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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. 32: U.S.C.

Fine, so U.S.C. is no longer U.S.C. — and you know exactly what I mean with that sentence. The program lost its aura of invincibility on Halloween in 2009, when the then-No. 5 Trojans were made pedestrian by Oregon, and lost its status as local bully when Stanford and Jim Harbaugh took the Trojans down a peg — perhaps more than a peg — two weeks later. Things haven’t been the same since, and it’s not all because of the N.C.A.A., in my opinion. Will things ever return to normal? Maybe the question isn’t whether U.S.C. will be back, as the Trojans will continue to bring in enough talent to play with any team in the country. Maybe the question is how U.S.C. will come back: whether as bully, as in the past, or with newfound respect for how hard it is to start at the bottom and work your way up the Pac-12 ladder. Actually, the question I’m most interested in is this: Will U.S.C. be back under Lane Kiffin or someone else?

Conference
Pac-12, South

Location
Los Angeles

Nickname
Trojans

Returning starters
13 (6 offense, 7 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 15

2010 record
(8-5, 5-4)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 38

2011 schedule

  • Sept. 3
    Minnesota
  • Sept. 10
    Utah
  • Sept. 17
    Syracuse
  • Sept. 24
    at Arizona St.
  • Oct. 1
    Arizona
  • Oct. 13
    at California
  • Oct. 22
    at Notre Dame
  • Oct. 29
    Stanford
  • Nov. 4
    at Colorado
  • Nov. 12
    Washington
  • Nov. 19
    at Oregon
  • Nov. 26
    U.C.L.A.

Last year’s prediction

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?

2010 recap

In a nutshell For a team with nothing to play for, U.S.C. certainly didn’t look like a team with nothing to play for. No, this was likely the program’s worst team since Pete Carroll’s debut season in 2001. In terms of wins and losses: 8-5, a program-low for wins and a program-high for losses since that 2001 campaign, if we don’t count the N.C.A.A.-mandated 0-1 mark in 2005. This is U.S.C., after all, and wins and losses matter above all. But you had to like what you saw for much of last season, and while I draw the line at calling these Trojans a bunch of overachieving underdogs, do remember that this was a team that took a huge hit thanks to graduation and attrition. So 8-5 isn’t all that bad, considering that the losses include one to Washington that absolutely should not have been a loss; another to Stanford that was going the Trojans’ way until the final minute; another by four points to Notre Dame; another to Oregon, which is understandable; and one ugly loss at Oregon State. All things considered, this team was pretty good. Just not as good as teams have been over the last decade, which makes 8-5 awfully hard to swallow for those associated or familiar with the program.

High point Another win over U.C.L.A., the program’s 10th in 11 tries. Even when down, the Trojans are above the Bruins. There was a win over Hawaii, which grew more and more impressive down the stretch, as well as a win over then-No. 18 Arizona on the road.

Low point The Coliseum was all jazzed up for No. 2 Oregon on the last Saturday of October, and the Trojans did give the fans plenty to cheer about for roughly 34 minutes. Then the bottom dropped out, as a 32-29 U.S.C. advantage deteriorated into a 53-32 Oregon win. For a time there, it seemed like U.S.C. could hang. Oregon State was equally unkind, handing the Trojans a 36-7 loss in Corvallis.

Tidbit The wonderful streak continues in 2011. U.S.C. remains one of three teams in the nation to have never played an F.C.S. opponent, joining U.C.L.A. and Notre Dame. Round of applause for this threesome. Over the last 15 years, the Trojans have played only 13 regular season games against non-B.C.S. conference competition, in fact, if we don’t add Notre Dame to that category. The list: Hawaii in 2010, 2003 and 1999; San Jose State in 2009, 2001 and 2000; Idaho in 2007; Fresno State in 2005; Colorado State in 2004; B.Y.U. in 2004 and 2003; San Diego State in 1998; and U.N.L.V. in 1997.

