For Matt Barkley, the lure of NFL riches was simply outweighed by the chance to return to USC to win a BCS title after enduring two seasons low-lighted by an NCAA's post-season 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 10 feet from the spot where less than two years ago, he calmly fielded questions about USC's future a few minutes after hefty NCAA sanctions rocked the Trojans program. On that June, 2010 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 pretty fortunate too 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, the leader of this year's 10-2 Trojan team that finished the 2011 regular season with a flourish that included a win at No. 4 Oregon, USC figures to be a pre-season 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 into 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 CB, 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.
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 the 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 begin 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 did not 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. Despite all of that, and the "unifinished business" mindset, Barkley and Kiffin, though, were 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," Kiffin later explained. "It's just about the team getting better every day, us getting to work and also challenging Matt to keep improving. . . . This is a really special college student-athlete story. And for us to be a part of this story is unbelievable for everyone involved."