Go ahead and argue the expectations were too high. Feel free to question whether USC, once the Associated Press’ preseason No. 1 team, was overhyped heading into this season — that a top-10 rank in August was unbefitting for this group.
But before you rant about premature predictions from the summer, before you declare that the hype and the added attention were unwarranted, think back to Nov. 26, 2011: Thanksgiving weekend roughly one year ago.
There was quarterback Matt Barkley, then a junior, standing atop a ladder in front of a USC student section in the northeast corner of the Coliseum, conducting a few remaining band members. The No. 10 Trojans had just defeated UCLA by a now-infamous score of 50-0 to cap off a perfect November, which included a three-point upset win over Oregon at Autzen Stadium the week prior.
Remember, they closed 2011 with seven wins in eight games.
They were improving each week, they were talented and they returned many of those talented players — nine of 11 offensive starters — heading into this season.
There were myriad reasons to rank USC highly in the preseason and just as many to insist the Trojans’ ceiling stood several floors higher than this season’s eventual 7-5 finish — the latest defeat coming last Saturday against No. 1 Notre Dame.
Nonetheless, we’ve reached the Monday morning quarterbacking stage where we attempt to string together explanations for, at least statistically, the most disappointing finish for a preseason top-ranked team since 1964. And oddly, the latest idea gaining steam is, naturally: the expectations were too [darn] high.
“We were probably overhyped at the beginning of the year, being perfectly honest,” Athletic Director Pat Haden said Wednesday in an ESPN Radio interview.
Sorry, I’m not buying it, even coming from Haden.
That notion is misguided, and more than anything stands as a cover for the sobering reality: This was a gross mismanagement of elite talent.
There are reasons the hype took off in the first place — because of that talent, because of that finish of 2011. And that talent, with decorated All-Americans galore, never evaporated this year.
As announced Monday, 19 USC players were named to various All-Pac-12 teams at the conclusion of the season, in addition to other honors, most notably sophomore wide receiver Marqise Lee’s selection as the conference’s offensive player of the year.
The roster has its weaknesses, of course. But so does every roster. And though USC’s roster is capped at 75 scholarship players because of NCAA sanctions, it’s been well documented that quite a number of schools, such as Georgia and LSU, aren’t playing with a full roster of 85. Not to mention USC coach Lane Kiffin has admitted he played less than 50 scholarship players in 2011 — a 10-win season.
So let’s stop crying about talent, roster limitations and expectations. This is USC, right?
We’re reminded so often that this program boasts more NFL draft picks in history than any other school. We’re told how great its recruiting classes have been over the last decade, especially since Kiffin arrived on campus nearly three years ago.
So are we really to believe that mighty ole ’SC wasn’t as talented as UCLA? Or as Arizona? Or heck, even Oregon?
There are potential first-round picks on both offense and on defense, but that never translated to Saturdays.
Of the Trojans’ seven wins in 2012, only three came against teams with winning records — Syracuse, Washington and Arizona State. Moreover, they failed to defeat a single team ranked in the top 25 for the first time since the 1997 season.
You can fault whomever you’d like — Kiffin, his father Monte, who’s tasked with running the defense, or anyone else — because there is, of course, enough blame to dish around for months.
But don’t buy the company line. Lofty expectations were never the issue.
Simply, talented USC was a No. 1 team that belly flopped in front of the 90,000 faithful.
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