Tidbit (recruiting edition) So there was some question as to how many players U.S.C. could sign in its most recent recruiting class. Some wondered how the Trojans could sign so many, 30 recruits, after the N.C.A.A. issued an initial ruling that the program could carry only 75 scholarship players. Well, here was Kiffin’s logic in February: U.S.C. could have signed a smaller class, pending the N.C.A.A.’s final ruling, or it could get after it and sign a huge class in advance of the final verdict. The final verdict came down earlier this summer, with the N.C.A.A. ruling that the Trojans would lose 30 scholarships over the next three years. So from 2012-14, the Trojans will average 15 signings per class. Kiffin was then wise to sign a huge class in 2011, one that will replenish depth in advance of some painful recruiting limitations. That’s how I understand it, at least.

Former players in the N.F.L.

58 WR David Ausberry (Oakland), OT Sam Baker (Atlanta), LB Darnell Bing (Houston), RB Allen Bradford (Tampa Bay), OT Charles Brown (New Orleans), K David Buehler (Dallas), RB Reggis Bush (Miami), C Jeff Byers (Denver), TE Dominique Byrd (Seattle), TE Jordan Cameron (Cleveland), DT Jurrell Casey (Tennessee), QB Matt Cassel (Kansas City), DT Shaun Cody (Houston), LB Brian Cushing (Houston), TE Fred Davis (Washington), DT Sedrick Ellis (New Orleans), RB C.J. Gable (New Orleans), DE Everson Griffin (Minnesota), K Jacob Harfman (Atlanta), S Cary Harris (New York Giants), FB Stanley Havili (Philadelphia), OT Nick Howell (San Francisco), DE Lawrence Jackson (Detroit), RB Stafon Johnson (Tennessee), WR Ronald Johnson (San Francisco), OT Winston Justice (Philadelphia), C Ryan Kalil (Carolina), QB Matt Leinart (Houston), OG Butch Lewis (Kansas City), 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), LB Mike Morgan (Seattle), C Kris O’Dowd (Arizona), OG Alex Parsons (Oakland), DT Mike Patterson (Philadelphia), CB Josh Pinkard (Seattle), S Troy Polamualu (Pittsburgh), OG Chilo Rachal (San Francisco), LB Keith Rivers (Cincinnati), DE Frostee Rucker (Cincinnati), QB Mark Sanchez (New York Jets), DT Derek Simmons (Baltimore), OT Tyron Smith (Dallas), CB Terrell Thomas (New York Giants), CB Kevin Thomas (Indianapolis), WR Patrick Turner (New York Jets), RB Chauncey Washington (St. Louis), RB LenDale White (Denver), WR Damian Williams (Tennessee), WR Mike Williams (Seattle), LB Thomas Williams (New England). CB Shareece Wright (San Diego).

Arbitrary top five list

John Wayne movies, 1950-59
1. “The Quiet Man,” 1952.
2. “The Searchers,” 1956.
3. “Rio Grande,” 1950.
4. “Hondo,” 1953.
5. “Rio Bravo,” 1959.

Coaching

Lane Kiffin (Fresno State ’98), 8-5 after one season back with the Trojans. Of course, Kiffin came to Los Angeles after 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. Kiffin is on a surprisingly toasty seat: he’s not going to lose his job, but anything less than another eight-win season is going to put him under a spotlight heading into 2012.

Players to watch

It’s disappointing, in a way, to see that Matt Barkley’s run as U.S.C.’s starting quarterback will be overshadowed by these ongoing N.C.A.A. penalties. He deserves better: he deserves to be mentioned alongside all of the program’s greats at the position, of the recent and distant past, and should leave U.S.C. near or atop the school’s record book for all of the meaningful passing records. Which is pretty impressive, if you stop and think about it. A starter since day one, Barkley, now a junior, took a significant step forward in 2010, growing more and more comfortable under center and showing greater consistency, though Barkley needs to avoid the lulls that continued to plague him on occasion as a sophomore.

There were a few two-interception games, not to mention a four-game span from late October through November where Barkley really struggled: Oregon, Arizona, Arizona State and Oregon State, with the latter game ending at halftime thanks to an ankle injury. In all, however, last season was a definite success: 2,791 yards passing, 26 touchdowns against 12 picks and a completion rate just below 63 percent, a nice step forward in all categories after his rookie campaign. What can Barkley do in 2011? He can be as good as anyone; he’ll just get better with each snap. While it’ll never happen, thanks to his team’s projected record and the N.C.A.A. penalties, Barkley is in the Heisman mix. The only issue facing U.S.C. at quarterback is a lack of depth, as while the Trojans have six players battling for the backup role not one has attempted a pass on the college level. The Trojans need one of those contenders to emerge as a viable second option, with redshirt freshman Jesse Scroggins the best choice. Get somebody ready, as Barkley could opt for the N.F.L. in 2012, after all.

