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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 15: U.S.C.

No longer the big bad bully, flexing its muscles, U.S.C. has gotten its fair comeuppance.

U.S.C. math: 2010 football media guide, page three. Quick facts, 2010 schedule, 2009 attendance, 2009 results. The latter includes losses to Washington, Oregon, Stanford and Arizona. Above, in large print bold, “2009 Results (12-1).” It’s one of many strange sights in a media supplement that includes, on page four, 22 lines on the N.C.A.A-mandated probation that ends, “U.S.C. is appealing selected penalties.” On page 15, all kinds of symbols alongside Lane Kiffin’s career record to signify wins and conference championship later voided; even the wonderful list of the most dramatic wins in school history, found on page 101, is marred by this: “Win later vacated due to N.C.A.A. penalty.”

Conference
Pac-10

Location
Los Angeles, Calif.

Nickname
Trojans

Returning starters
11 (5 offense, 6 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 3

2009 record
(9-4, 5-4)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 20

2010 schedule

  • Sept. 2
    at Hawaii
  • Sept. 11
    Virginia
  • Sept. 18
    at Minnesota
  • Sept. 25
    at Washington St.
  • Oct. 2
    Washington
  • Oct. 9
    at Stanford
  • Oct. 16
    California
  • Oct. 30
    Oregon
  • Nov. 6
    Arizona St.
  • Nov. 13
    at Arizona
  • Nov. 20
    at Oregon St.
  • Nov. 27
    Notre Dame
  • Dec. 4
    at U.C.L.A.

Last year’s prediction

At any other program, these issues would spell, if not disaster, at least a rebuilding season. But not here: this is U.S.C., and the Trojans do not rebuild, they reload. I predict this team to lose one of its three road dates with Ohio State, Oregon and California, but as has been the case in every season since 2002, I think U.S.C. will be right up there among the top two of three teams in the nation come Jan. 1. However, I think Florida and Texas will be the pair playing for the national championship game.

2009 recap

In a nutshell The warning signs were there: a true freshman quarterback; a relatively unknown receiver corps; and eight lost starters on defense, including the wide majority of the front seven. Perhaps we all gave Pete Carroll and the Trojans too much credit, though this program had achieved far too much under his watch to expect anything less than another conference championship. When the dust settled, it wasn’t U.S.C. in first; it was Oregon. It wasn’t U.S.C. in second, either — the Trojans came in fifth, 5-4 in Pac-10 play. And we’re just getting started. Carroll quit town shortly after the season, accepting another foray into the N.F.L. ranks. The Trojans hired Lane Kiffin — Lane Kiffin! — as his replacement. Then the N.C.A.A. penalties, Mike Garrett’s departure, Pat Haden’s arrival, Reggie Bush’s apologetic non-apology, the loss of U.S.C.’s sense of superiority over the rest of the Pac-10 — if not the country. In 2010, the program starts nearly from scratch.

High point An 18-15 win at Ohio State on Sept. 12. You can lie if you want to, but no one expected anything less than 11 wins after the Trojans won in Columbus. Even with the struggles that defined Southern California’s season, the win at O.S.U. stands as one of the most impressive victories by any F.B.S. team all year. The Trojans also beat Notre Dame and U.C.L.A.; U.S.C. finished the decade 9-1 against its in-city rival.

Low point A 16-13 loss to Washington in September was stunning, but I believed the loss to be at the time merely U.S.C.’s yearly slip-up against a weaker opponent. Four straight wins after the setback seemingly confirmed that thought. The wheels did not officially come off until the last day of October: Oregon 47, U.S.C. 21. Two weeks later: Stanford 55, U.S.C. 21. That indefinable aura of invincibility: gone.

Tidbit It’s always fun to look at how a program like U.S.C. has fared historically against some of college football’s elite. It’s fun for me, anyway. I have few friends. Take, for example, the program’s career record against Alabama (2-5, with one enormous win in 1970), or Texas (4-1), or Nebraska (3-0-1), or Georgia (3-0), and so on. It’s even more entertaining to take a look at some of the odder teams U.S.C. has played over the past 100-plus years. For example, the Trojans have played and beaten teams from four U.S. battleships (U.S.S. New York, Arizona, Colorado and Mississippi); Rancho Cucamonga High School; alumni of Honolulu’s Kamehameha High School; Carnegie Mellon; the California National Guard; and the Stanford Student Army Training Corps. In what should rank as one of the greatest upsets in college football history, U.S.C. lost to the San Diego Y.M.C.A. in 1897.

