First things first: welcome back, USC. After two years of mediocre play in 2009-10, and after a two-year postseason ban that prevented them from playing in the first ever conference title game, the Trojans are officially back in the game. They are eligible for the Pac-12 championship, eligible for the BCS championship, and as of the last month of the 2011 regular season, looking like USC again.
We can debate whether college football is better with traditional powers playing at a powerful level (it doesn't take long to find somebody who will say exactly that), but it would be a waste of time. USC has taken off the invisibility cloak, and early indications are that they will begin the 2012 season as the early national title favorite.
So here's the question: are the Trojans deserving of the hype?
The Trojans upset Oregon in Eugene and obliterated UCLA to finish last season. They return a Heisman favorite and a roster that, despite recent scholarship limitations, is dripping with four- and five-star talent at every position. But they have ranked 27th, 29th and 11th in F/+ rankings over the last three years and completely ceded control of the conference to Oregon (despite last year's win). Aside from Auburn in 2010, national champions tend to emerge from an already well-established ruling class, i.e. teams that were playing at a Top Five level for years before their title season.
Is USC truly ready to compete for a title again, or are we getting starry eyed because of a couple of great games and a spectacular receiving duo?
Here's what we definitely know regarding USC:
1. The Trojans really might have the best pair of receivers in the country. If Robert Woods is healthy (and that is certainly still a medium-sized "if"), he and sophomore Marqise Lee are absolutely terrifying. The two combined for 184 catches, 2,435 yards and a healthy per-target average of 9.4 yards last season. Woods is perhaps the best possession receiver in America, and Lee absolutely exploded after getting his bearings (last eight games of 2011: 60 catches for 964 yards). Of the players who averaged at least 15 yards per catch and caught at least 20 passes last season, Lee's absurd 78-percent catch rate was the highest by a decent margin. (Baylor's Kendall Wright clocked in at 75 percent and 15.5 yards per catch.)
If Woods isn't completely healthy, Lee will still make for an outstanding No. 1 receiver. The problem, of course, is that the No. 3 returning wideout is sophomore George Farmer, who caught just four passes last year. There are plenty of former four- and five-star players in the receiving corps, but few have had an opportunity to prove themselves outside of Woods and Lee.
2. Throwback quarterback Matt Barkley is really, really good. He certainly had help from Woods and Lee, but aside from Andrew Luck, virtually every Heisman quarterback has a couple of great receivers at his disposal. Despite a young line in front of him and dependence on a sophomore No. 1 and a freshman No. 2, Barkley's 2011 statistics were beautiful: 3,528 passing yards (which would have easily gone over 4,000 with a Pac-12 title game appearance and bowl game), a 69 percent completion rate, 7.7 yards per pass attempt (including sacks), a 1.6 percent interception rate and a 1.8 percent sack rate.
For comparison's sake, Baylor's Robert Griffin III completed 72 percent of his passes, averaged 9.7 yards per pass attempt and managed a 1.5 percent interception rate and a 6.3 percent sack rate. Barkley's numbers weren't Griffin's, but they might be good enough to get him to New York for the Heisman ceremony this December.
3. USC definitely improved as the season progressed.
First Five Games Of 2011: USC 30.2 Adj. Points per game, Opponents 29.3 (plus-0.9)
Last Seven Games Of 2011: USC 32.3 Adj. Points per game, Opponents 25.7 (plus-6.6)
After limping through five unimpressive games (including a two-point home win over Minnesota, a seven-point win over Arizona and a 21-point road loss to Arizona State), the Trojans found their rhythm. The passing game picked up when Lee emerged, and an incredibly young linebacking corps spearheaded improvement on the other side of the ball. Still, their performance over the last half of the season was only SO good -- for the entire season, a plus-6.6 Adj. Scoring Margin would have ranked them 15th in the country. From mid-October on, USC was good, but there were still quite a few teams that were better.
4. We're banking a lot on those final two games. USC played like a Top 15 team over the last half of the season, but this was a truly elite team while pulling off a 38-35 win over Oregon and a 50-0 demolition of UCLA. The Trojans' Adj. Scoring Margin from those two games: plus-11.2. For the entire season, that would have ranked third behind Alabama and LSU. We know that late-season play matters more than early-season play when it comes to the next year's overall performance, but is a two-game sample enough?
In this way, the postseason ban almost played to USC's advantage. It very well might have beaten Oregon again if eligible for the Pac-12 title and very well might have beaten Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl thereafter. But the Trojans also might have fallen to the Ducks and lost their bowl game as well. That they were finished after the UCLA game prevented them from building the hype even more, but it also prevented a couple of potential speed bumps.
So is USC deserving of the No. 1 hype? Maybe not.
