NCAA Football Preview - USC Trojans
By Phil Neuffer, Associate College Football Editor
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - 2011 SEASON IN REVIEW: After two years on the outside looking in at postseason play, the USC Trojans will be back in a big way in 2012. The Trojans got great news when Matt Barkley decided to return to school after a record-breaking junior season and now the Trojans will be looking for even more coming off a 10-2 campaign in 2011.
The Trojans got a scare to start the season, narrowly edging out Minnesota 19-17 at home. They settled down and took care of Utah (23-14) and Syracuse (38-17), also at home, in their next two contests. In its first road game, USC also got its first taste of defeat, getting blown out by Arizona State (43-22) in week four. That was followed by three straight wins, including a 31-17 win on the road over rival Notre Dame. The Trojans' second loss came at home the next week in a 56-48 four-overtime marathon against Andrew Luck and Stanford. The Trojans then had four straight wins to finish the season.
With the bowl ban in effect the Trojans were not eligible for postseason play despite a 10-2 record. Still the Trojans were one of the better teams both in conference and nationally, and should ride that momentum into this season.
OFFENSE: There isn't a whole lot to complain about on the offensive side of the ball for USC. The team ranked 16th in scoring last season (35.8 ) and this year should see the team rise in that regard.
Barkley's decision to return to the college ranks will keep the offense on track and puts him squarely at the top of the early Heisman list. The senior threw for 3,528 yards and a Pac-12 record 39 touchdowns last season and might even improve on those lofty numbers this time around.
It might not seem fair, but teamed with arguably the best quarterback in the nation is arguably the best wide receiver in Robert Woods. The junior is a physical pass-catcher who caught 111 passes for 1,292 yards and 15 touchdowns last season. What might make opposing defenses even more discouraged is that Woods could get out-shined by sophomore Marqise Lee. In a sensational freshman campaign, Lee caught 73 passes for 1,143 yards and 11 touchdowns.
As explosive as the passing game can be, ignoring the run game would be a mistake. Originally slated at starting tailback was Curtis McNeal who is coming off a 1,000 yard rushing season. However the wealth of offensive weapons only got deeper in the off season for the Trojans, when tailback Silas Redd transferred from Penn State in the wake off the hefty NCAA sanctions following the scandal in State College.
"I haven't stopped smiling. I think I made one of the best decisions of my life to come out to USC and try to help this team be as successful as possible," Redd said.
The offensive line has four returning starters with the only question mark at left tackle where the Trojans must replace first-round draft pick Matt Kalil.
DEFENSE: With a potent offense, the Trojans defense will not have as much pressure thrust upon it. That doesn't mean USC will be weak in stopping the opposition. Seven starters return, all on the back seven.
All-American safety T.J. McDonald is one of the most important returning players. The senior had 67 total tackles last season and a team-leading three interceptions. He will be paired with senior Jawanza Starling, also a senior, at safety. Nickell Robey and Isiah Wiley are the two cornerbacks. Wiley is a senior who had 39 total tackles last season, while the junior Robey had 63 including a pair of sacks.
There are three sophomores starting at linebacker but the unit's youth does not equate to inexperience. All three started as freshmen, led by Dion Bailey and Hayes Pullard, who both finished with 81 total tackles. Lamar Dawson fits in at the middle spot after being inserted into the starting lineup late last season.
The defense's only real soft spot is up front where defensive end Wes Horton is the only returning starter. The senior had four sacks last season and 22 total tackles. A pair of sophomores in J.R. Tavai and George Uko will be the defensive tackles and Devon Kennard will be a starter in his senior year.
SEPCIAL TEAMS: Woods and Lee were the primary kick returners last season, each averaging over 23 yards per return. Woods also returned 13 punts with an average of 9.1 yards per return.
Both place-kicker Andre Heidari (15-for-17 on field goals) and punter Kyle Negrete (40.1 yards per punt) return, leaving the kicking game in capable hands. .
OUTLOOK: With an offense filled to the brim with weapons and a defense that has the playmakers to dominate, USC is in win now mode with its sights set higher than most teams in the nation entering the regular season as the No. 1 team in the top-25.
"We definitely didn't come here to be underdogs," USC safety T.J. McDonald said. "The ranking doesn't mean we've done anything as a team. But it's good to see we're back where we're supposed to be."
Getting to that position begins with a home game against Hawaii and then a trip across the country to face Syracuse in East Rutherford, NJ. Then the Trojans have a tough road test against Stanford, before returning home to play California. Two more road games (at Utah and at Washington) are next on the docket. From there the Trojans play four of their final six games at home, including an all-important showdown with Oregon on Nov. 3.
It's been a long two years for football fans in Southern California, but the wait is now over. In his third season as head coach, Lane Kiffin has his Trojans ready to take care of the 'unfinished business' that brought Barkley back.
08/23 14:10:04 ET