Tidbit (.700 edition) Five modern era U.S.C. coaches have completed their respective careers with the Trojans with at least a .700 winning percentage: Howard Jones (.750 from 1925-40), Jess Hill (.722 from 1951-56), John McKay (.749 from 1960-75), John Robinson (.741 from 1976-82 and 1993-97) and Pete Carroll (.814 from 2001-9). Only one other program ranked among the top 10 in victories on the F.B.S. level, Ohio State, has duplicated this feat.

Former players in the N.F.L.

53 OT Sam Baker (Atlanta), LB Darnell Bing (Houston), QB John David Booty (Houston), OT Charles Brown (New Orleans), K David Buehler (Dallas), RB Reggis Bush (New Orleans), C Jeff Byers (Seattle), TE Dominique Byrd (Arizona, QB Matt Cassel (Kansas City), DT Shaun Cody (Houston), LB Brian Cushing (Houston), TE Fred Davis (Washington), DT Sedrick Ellis (New Orleans), S Kevin Ellison (Seattle), RB Justin Fargas (Denver), DE Everson Griffin (Minnesota), S Cary Harris (Buffalo), OT Nick Howell (Tennessee), WR Dwayne Jarrett (Carolina), RB Stafon Johnson (Tennessee), OT Winston Justice (Philadelphia), C Ryan Kalil (Carolina), QB Matt Leinart (Arizona), OG Deuce Lutui (Arizona), LB Kaluka Maiava (Cleveland), LB Clay Matthews (Green Bay), LB Rey Maualuga (Cincinnati), S Taylor Mays (San Francisco), TE Anthony McCoy (Seattle), RB Joe McKnight (New York Jets), DT Fili Moala (Indianapolis), DE Kyle Moore (Tampa Bay), QB Carson Palmer (Cincinnati), OG Alex Parsons (Oakland), DT Mike Patterson (Philadelphia), CB Josh Pinkard (Seattle), S Troy Polamualu (Pittsburgh), OG Chilo Rachal (San Francisco), OT Drew Radovich (Minnesota), LB Keith Rivers (Cincinnati), DE Frostee Rucker (Cincinnati), QB Mark Sanchez (New York Jets), WR Steve Smith (New York Giants), DT Averell Spicer (Chicago), LB Lofa Tatupu (Seattle), CB Terrell Thomas (New York Giants), CB Kevin Thomas (Indianapolis), WR Patrick Turner (Miami), RB Chauncey Washington (New York Jets), RB LenDale White (Denver), WR Damian Williams (Tennessee), WR Mike Williams (Seattle), LB Thomas Williams (New England).

Arbitrary top five list

U.S.C. actors, with notable work
1. John Wayne, “The Quiet Man.”
2. Michael Landon, “Little House on the Prairie.”
3. Will Ferrell, “Old School.”
4. John Ritter, “Problem Child.”
5. Tom Selleck, “Mr. Baseball.”

Coaching

Lane Kiffin (Fresno State ’98), entering his first season back with the Trojans. Of course, Kiffin is coming off a seven-win season with Tennessee in his lone season in Knoxville. He also spent a year and a fraction as the head coach with the Oakland Raiders, compiling a 5-15 mark from 2007-8. Though the record (4-12 in 2007) does not show it, Kiffin did not do a terrible job with the Raiders, especially on offense. In 2006, Oakland finished dead last in the N.F.L. in scoring, total offense and passing touchdowns and 29th in rushing. In the next season, Kiffin’s first, the Raiders moved up to 25th in scoring (up to 17.7 points per game from 10.5) and sixth in rushing. Despite these gains, Kiffin was fired by the Raiders four games into the 2008 season. Will we ever know the true story behind his abrupt departure? Probably not. Tennessee didn’t seem to care: he was hired by the university two months later. What attracted U.T. – as well as a number of other universities with open coaching jobs – was Kiffin’s work as an assistant at U.S.C. He served under Pete Carroll from 2001-6, first as the tight ends coach (2001) and receivers coach (2002-4) before ascending to the offensive coordinator spot from 2005-6. He was also the team’s recruiting coordinator over his final two seasons. In terms of statistics, the 2005 Trojans led the nation in total offense, while the 2006 team featured a 3,000-yard passer and a pair of 1,000-yard receivers. The Trojans went a remarkable 65-12 over his six seasons on the staff, 59-6 from 2002-6. All this, of course, became overshadowed by Kiffin’s dastardly turn as SEC villain, which cemented his status as Public Enemy No. 1 in college football’s premier conference. New conference, new coast, same story. He’s the coach we all love to hate, likely because, well, he makes it so easy. A year or two of comeuppance will be in the cards both for this program and its head coach.

