Pac-12 South Preview: USC

The Year That Was

It was a messy season for USC. For starters, Lane Kiffin’s squad went 8-5, including an embarrassing 36-7 showing against middling Oregon State. The team also fell at home to
nemesis Notre Dame.

Mostly, though, 2010 was disappointing because the Trojans were not allowed to play in a bowl game. They are under NCAA sanctions for improper benefits to Heisman winner Reggie Bush, going all the way back to USC’s 2004 championship season. The punishment applies to 2011, as well — if USC wins the south, the second-place team will play in the Pac-12 title game.

Nevertheless, the Trojans are stockpiled with talent and, when focused, played as tough as any team in the conference. USC crushed Cal, 48-14, with a flawless first half, and went neck-and-neck with then-No. 1 Oregon until the fourth quarter. A last-second field goal was the difference in a loss at Stanford.

Quarterback Matt Barkley had a solid sophomore season, throwing for 2,791 yards and 26 touchdowns. He found a new favorite target in Robert Woods, the Pac-10 Offensive Freshman of the Year and a consensus Freshman All-American.

One cause for concern was the team’s pass defense. It ranked 10th in the conference — and 109th overall — giving up nearly 260 yards per game.

Key Departures and Returnees

Barkley and Woods return as one of the best quarterback-receiver tandems in the conference — if not the country.

USC’s biggest loss may be 6-foot-5, 307-pound offensive tackle Tyron Smith, an All-Pac-10 first teamer selection who went ninth in this year’s NFL Draft. Ronald Johnson and Allen Bradford both graduated, leaving USC in need of a No. 2 receiver and running back, respectively.

Player to Watch

Marc Tyler. The senior running back impressed in his first season as a starter, rushing for a team-best 930 yards and nine touchdowns in 2010.

But his offseason was eventful in all the wrong ways. Tyler was suspended for 2011’s season opener after making controversial comments to TMZ — an episode that came on the heels of two alleged misconduct incidents in April.

If his off-the-field problems don’t affect his on-field performance (or playing time), Tyler could be final cog in a tremendous trifecta on offense. He might actually live up to his hype as ESPN’s second-ranked incoming tailback from 2007.

Key Questions

  1. Can Lane Kiffin coach? This fall will tell us a lot. Right now, Kiffin’s time in the spotlight has had little to do with on-field achievements. He’s in his third head coaching gig since 2007 (overall record: 20-26) and has yet to last two full years at either one. Kiffin’s best moments as a collegiate head coach are near-upsets. He can recruit — though USC and Tennessee aren’t exactly small brands. He can assemble all-star staffs. He can draw Al Davis’ ire. Can he return that Carroll-era swagger to Heritage Hall?
  2. Will the defense, particularly the pass defense, improve? The secondary returns three of four starters. That may or may not be a good thing, since the Trojans were last in the Pac-10 against the pass. A tough, stingy unit could be the difference between another average season and a high AP ranking. Health and depth will be crucial, as injuries hindered Kiffin’s entire club during spring practice.

Outlook

USC is picked to finish first in the Pac-12 south division and second overall in the preseason media poll. Considering Oregon and Stanford are in the north division, that doesn’t seem so far-fetched. With the returning talent and and ESPN’s No. 4 freshman class, there’s no reason the Trojans can’t win their division. They could go undefeated, but their season will still be over two days after Thanksgiving.

Image source: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Los Angeles District under Creative Commons