Matt Barkley To Return: How Good Can USC Be In 2012?

LOS ANGELES CA - OCTOBER 16: Matt Barkley #7 and Robert Woods #13 of the USC Trojans celebrate a touchdown for a 28-0 lead over the California Golden Bears during the second quarter at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on October 16 2010 in Los Angeles California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

Matt Barkley's decision to return to USC makes the Trojans a national title contender. Also: SI.com's Andy Staples says Matt Barkley made the right move, plus how his return affects the 2012 NFL Draft and changes USC's recruiting.

Yesterday afternoon, Matt Barkley announced that he was returning to USC for his senior season. This means a few different things, really:

1. Colin Cowherd is always wrong. (Evidently he was breaking the story that Barkley was going pro yesterday morning. I wouldn't know because I ignore him completely. But it was out there.)

2. It is always nice to be reminded that draft stock isn't the only thing that matters to every college football player deemed (by himself or others) ready for the pros.

3. USC is going to quite possibly be really good next year.

Regarding that last point, let's look at a few topics open for discussion.

How Much Better Can Barkley Get?

Barkley completed 308 of 446 passes (69 percent) for 3,528 yards, 39 touchdowns and seven interceptions this year. He was sacked just eight times. Including sacks, that is a rock solid per-attempt average of 7.7 yards. He managed these statistics against a rather strong schedule; USC's opponent-adjusted Passing S&P+ ranking was 10th. And he got much better as the season progressed, as well:

  • September: 101-for-149 (67.8%), 1,119 yards (7.5 per pass), 10 touchdowns, three interceptions
  • October: 103-for-154 (66.9%), 1,171 yards (7.6 per pass), 12 touchdowns, two interceptions
  • November: 104-for-143 (72.7%), 1,238 yards (8.7 per pass), 17 touchdowns, two interceptions

His surge was timed with the emergence of a second star receiver, but we'll get to that in a moment. His receiving corps is undergoing little important turnover in 2012, so any improvement or regression next season will be due as much to Barkley as anybody, or anything, else.

So how much can we expect Barkley to improve in his senior season? Honestly, not much. Back in the Football Outsiders Almanac 2010, I did a study of quarterbacks' performance based on factors like recruiting rankings and experience. I came up with the following table:

Average Passing S&P+ According to Recruiting Ranking
And Years Of Experience
Star Rating First Year Second Year Third Year Fourth Year Fifth Year
Two Stars 84.5 90.6 89.0 96.7 97.2
Three Stars 89.6 101.3 102.0 102.6 100.6
Four Stars 96.8 108.3 111.6 112.9 110.2
Five Stars 105.1 115.3 121.9 119.0 N/A

Looking at this data, I concluded the following:

At some point, experience stops mattering quite as much. Your growth is strongest in the first 12 months at the college level, and it is still steady between years two and three. Once you are three or four years removed from high school, the quality of your overall passing might (or might not) still be improving, though with a lesser slope. Among other things, this goes against the generally accepted notion that players who thrive as juniors are going to get better as seniors; usually, what you were as a junior is approximately what you will be the next season.

Sorry, USC fans. The quarterback you had this year -- you know, the one who was so good in the last four to six weeks that he almost came out of nowhere to become a Heisman finalist -- is the one you can probably expect to have in 2012.

Who Lines Up Around Him?

Here is where things get exciting, at least regarding skill position talent. For a good portion of the season, USC had perhaps the best 1-2 punch at the receiver position in college football. At first, it was mostly a one-man show. Robert Woods posted incredible, grueling statistics through September -- 17 catches for 177 yards against Minnesota, 14 for 255 against Arizona, 12 for 119 against Notre Dame. Only once in the first nine games did Woods catch fewer than eight passes.

But then, the switch flipped on for Marqise Lee, the precocious freshman who began to look like Sammy Watkins around the time that Watkins stopped looking like Sammy Watkins. The former blue-chipper had caught eight passes for 144 yards against Arizona (yes, that means the two combined for 22 catches and 399 yards versus the Wildcats; goodness), but in his first seven games as a Trojan, he had caught more than five passes just the one time. Over the final five games of the season, however, it is fair to say that Lee possibly emerged as the No. 1 target, especially as Woods battled some nagging injuries. Lee caught 46 passes for 609 yards and seven touchdowns in those five games. Those would be excellent full-season numbers for most freshmen.

Woods was only a true sophomore this year, Lee a true freshman. Barkley will get both of them back in 2012. Oh yeah, and the No. 3 target (tight end Randall Telfer) was a redshirt freshman. Of the six players targeted with at least 20 passes in 2011, four return. So does junior tailback Curtis McNeal, who also figured things out over the last half of the season; after earning just 24 carries in five games, McNeal averaged 17 carries and 115 yards over the final seven games of the year.

The line returns four of five starters to boot. They lose star tackle Matt Kalil, who declared for the draft earlier this week, but sophomore tackle Kevin Graf, guards Marcus Martin (freshman) and John Martinez (sophomore) and center Khaled Holmes (junior) are all back.

In the end, USC's offense ranked sixth in Off. F/+, and at least three of the teams ahead of them on that list (Wisconsin, Stanford, Oklahoma State) must replace several key pieces in 2012. It is fair to say that the Trojans should have one of the two or three best offenses in the country next season.

(Of course, their defense ranked 44th in Def. F/+, so we'll see if that young unit -- only two seniors started versus UCLA -- can actually keep things together next season, or whether defensive breakdowns will slow USC down like they slowed down Wisconsin at times this season.)

What Awaits In The Pac-12?

It appears this will be USC's schedule in 2012:

Home: Arizona State, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Notre Dame, Oregon
Away: Arizona, Stanford, Syracuse (in E. Rutherford, NJ), UCLA, Utah, Washington

Only one team on the road list ranked in the F/+ Top 50 this year (Stanford), and they will presumably be replacing Andrew Luck. Three of five Pac-12 South rivals will be breaking in new coaches, and probably the two best teams on the schedule (Oregon, Notre Dame) come to the Coliseum. Superior USC teams tripped up quite a few times on the road over the years -- at Oregon State in 2006, 2008 and 2010, at UCLA in 2006, at Washington in 2009 -- but let's just say that this is an incredibly favorable schedule for a team that will be billed as a national title contender.

I love it anytime a player eschews the draft for one more year in college. I wish it happened more. That Barkley chose to return to Los Angeles for a fourth year (especially with what has been deemed a "cautionary tale" in Matt Leinart) both does college football a favor and makes USC a title contender in their return to the postseason. Perhaps as importantly, it also bridges a bit of a gap. As scholarship sanctions begin to take their toll on the Trojans, their depth will disappear a bit. And to be sure, a tough series of injuries could wreck this squad just like any other. But the way things are taking shape, it would take a large set of injuries for depth problems to rear their ugly head next year. Because the first string is going to be ridiculously good, especially on offense.

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