Players to watch

Last year’s offense was U.S.C.’s worst since 2001, Carroll’s first season. The Trojans finished no higher than sixth in the Pac-10 in passing, scoring and total offense, averaging 389.1 yards per game — again, the program’s worst output since 2001. What happened? A true freshman quarterback, that’s what, even one as precocious as Matt Barkley. For starters, let’s acknowledge that despite his immense physical gifts, Barkley scuffled at times in 2009: he had a handful of woeful performances down the stretch — Arizona State, Stanford and Arizona, most notably. Yet his talent is undeniable, his arm and pocket presence otherworldly for a 19-year-old and his ceiling limitless.

For a freshman in his position — as a true freshman at U.S.C. — Barkley was more than just competent; by and large, he was pretty good. Take his game-winning drive against Ohio State, for instance, in his first road game. His strong showing against Notre Dame, his first taste of U.S.C.’s many rivalry games. Likewise in U.S.C.’s win over U.C.L.A., and particularly in his wonderful passing performance in his team’s bowl win over Boston College. This was Barkley at his best: completely comfortable, at ease in the pocket, perfectly on time with his back foot, getting the ball out to his receivers. We’ll see more of him at his best as a sophomore.

The receiver corps certainly doesn’t lack for talent, though the Trojans must identify a new leading target after Damien Williams opted to forgo his final season of eligibility. Returning receivers like sophomore Brice Butler (20 receptions for 292 yards) and senior Ronald Johnson (34 for 378, 3 touchdowns) will start, but look for fellow returning contributors like Brandon Carswell and to play significant roles. The big story at the position are U.S.C.’s many young options, with incoming freshmen Kyle Prater, Markeith Ambles and Robert Woods — all top-level, national recruits  – already turning heads. Depth at receiver is good enough that U.S.C. moved David Ausberry and Jordan Cameron to tight end, position changes that will help the Trojans offset the loss of steady 2009 starter Anthony McCoy. Don’t look for either to play much of a role — if any — as blockers, but each could be valuable options down the seam in the passing game.

As always, U.S.C. could go in several directions at running back. I would think seniors Allen Bradford and C.J. Gable will lead the way, with this duo having been through the fire and produced on the Pac-10 stage. Bradford was impressive a year ago, finishing second on the team in rushing (668 yards) in his first period of extended duty. Gable will certainly see his role increase while continuing to make an impact in the return game. The departure of Joe McKnight and Stafon Johnson should give junior Marc Tyler his first real opportunity for meaningful carries, though he must remain injury-free; that’s been a concern thus far. True freshman Dillon Baxter has done nothing but live up to his immense billing, even if he’ll find himself on the sidelines in the early season following his recent violation of team rules. Of course, you can’t forget about fullback Stanley Havili, the country’s top receiving option at the position. The all-American candidate, like Baxter, will start the year on the bench after a practice altercation.

The offensive line has an issue: a lack of depth. It’s a realistic concern, an Achilles heel that could render this offense impotent if injuries hamper the starting five. Seniors Butch Lewis and Kristofer O’Dowd return at left guard and center, respectively, and junior Tyron Smith at right tackle. Sophomore Matt Kalil holds the inside track at left tackle after starting in U.S.C.’s December bowl win. Another sophomore, Khaled Holmes, will be the man at right guard, though senior Zach Heberer’s starting experience — five starts in 2008 — should come in handy. Again, it will be depth that determines the play of this offensive front: if Martin Coleman, Michael Reardon and Heberer step up, the group will be in far better shape.

