Let’s admit the obvious: Junior quarterback Matt Barkley is in an awkward position.
“One more year, one more year,” several hundred USC fans echoed in the moments following the Trojans’ 25-point rout of Colorado on Friday night.
Barkley exited the field with a wide grin, with “Conquest” blaring, and a fan base pleading with him to stick around.
If the third-year starter eventually declares for next April’s NFL draft, where he could be a top-10 overall pick, his college career won’t last much longer than three more weeks.
It won’t end with a New Year’s Day celebration in Pasadena. There won’t be fireworks. There won’t be new hardware added to the Heritage Hall lobby. It’ll end at the Coliseum on Thanksgiving weekend and that’ll be that.
He’ll be a millionaire. He’ll be scouring for real estate in Denver, or Indianapolis, or Seattle. He might even get to play in the postseason — imagine that.
But with USC in the midst of what could in terms of wins, be its best season since 2008, Barkley insists the NFL hasn’t crossed his mind.
“I don’t even think about it,” he said at the post-game press conference Friday.
It’s hard to gauge where this USC program stands at the moment. With Barkley back next August, USC could very well be ranked in the top-10, as a national title contender or a Rose Bowl favorite.
Without Barkley, the dropoff could be steep — no matter how fast, how skilled sophomore wide receiver Robert Woods or freshman wide receiver Marqise Lee are. A .500 season could be on the horizon, just as USC starts to feel the burden of scholarship restrictions.
Fellow juniors, left tackle Matt Kalil, defensive end Nick Perry and safety T.J. McDonald might also opt to follow suit and head to the professional ranks — all could be first-round selections as well.
It could potentially be in Barkley’s best interest to move on. It’s been a terribly long three years, and he’s certainly done enough for the university at this point. Maybe it’d be for the best; leaving would be understandable. It’d be hard to begrudge him.
Questions remain nonetheless, even months before any decision is made: Is this the end? For a quarterback who arrived with the promise of hoisting a crystal ball in January, is his lasting legacy going to be: quarterback of the sanctioned era?
It never should have been, but that’s the situation that appears to be presenting itself with three games remaining this season.
Barkley put on his best poker face following the game, deflecting any and all talk about the coming months.
“It could be one more year,” he said, refraining from giving any sort of indication as to his future plans.
He tried to avoid any further discussion. He conducted the band. He hugged his parents, his family, his friends, reveling in a record-setting performance of six touchdown passes. He wanted to soak Friday night in — nothing more, nothing less. He certainly didn’t want to talk about the NFL. Who could fault him?
But the a subject is becoming increasingly difficult to gloss over. Fans and media want to know whether there will be a final act. Are we ever going to find out how good Barkley and USC coach Lane Kiffin can be together?
They’re better than most have been willing to admit: at last a near-consensus top-25 caliber team. But with Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck set to graduate and an Oregon program whose fate still hangs in the balance thanks to the NCAA, the Trojans could also find their ceiling lies higher than most think.
There have been limitations these last couple of years, no doubt. A postseason ban, for one, won’t give USC a chance to face a 10-win team from the Big 12 or the Big Ten in December. For now, the last measuring stick will be a trip to Autzen Stadium on Nov. 19 against Oregon.
But every touchdown pass thrown this season begs the question of whether they can do this when a trip to the Pac-12 title game or a BCS championship is on the line.
It’s almost unfair to ask Barkley to come back and return USC to national prominence. He didn’t sign up for this. Nobody ever told him he had to “rescue” USC. He arrived during better times.
He’ll graduate in May, and he’ll likely be a top-10 draft pick.
There is still one quarter of the season left, granted, but it’s hard not to wonder whether this is in fact the last chapter.
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