Marc Tyler will miss the season opener after his misguided comments a few weeks ago, but once he returns to the field he’ll be U.S.C.’s top running back. That’s what he was a year ago, when he lived up to his potential in leading the Trojans in rushing (913 yards) and touchdowns (nine), adding another 17 receptions for 127 yards through the air. But U.S.C. did suffer some losses here, so the hope is that sophomore Dillon Baxter (253 yards) and redshirt freshman D.J. Morgan can step into the void and provide a boost on the ground. Both would be nice compliments to the bruising Tyler, home-run threats who could be the dash to Tyler’s smash. Junior Curtis McNeal’s strong spring showing vaulted him ahead of that pair on the depth chart heading into the fall, so he’ll be looking at heavy touches against Minnesota while Tyler’s decked out in street clothes. Don’t sleep on how hard it will be for the Trojans to replace fullback Stanley Havili, who did it all for this offense; for now, U.S.C. is going with true freshman Soma Vainuku at the position.

The story at receiver is one of youth, as the Trojans head towards the fall with only one senior, Brandon Carswell (16 receptions for 205 yards), poised to hold a major role. Is that a problem? Nope. Not when you have a sophomore like Robert Woods, who burst onto the scene in 2010 to the tune of a team-best 65 receptions for 786 yards and 6 scores, not to mention a new school record for kickoff return yardage (971, one touchdown). Everyone thought Woods would be terrific, but that he took control of the top spot so quickly — 12 receptions for 224 yards and 3 scores against Stanford in October — showed the height of his ceiling heading into 2011 and beyond.

With Carswell and Woods due to start, what U.S.C. really needs is for a handful of young, unproven targets to step into larger roles. One is junior Brice Butler, who was a disappointment last fall after making 20 receptions as a freshman. He’s one of several extremely talented receivers littering the depth chart, joining sophomores Markeith Ambles and De’Von Flourney and redshirt freshman Kyle Prater — in addition to a few true freshmen, like George Farmer, Victor Blackwell and Marqise Lee. Senior tight end Rhett Ellison (20 for 229 yards) may not be flashy, but he’s a reliable target for Barkley to work with on the intermediate level.

The defense will be better. Right? It can’t get much worse than it was a year ago, when the Monte Kiffin-led attack took a significant step backwards in all facets: the pass, the run, getting to the quarterback, on third down, in the red zone and, most importantly, keeping opponents out of the red zone. The elder Kiffin’s first order of business will be to find a better mix in the secondary, where the Trojans were especially painful in 2011. The defense can take some solace in a deep front four, which must replace an all-conference tackle but returns six players with solid starting experience.

One is senior tackle Christian Tupou, a starter in 2008-9 who missed last season due to injury. His healthy return will be vital to this defense, since it will not only provide the defense with a stout run-stopper in the middle of the line but also vastly improve depth. Tupou would push senior DaJohn Harris (35 tackles, 3.5 sacks) into a secondary role — for now, at least — though Harris will continue to be an integral piece of the puzzle. U.S.C. also brings back another senior, Armond Armstead (43 tackles, 3 sacks), giving the Trojans a deep and experienced rotation at tackle. Greater depth comes from a quintet of true and redshirt freshmen, led by George Uko, who will play a bunch.

While the tackle spot is defined by its seniors, it’s all about the juniors at end. Nick Perry (25 tackles, 4 sacks) and Devon Kennard (72 tackles, 7 for loss) are the projected starters, with Kennard moving down to his more natural end spot after spending last season at middle linebacker. A third junior, Wes Horton (29 tackles, 4 sacks) will push this pair for snaps once he fully recovers from a foot injury. Former walk-on Eric Childs made a climb up the depth chart during the spring, but there’s plenty of opportunities for true freshmen Greg Townsend and DeVante Wilson to make an impact once they get a grasp of the defense.