The biggest news surrounding the U.S.C. defense, of course, are the changes on the coaching staff: Monte Kiffin — you’ve heard of him — Ed Orgeron — and him — and Jon Barry, the latter the new linebackers coach. The six returning starters, all among the front seven, should be chomping at the bit. And for good reason: Monte Kiffin’s resume needs no explanation. He’ll have an immediate impact on this group, which must avoid the dry spells that defined the middle of last season. Those ugly losses to Oregon and Stanford won’t soon be forgotten — nor should they be.

The defensive line is the best in the Pac-10, even without the services of would-be senior Christian Tupou; he’ll miss this coming season following knee surgery. Juniors DaJohn Harris and Hebron Fangupa are battling to replace Tupou on the nose, with Fangupa, a former JUCO transfer, hoping to overcome the ankle injury that stymied his debut season. Harris will double as a reserve behind all-conference candidate Jurrell Casey, a junior ready to be included among the top interior linemen in the country.

More options exist at end. The Trojans have three players more than capable of holding starting roles: junior Armond Armstead and sophomores Nick Perry and Wes Horton. Armstead has one starting end spot tied down, a task made easier following Malik Jackson’s decision to transfer. While a pre-season foot injury slowed his development, Armstead flashed his talent in late-season starts at both tackle and end; given U.S.C.’s thin roster, Armstead’s ability to serve at multiple spots cannot be overestimated. Horton and Perry will battle for the starting role on the opposite side, with Horton currently holding the edge. Perry will continue to play a big role, especially in passing situations. He made eight sacks last fall, tying for the team lead.

All three starters return at linebacker: seniors Michael Morgan and Malcolm Smith on the outside, junior Chris Galippo in the middle. Morgan was actually pushed out of the starting lineup over the final three games of last season, replaced by sophomore Devon Kennard, but will return to the top spot on the strong side in 2010. Kennard moves inside, where he’ll play behind Galippo. Smith will man the weak side, with junior Shane Horton — a three-game starter last fall — his top reserve. This looks like U.S.C.’s deepest group on defense: Kennard can double both on the strong side and in the middle and Horton on the weak side; while youngsters like Marquis Simmons and Simione Vehikite and JUCO transfer Glen Stanley can provide depth.

Position battles to watch

Secondary All four starters must be replaced, though I think it’s fair to consider senior cornerback Shareece Wright a returning starter. He would have started in 2009, more than likely; unfortunately, he was declared academically ineligible on the eve of the season opener. When he returned to the team, however, he picked up where he left off: in the starting lineup for the Emerald Bowl, he made an interception in U.S.C.’s victory. Though receiving little national attention, Wright should rank among the finest cornerbacks in the country. He’ll need to remain on the field, keep his composure off the field, and indicate he’s refined his technique despite playing in only a single game a season ago. There will be competition for the second cornerback spot, with Torin Harris and T.J. Bryant the favorites entering fall camp. They’ve been pushed aside by the superb play of diminutive true freshman Nickell Robey, who despite his slight build has made a significant push for the starting role. At worst, Robey will be U.S.C.’s nickel back — Nickell back, if you will. The situation at safety is a bit more troubling. It will be very hard to replace Taylor Mays, for all the negative publicity his play received in 2009. Sophomore Jawanza Starling has fared well in his old strong safety spot, though I worry about a player who, like Starling, splits time between two sports — baseball, in his case. If he does stumble, U.S.C. could turn to junior Drew McAllister, a one-game starter a year ago. McAllister will have to prove he’s healthy, however, after undergoing off-season hip surgery. It will likely be sophomore T.J. McDonald at free safety, unless junior Marshall Jones makes a strong push during the second half of fall camp.

