CBSSports.com Senior College Football Columnist

Trojans have look of a title contender with Barkley coming back

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Matt Barkley (left) and Lane Kiffin are all smiles after Barkley's decision to stay at USC. (AP)  
Matt Barkley (left) and Lane Kiffin are all smiles after Barkley's decision to stay at USC. (AP)  

For Matt Barkley, the lure of NFL riches was simply outweighed by the chance to come back to USC for a run at the BCS title after enduring two seasons muted by an NCAA postseason bowl ban. And despite what the NFL economics may suggest, Barkley deemed it as having "unfinished business."

"When you look at the team that we have coming back," he said, "and see how the story lines up -- from us going through the darkest points of USC's history and now how we're on the rise, I feel like this lined up perfectly and feel like it is something I couldn't have turned down."

Barkley made his announcement just about ten feet from the spot where he calmly fielded questions about USC's future a few minutes after hefty NCAA sanctions rocked the program less than two years ago. On that afternoon, Barkley spoke about how fortunate he still felt to get to play at USC and what a "privilege" it is.

No doubt, USC coach Lane Kiffin must feel like he's pretty fortunate these days. "Many times guys who are thinking about leaving for the NFL asks themselves, 'Am I really ready?' But this wasn't about that," Kiffin said. "Matt is ready to leave for the NFL. He is ready to play right now, but he wants to come back. And it's not just to blow away the records, it's for something more than all that.

"No one is going to have the story he can have. Think about it: He grows up a USC fan. Comes here after they go to seven straight BCS bowls. He probably think he's gonna go to three more and then he's leaving for the NFL. Instead, the coach leaves. The AD leaves. The school president leaves. The sanctions come. ... This could be really remarkable.

"He can really have a legacy and go down as the greatest Trojan of them all."

With Barkley at the helm, the Trojans went 10-2 with a big win at No. 4 Oregon. USC figures to be a preseason top-five team, and perhaps No. 1 overall. Barkley will have quite a talented cast around him, including the country's best receiving duo in Robert Woods and Marqise Lee; along with a 1000-yard back in Curtis McNeal. USC's left tackle Matt Kalil, a likely top 10 draft pick, did opt to jump to the NFL draft but the rest of the offensive line returns. In addition, USC also gets back standout safety T.J. McDonald, who announced he was coming back for his senior season earlier this week. The Trojans' top two tacklers were both freshmen linebackers -- Hayes Pullard and Dion Bailey -- and the Pac-12's best cornerback, Nickell Robey, was just a sophomore. The team also redshirted four blue-chip defensive linemen and just signed two junior college All-Americans on defense. On top of that, the Trojans' schedule sets up quite well with Oregon and Notre Dame having to visit the Coliseum in 2012. But it's the return of Barkley that transforms the group from a top 25 team to a serious national title contender.

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In 2011, Barkley blossomed, especially in the last two months of the season, throwing 29 TDs and just four INTs as USC went 7-1 over its final eight games as the team averaged 40 points per game.

The notion that USC could be a legit national title contender less than two years after NCAA sanctions were announced may seem vexing to many. The Trojans did lose a handful of players who were allowed to transfer per NCAA rules and Seantrel Henderson, the No 1 offensive line recruit in the country two years ago, backed out of his commitment to USC in the wake of the NCAA sanctions.

Truth be told, the real teeth of the sanctions are likely to grind at USC after 2012, when the effect of losing 30 scholarships over three seasons -- that part of the penalties begins with this recruiting class -- start to really take hold, affecting the team's depth and their margin for error in recruiting. Lane Kiffin and his staff has been very strategic in trying to map out a structure in their roster building to keep positions well-stocked and this is a program that didn't have a lot of seniors. Kiffin's decision to redshirt 19 scholarship players this season, a lot more than usual at USC, is part of his plan to cope with the long-term stress of the sanctions.

In the short-term, the return of Barkley is huge for this program and on Thursday afternoon, USC sure was in celebration mode. The Trojans had all six of their Heisman Trophies out of their cases flanking a podium that stood in front of a large Christmas tree. A portion of the USC band was on hand to perform. Some of the USC Song Girls stood off to the right of the podium. Kiffin, though, was quick to try and downplay the notion that 2012 now sets up as a "National Championship of Bust" season.

"I didn't say a word about the national championship out there or the Rose Bowl or the Heisman," he said. "It's just about the team getting better every day, us getting to work and also challenging Matt to keep improving."


Bruce Feldman is a senior writer for CBSSports.com and college football commentator for CBS Sports Network. He is a New York Times Bestselling author, who has written books including Swing Your Sword, Meat Market and Cane Mutiny. Prior to joining CBS, Feldman spent 17 years at ESPN.
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