place than Barkley, Woods and Lee.
out of five.