I think the 2012 title race starts with Alabama and LSU again, and USC is among quite a few teams deserving of the initial No. 3 slot. But if the Trojans maneuver unscathed through a schedule that includes early trips to Stanford and Utah, late home games versus Oregon and Notre Dame and a potential Oregon rematch in the Pac-12 title game, they will find themselves in the national title game no matter what their initial ranking may have been.
USC was handed a significant, slow-death punishment -- a two-year postseason ban and a reduction of 30 scholarships -- for benefits allegedly given to Reggie Bush and O.J. Mayo. Entering Year Two, they are ineligible for the first Pac-12 South crown; the marquee program of the 2000s has been rendered invisible, or at least, as invisible as you can be while situated that close to TMZ headquarters. Sure, they are probably the best team in the Pac-12 South, but they aren't even in the race. Sure, they have a more experienced defense and interesting skill position talent, but in an era where bowl bids are handed out like they're jobs at Dave Kovic's employment agency, USC won't be playing after November 26. Sure, the Trojans are still pretty decent now, but what happens in three years when the scholarship limits have taken their toll? It is an odd, empty place to be. But the games go on in the L.A. Coliseum, anonymity or no anonymity. […]
It is odd previewing a season that means very little. USC should be a solid team that, if eligible for the postseason, would be a strong favorite for the first Pac-12 South crown. The Football Outsiders Almanac 2011 gives the Trojans a 20% chance of finishing 8-1 or better in conference (Utah: 8%, Arizona State: 7%) and a 59% chance of finishing 9-3 or better overall; but really, USC will just be trying to remain "USC," living life in the shadows, positioning themselves to recover as quickly as possible when sanctions end, and thanking the heavens that Nevin Shapiro lived in Miami and not Los Angeles.
It really was the proverbial Tale Of Two Seasons for USC in 2011. As much as we remember how it finished, it is also worth noting just how poorly the team started. The Trojans needed a late interception to hold off Minnesota, then blocked a field goal and returned it for a touchdown to prevent overtime in a home win over Utah. They got thumped at Arizona State in Week Four (back when ASU was actually good), then allowed 554 yards in a seven-point win over Arizona; if not for Marqise Lee's coming-out party (eight targets, eight catches, 144 yards, one touchdown), they could have been in trouble versus the iffy Wildcats.
But then, it began to turn around. USC forced five turnovers in an easy win over California, forced another three in knocking off Notre Dame in South Bend. The Trojans fell to Stanford in a triple-overtime classic, then didn't lose again. They averaged 7.8 yards per play in an easy win over Colorado, then held Washington to 244 yards in another easy win. They exploded out to a 38-14 lead at Oregon before holding on late and winning by three when the Ducks missed a 37-yard field goal at the buzzer; then, they finished up by averaging 9.4 yards per play and hanging 50 on UCLA.
Again, they weren't as elite all season as they were in the last two games -- they were an overtime fumble versus Stanford away from an 11-1 record, but they were also a couple of missed field goals from a couple of overtimes and a potential 8-4 record. Still, when you finish that strong and your name is USC, people will notice.
The spread offense has become almost de rigueur in many portions of the country, but Lane Kiffin has shown that you can recruit plenty of talent to play a good, old-fashioned pro-style offense. It helps when you have a big name that recruits itself, of course, but a sales pitch of "We can prepare you for the NFL by putting you in an NFL offense" certainly still works. Just ask the eight (or so) former four- or five-star recruits who will be starting for the USC offense this fall.
We've already discussed Barkley, Woods and Lee, of course. Considering USC was very much a pass-first offense on standard downs (it ran 50 percent of the time on such downs, 10 percent lower than the national average), and considering Woods and Lee were targeted by 60 percent of all USC passes last year (38.5 percent Woods, 21.8 percent Lee, 39.7 percent everybody else), that discussion does occupy a good portion of the offense. But we should still talk about the tight ends and the run game.
Receiver depth at USC has taken a hit because the departures of former star recruits (and bit players) Brice Butler and Kyle Prater. Obviously the next players in line were also blue-chippers -- George Farmer is a former five-star recruit via Rivals.com (and he seemed to bring the goods this spring before suffering hamstring issues), as is incoming freshman Nelson Agholor (who could end up at either running back or receiver), and De'Von Flournoy and Victor Blackwell each received four stars -- but they are almost completely unproven.
Maybe one emerges to take some of the pressure off of Woods and Lee, but right now it appears that a majority of the passes not going to Woods and Lee will be directed at a couple of sophomore tight ends, Randall Telfer and Xavier Grimble. In just under five combined targets per game, the two combined for 41 catches, 417 yards and a decent per-target average of 7.4 yards. In all, Barkley targeted tight ends about seven times per game and running backs twice. If Woods is less than 100 percent, or if USC just wants to keep Woods 100 percent, those averages might rise slightly.