Game(s) to watch

The results won’t really matter, of course, but games against Oregon, Oregon State and Stanford are for conference bragging rights. Stanford in particular: we recall what happened the last time these two teams met. Don’t forget about Notre Dame, with two new coaches entering this rivalry, a home game against Washington or the season finale with U.C.L.A., this one in Pasadena.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell Let’s remove all the turmoil surrounding this program, focusing only on this year’s team. Barkley is a franchise quarterback, one who would be firmly in the Heisman conversation if not for the circumstances surrounding U.S.C.’s sanctions. The Trojans have options at running back — several experienced hands — and a deep, explosive receiver corps. The offensive line is a concern, particularly in terms of its lack of depth. The defense should hum along fine, especially if Wright steps into a stopper role and the two new safeties play up their talent levels. As for the coaching change, well, it’s hard not to see Kiffin as a downgrade at the head coach spot. On the other hand, his defensive staff is superb, a clear, nearly massive upgrade over last year’s group. His father, of course, is likely the most accomplished defensive coordinator in the country. Likewise with Orgeron, who leads the defensive line, with linebackers coach Jon Barry a vastly underrated acquisition. Again, a similar story on special teams: coordinator John Baxter is one of the top coaches in the nation. Now, back to Kiffin, who inherits a difficult situation. Does he have what it takes to keep the Trojans rolling at a Pete Carroll-like pace? In the long-term… there’s really no way to know. There’s no way to project what type of impact he’ll have, at least until the strong N.C.A.A. sanctions are removed from over the head of the program. As for 2010, if everything was equal, U.S.C. would clearly be the second-best team in the Pac-10, with games against Oregon, Oregon State and Stanford dictating the final conference standings. What happens in those games won’t truly matter, of course — except for the pride of a program long accustomed to bullying opposition for 60 minutes. If a Trojan wins a game, but it does little for his national title hopes, does he still have swagger?

Dream season If they were allowed to, the Trojans would go to the Rose Bowl: 12-1, 8-1 in the Pac-10, with a win over Oregon giving U.S.C. the conference crown.

Nightmare season There’s just too much to overcome, both on and off the field: 7-6, 4-5 in conference play.

In case you were wondering

Where do U.S.C. fans congregate? For some solid message board chatter, check out Tribute to TroyWe Are S.C.U.S.C. Football and S.C. Playbook. For additional coverage, look no ruther than Scott Wolf’s Inside U.S.C.Trojan Wire and the Web site of The Orange County Register.

Up Next

Who is No. 14? The first edition of our next university’s newspaper was printed 118 years and five months from the first Saturday of the 2010 season.

You can also follow Paul Myerberg and Pre-Snap Read on Twitter.

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Comments

  1. Becker says:

    The Daily Cardinal began publishing on April 4, 1892. University of Wisconsin is next – Jump Around!

  2. M Meyer says:

    Is it the Wisconsin Badgers? They have two student newspapers and the official one should be that old.

  3. James says:

    Wisconsin does indeed show up on the second page of “student newspaper 1892″ in Google; Stanford and Chicago appear before them, but Stanford was #25 and Chicago would have last appeared in the 1938 version of the Countdown.

  4. Matt Rob says:

    USC at 15? What about Lane Kiffin inspires this kind of ranking?

    Or is it more hope that the coach pictured, WHO COACHES A DIFFERENT TEAM NOW, assembled such a group of players prior to leaving the team that they will improve on last season’s record. This despite losing players to NCAA-allowed transfers, and with the remaining players competing with the knowledge that whether they finish 12-0 or 0-12, they aren’t going to a bowl game unless they buy tickets.

  5. Gotham Gator says:

    Impending NCAA sanctions can often bring a team closer together by creating an “us against the world” mentality. It’s happened with some frequency in the past – a team that has no bowl game or championship to play for nonetheless putting forth more effort and having more camaraderie than would otherwise be the case.

    Three years from now, when they are again playing for a conference title but have had recruiting wrecked by sanctions, the story will be different.

  6. MPF004 says:

    “On page 15, all kinds of symbols alongside Lane Kiffin’s career record to signify wins and conference championship later voided”

    which conference championship did Lane Kiffin win exactly? 2009 SEC? 2010 Pac 10??? he has what, 6 career wins?

  7. 'Catatonic Tim says:

    The Daily Cardinal began publishing in Madison on Monday, April 4, 1892.

  8. Manwich says:

    Pasadena, UCLA plays in Pasadena not Westwood.

  9. Jim Narby says:

    Nebraska is next.

  10. Last Son of Kr says:

    Travon Patterson transferred to Colorado in July.

  11. [...] Five and Five: No. 15, Southern California By PAUL MYERBERG Paul Myerberg is getting you ready for the upcoming college football season over at Pre-Snap Read. The Quad will also feature a daily look at each of Paul’s top 50 teams in the country heading into the season opener. Today’s team, No. 15, is Southern California. You can find a larger U.S.C. preview here. [...]

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