There are holes at outside linebacker, as the Trojans need to supplant a pair of multiple-year starters. U.S.C. does bring back senior Chris Galippo (29 tackles), who shared time in the middle with Kennard a year ago. It’s time for Galippo to live to his massive billing: he’s fared well in spurts, but U.S.C. needs him to inhabit a leadership role on and off the field in 2011. The Trojans still need to make a decision on the outside, with senior Shane Horton (28 tackles, 6.5 for loss) a fairly easy pick on the weak side should he be healthy — if not, it’ll be redshirt freshman Hayes Pullard. I don’t know how I’d feel about an outside linebacker combination of Pullard and sophomore Marquis Simmons on the strong side: no questioning the talent, but that’s an inexperienced pairing.

And so we return to the secondary, a major sticking point last fall but a group, as we head to September, with definite promise. There’s an overload of options at safety, beginning with returning starters T.J. McDonald (89 tackles, 3 interceptions) and Jawanza Starling (37 tackles, 1 interception) and continuing with a handful — nearly two handfuls — of gifted defensive backs, including a pair with past starting experience. McDonald’s too good to not hold onto his spot at free safety; a second-team all-conference pick last fall, McDonald was the lone bright spot in an otherwise spotty secondary.

But Starling could very easily lose his grasp on strong safety, as U.S.C. could also turn to senior Marshall Jones, Starling’s replacement due to injury over the final four games of 2010. Jones, sophomore Demetrius Wright and junior Drew McAllister are going to play, probably at Starling’s expense, so the Trojans look ready to roll at safety. Unfortunately, cornerback again looks like a danger zone. Sophomore Nickell Robey is back after making a team-best four interceptions in 2010, but his lack of prototypical height will always make him best-suited for a nickel role — insert name joke here. But Robey does make plays, which you can’t discount, and he looks like a four-year starter in the U.S.C. secondary. Converted safety Tony Burnett is a nice story: the former walk-on and member of the U.S.C. track team impressed the staff with how quickly he took to cornerback, leaving him the favorite to join Robey in the starting lineup.

Position battle(s) to watch

Offensive line OR, OR, OR, OR — enough of those on the depth chart to get a boat across the Pacific. What U.S.C. doesn’t have along the offensive line is anything close to a final solution, not to mention linemen with enough starting experience to instill anything close to a sense of confidence. What U.S.C. does have is two players with adequate playing time under their sizable belts: junior Matt Kalil at left tackle and converted guard Khaled Holmes at center, with Holmes still battling to return to full strength after shoulder surgery. From there, it’s anyone’s guess. The Trojans need help, and that’s why Kiffin went out and nabbed a pair of JUCO transfers in David Garness and Jeremy Galten; you can pencil Galten in as the starter at right tackle, ahead of sophomore Kevin Graf, while Garness will begin the year as Kalil’s understudy on the blind side. As for guard, it’s time for senior Martin Coleman to grab a starting role and run with it. He’s been here before, atop the depth chart in August, but Coleman has yet to make an impact along the U.S.C. offensive line. The Trojans need a big year out of him, as Coleman’s the lone senior on scholarship up front. U.S.C. has similar competition at left guard, where sophomore John Martinez and redshirt freshman Giovanni Di Poalo are entrenched in an ongoing position battle. There’s a real shot for a true freshman like Cyrus Hobbi or Marcus Martin to leap in and steal some significant playing time, which is good for that pair but not good for this team’s hopes up front. As of today, only two spots, left tackle and center, are spoken for; a third, right guard, seems to be Coleman’s to lose; a fourth, right tackle, is leaning towards a JUCO transfer; and left guard looks like a potential trouble spot.