Of course, USC will want to run the ball, too. And that's where a lack of depth could hurt. Senior Curtis McNeal returns after a lovely 2011 season (1,005 yards, six touchdowns and a plus-15.1 Adj. POE, which means he was more than two touchdowns better than the average back given his carries, opponents and blocking), but sophomore D.J. Morgan struggled with fumbleitis last year and redshirt freshman Javorious Allen is, indeed, a redshirt freshman.
The depth was questionable enough that Lane Kiffin moved linebacker Tre Madden to running back, but Madden proceeded to tear knee ligaments; he will miss the 2012 season. So basically, if McNeal stays healthy, the run game should be able to replicate its 2011 numbers (numbers high on efficiency if relatively low on explosiveness). A good line should stay solid despite the loss of all-everything tackle Matt Kalil; five players with starting experience return (60 career starts), including second-team all-conference center Khaled Holmes. The experience is strong, and it probably goes without saying that Kalil's replacement (Aundrey Walker) was a big-time recruit not too long ago.
In all, USC's offense improved over the second half of the 2011 season, ranked 10th in Off. F/+, and returns enough to easily replicate, if not improve upon, that figure. But depth and health could certainly be an issue if a spate of injuries strikes; there is almost no experience on the depth chart if someone important goes down.
Hey, speaking of injuries …
In two years under Monte Kiffin, master of the "Tampa 2" defense, the USC defense hasn't quite thrived as much as recruiting rankings suggest it should have. After ranking 39th in Def. F/+ in Pete Carroll's last year at USC (2009), the Trojans have ranked 50th and 46th over the last two seasons. They did, however, improve in 2011 -- especially late in 2011 -- despite extreme youth at linebacker. If the Trojans can overcome some losses up front, they should expect to improve again; we'll see if the difference is large enough to make them a true title contender, however.
Aside from perhaps Matt Kalil, the only departures truly worth discussing for USC in 2012 came on the defensive line. End Nick Perry (13.0 tackles for loss, 9.5 sacks, three forced fumbles) left early for the pros, and two of the top three tackles -- DaJohn Harris and Christian Tupou -- ran out of eligibility. That leaves plenty of four-star options with almost no combined experience. The new wise old sage in the middle is sophomore George Uko, who forced a couple of fumbles and recorded 1.5 sacks last year; the coaching staff had to put some effort into motivating Uko at times this spring, but obviously we really don't know if that is a true issue at this point.
What might be an issue is how the depth chart fills out next to Uko. Sophomore J.R. Tavai saw limited time last year, and redshirt freshmen Christian Heyward and Cody Temple were injured this spring. If these three, plus healthy redshirt freshman Antwaun Woods, can form a decent rotation, then the biggest fear for this defense is alleviated. It is worth it to worry a bit about the end position, too, however. Perry was the only player to record more than seven tackles for loss last year, and while seniors Devon Kennard and Wes Horton have potential, they haven't shown quite as much as Perry did to date.
The line has some questions to answer; the rest of the defense? Not so much.
Sophomore linebackers Dion Bailey, Hayes Pullard and Lamar Dawson held their own as four-star freshmen and should only continue to improve through the coming seasons, and the secondary could be spectacular. Not only does last year's two-deep basically return intact, but there are a couple of potential All-Americans in tow (free safety T.J. McDonald, cornerback Nickell Robey), senior cornerback Brian Baucham returns after 2011 ineligibility, and, of course, another couple of blue-chippers join the party this fall (Kevon Seymour, Devian Shelton). Despite only a decent pass rush, USC ranked 23rd in Passing S&P+ (their No. 103 ranking in passing yards allowed per game is incredibly misleading, considering how much opponents were forced to pass), which suggests the secondary was rather strong. Now the entire unit is a year more experienced.
Fair or not, the bar has been set at "contend for national title." If USC falls slightly short of this (say, a 12-2 record and Pac-12 title, but no BCS title game appearance), then one could possibly consider that a successful year. But considering the Trojans will start the year ranked in the Top 3, a couple of slip-ups will define the season, even with a rather tough slate.
I just can't decide about USC yet. I understand what people see in them -- Barkley-Woods-Lee, a great secondary, Barkley-Woods-Lee, a young-and-growing linebacking corps, Barkley-Woods-Lee, Curtis McNeal, Barkley-Woods-Lee -- but I still fear we might be overestimating them based on a two-game sample.
It's a lot more fun to pick someone other than LSU or Alabama for the top spot now, and along with the Oregons and Oklahomas of the world, picking USC makes as much sense as anything else. But they have to maneuver through a few landmines to meet expectations. Is the running back depth strong enough? Is Robert Woods going to be healthy? Is a solid defense ready to become great?
The jury has not quite reached a verdict just yet. But it certainly says something that USC is back in the conversation.
While we’re here, let’s watch some college football videos from SB Nation’s new YouTube channel together: