How quickly we forget. How quickly things change.
At this time in 2011, USC was an afterthought. With Pete Carroll escaping to the NFL, with NCAA sanctions taking a toll on depth and with unproven Lane Kiffin as coach, the Trojans were written off.
They went 10-2. They beat Oregon at Autzen Stadium.
At this time in 2012, USC was the preseason #1. With Matt Barkley returning for his senior year, with the bowl ban lifted and with a suddenly proven Lane Kiffin as coach, the Trojans were penciled in to play for a national championship.
They went 7-6. They lost to Georgia Tech in Sun Bowl.
As we approach the 2013, USC is a punch line. Lane Kiffin, quickly demoted from savior to failure, is on the hot seat. The media – the same bunch of men and women that anointed USC as preseason favorites in 2012 – have piled on, some calling for Kiffin’s ouster after last year.
How quickly we forget. How quickly things change.
Of course, if you were to dig a little deeper, you would see that USC played close to their realistic expectations in 2012. It was the media’s outsized expectations that caused problems.
Despite the bowl ban being lifted, the lack of depth finally caught up with USC in 2012, especially on the offensive line, which relied on freshmen and inexperienced newcomers early and often. A poor offensive line – almost always ignored by the sports media at large – will always doom a supposed super season. Notre Dame in 2006 had the same type of hype, and in the end similar failure, because they couldn’t keep Brady Quinn upright.
Somewhere, Matt Barkley is nodding sadly.
On Oct. 27, 2012, USC was 6-1 and ranked #10 in the country. On that day, Barkley, Robert Woods and Marqise Lee lit up Arizona in Tucson. Alas, the defense played the role of sparring partner and allowed Rich Rodriguez’s revamped Arizona offense to run wild. USC lost. The national title dreams were spoiled. The Pac-12 title hopes fell off a cliff. The season ran off the rails.
In retrospect, USC never had a chance. Besides injuries and inexperience, they played one of – if not the – toughest schedule in the country. When the final AP Top 25 poll came out, USC had lost to #2 Oregon, #4 Notre Dame and #7 Stanford. Not that playing 3 top 7 teams should ever be an excuse at USC, but it must be taken into account.
USC is still USC. As part of my college football predictions post, I said that USC would win the Pac-12. I still firmly believe it.
For starters, the Trojans will still trot out Marqise Lee, who is – in my opinion – unquestionably the best wide receiver in college football as we start 2013*. Whenever you have the best player in the country at a position, you are starting the year with a leg up.
*Okay, okay, not exactly a bold statement.
Secondly, the offensive line – the young, inexperienced line of 2012 – returns 4 starters. By the end of the year, the offensive line had become less of a concern as talented players gained invaluable experience. If only Kiffin could match up this year’s line with last year’s quarterback.
The defense is undergoing a dramatic overhaul by moving to a 3-4 but should be much improved over last year’s team with 7 starters returning. True, in all honesty, they have to improve because it’s almost impossible to get worse. It’s worth noting that in a loss to Oregon, USC put up 51 points. In a loss to UCLA, they gave up 38. Against Arizona, they put up 36 and lost. With even a decent defense, USC wins 10 games last year.
The schedule is also dramatically easier, both in and out of the conference. The Trojans should not break a sweat starting the season 4-0. Oregon cycles off the schedule. Stanford, UCLA and Arizona – road losses in 2012 – make the trip to the L.A. Coliseum.
They get 5 conference home games thanks to the 9-game Pac-12 schedule. The four conference road trips? Arizona State, Oregon State, California and Colorado. Not exactly a murderer’s row. The toughest road game is the trip to South Bend to face Notre Dame. While I think Notre Dame is going to be a top 10 team, the loss of its starting quarterback, best defensive player and the difficulty of returning to last year’s level mean the Irish could be an easy mark this year. Regardless, that game has no bearing on the Rose Bowl.
The schedule. The returning starters. The change in defensive philosophy. The stars are aligning for USC. With one obvious exception – the quarterback position.
The Trojans have not named a starting QB as I write this. It wasn’t pretty against Notre Dame and Georgia Tech when Barkley was out injured. The season could be submarined again by poor QB play. But Lane Kiffin has proven, during his first run at USC and his 2011 run with Barkley, that he can develop an offense and a quarterback. And the best wide receiver in the country will help.
Lane Kiffin has not forgotten how to coach. He has been brash and outspoken his entire career. When USC was rolling in 2011, the media lapped it up like my dog drinking her water. When USC hit the skids in 2012, the media enjoyed the fall a bit too much.
USC is too talented to be that bad two years in a row. When the media picked USC to finish third – in its division –in 2013, it just confirmed my belief. You disrespect Goliath and you usually end up paying for it.
USC has all the motivation in the world. They have a dream schedule for the first month – unless you think an ACC minnow like Boston College will cause them heartaches. Hint: they won’t.
USC will enter Sun Devil Stadium on September 28 at 4-0. They will be ranked, at least in the top 20 and maybe even higher depending on how impressive their early victories are. The season will be on the line.
If they beat Arizona State, as I believe they will, the sky’s the limit and I’ll look like a genius. If they don’t, I’ll look like an idiot and will join the chorus calling for Kiffin’s head on a platter.
But circle the date – the fate of the Pac-12 may be decided by October.
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