Game(s) to watch

A home game with Utah might decide the Pac-12 South, so that’s one game that stands out. So does another tussle with Notre Dame, which finally cracked a long losing streak in the series last fall. U.S.C. gets the Irish on the road, as well as Arizona State, California and Oregon.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell There’s a terrific amount of talent. This is U.S.C., after all, and even if these aren’t the big, bad, bullying Trojans of old this is still a team that has stockpiled five-star recruits nearly across the board. So what’s missing? Depth, most of all, but while the Trojans are very deep and strong in some areas there are enough trouble spots to keep this team from being a legitimate national contender — and yes, the N.C.A.A. took care of that problem anyway. Where U.S.C. can feel good about things is at quarterback, barring injury: Barkley’s the key to the entire offense, and U.S.C. would be hard-pressed to finish .500 if he’s lost for a significant amount of time. There’s ability at running back and receiver, but the biggest question mark offensively is along the line, where things do not look good. The defense will take its cue from a deep and experienced front four; they’ll be needed in a big way, considering the issues at linebacker and in the secondary. About this secondary: it can’t be worse, can only be better, and will be improved if Robey can continue to develop and Burnett can take to his new role, and there’s wonderful depth at safety. In short, if everything goes its way U.S.C. could challenge for 10 wins. That’s if there are no injuries, if the offensive line comes together, if the linebacker corps lands strong play from youngsters and the secondary steps up. That’s a quite a bit to go right. In a more realistic scenario, these question marks harass U.S.C. all season, preventing the Trojans from reclaiming their place atop the Pac-12.

Dream season U.S.C. has a strong starting lineup, but it’s the freshmen depth that comes in handy in a 11-1 regular season, with a loss only at Oregon in November.

Nightmare season The Trojans take a tremendous step back: 4-8, 3-6 in the Pac-12.

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.

Word Count

Through 89 teams 272,098.

Up Next

Who is No. 31? A few others come close, but tomorrow’s program is the only one in the F.B.S. whose mascot shares its name with a team from a Bernard Malamud novel.

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Comments

  1. WizardHawk says:

    I would say USC’s road loss to UW in Seattle early in ’09 was the point at which some questioned if the dominance was gone. They did bounce back with strong games vs Cal and Notre Dame before their loss to Oregon, but they really didn’t look the same.

    I still think they are the team to beat in the Pac12 South and it will be interesting if they do and the very first Pac12 championship game is the North vs #2 in the South.

  2. Charlie says:

    UCF is next.

  3. WizardHawk says:

    oh, was I supposed to make a guess at the clue? UCF Knights would be my guess.

  4. Dan Fulton says:

    I am half tempted to take Utah for the Sept 17 game to win. But then my better judgement says no. USC should be a little better this yr than last. Utah, welcome to the Pac12 and now play at USC. Guess they got what they were asking for lol

  5. Bird says:

    Was the mascot from “the Natural” Knightro? I know they were the New York Knights, but I don’t remember their mascot name.

  6. BobJ says:

    Those are two discerning picks to the top of the john Wayne list. The first is a non-Western, with Maureen O’Hara. The chemistry between the two is miles beyond McClintock!, but then there is a much better story being told. The second is a Western, but Wayne plays a guy who is not very nice, to put it mildly. Not the usual stance for him. Both films are highly recommended.

  7. Charlie says:

    Oh wow, I completely missed the “Mascot” part. Tricky.

    Still, this seems like a logical place for UCF to be and I don’t remember much about The Natural, so I don’t have a better guess.

  8. JC says:

    Your schedule is wrong. Utah and USC play on September 10th not the 17th.

    Paul: Thanks. Had swapped Utah and Syracuse. Fixed above.

  9. GTWrek says:

    I think it’s interesting that Jim Harbaugh’s first regular season NFL game is going to be against Pete Carroll. Looking forward to the post-game handshake.

  10. MD Smith says:

    Washington has never played a FCS opponent. However, for the first time they have one scheduled this season, Eastern Washington. Eastern, however, is the defending national FCS champion. You’ve jumped the gun.

  11. MD Smith says:

    PS: Matt Barkley has NEVER shown any greatness. Your standards are really low.

  12. Inert1 says:

    Barkley was, however, the top ranked recruit in the country. That may be suited for greatness when it suits the writer.

  13. Warden Tressel says:

    Barkley has Jimmy Clausen written all over him.

    It makes me smile to know that USC and Ohio St. are both in shambles.

  14. michael says:

    I am pleased that Utah is called to be the best team in the Pac-12 South. Not a Non-AQ any longer but still anti-systemic.

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