Point: USC’s forgiving Pac-12 and non-conference schedule will allow the team to work out its kinks.
Visions of Matt Barkley, Robert Woods and Marqise Lee danced in the heads of USC fans, and some wondered if purchasing tickets to Miami for January’s national championship ahead of time would be a good bet.
Even though there is a completely different atmosphere surrounding the program following USC coach Lane Kiffin’s third season at Troy, next year the Trojans should easily improve upon the 7-5 record they posted this year that have many members of the Trojan Family calling for Kiffin to be fired.
Even if Kiffin doesn’t return next season, which seems unlikely after Athletic Director Pat Haden confirmed to the media before the loss to Notre Dame that Kiffin would be back next year, the Trojans have the pieces in place to compete for a spot in the Rose Bowl.
It’s true: USC has six big pieces graduating in Barkley, safety TJ McDonald, tailback Curtis McNeal, center Khaled Holmes, defensive end Wes Horton and safety Jawanza Starling.
But depending on which, if any, juniors declare early for the NFL Draft, those six seniors, along with punter Kyle Negrete, could be the only starters not to return next year.
A year ago, it seemed to be a sure thing that wide receiver Robert Woods would jump to the pros after his junior season. But after a season of being overshadowed by Lee, that decision is no longer a foregone conclusion, especially after redshirt freshman quarterback Max Wittek effectively spread out the touches between the two flankers against the Fighting Irish.
Junior running back Silas Redd is a perplexing case, but having a season in USC’s backfield without McNeal stealing the spotlight would surely help his draft stock.
Cornerback Nickell Robey, a three-year starter, could make the jump as well, but will a player whose measurables are 5-foot-8 and 165 pounds really garner enough draft interest to leave college a year early?
There’s no doubt the defense needs a makeover, and some have speculated that assistant head coach for defense Monte Kiffin, 72, will be gently forced into retirement by his son.
After all, it’s hard to argue that a lack of talent was the defense’s problem.
Junior defensive end Morgan Breslin (12 sacks) and freshman defensive tackle Leonard Williams, who was recently named the Pac-12 Freshman Defensive Player of the Year after recording 7.5 sacks and 13 tackles for loss this season, emerged as forces in the trenches.
Senior defensive end Devon Kennard (18 career starts, four sacks) redshirted this season after tearing his pectoral muscle in late July, and will be back for one more year.
Sophomore linebackers Hayes Pullard (91 tackles) and Dion Bailey (75 tackles, four interceptions) will continue to be stalwarts in the middle.
And in case you forgot, USC expects to welcome the No. 1 recruiting class in the nation to Los Angeles next year.
But perhaps the biggest reason for optimism lies not in the Trojans, but in their opponents on tap for next season.
For the first time since the Pac-10 expanded to the Pac-12, USC will receive the “easier” rotation of opponents from the states of Oregon and Washington. Instead of facing Oregon and Washington, who have both shown an annoying propensity for upsets over USC in recent years, the Trojans will play Oregon State and Washington State in 2013. Despite the Beavers’ impressive 8-3 showing this year, on balance, USC lucks out. Oregon State can’t match the Ducks’ high-octane offense.
Washington State wallowed through a 3-9 campaign this season under first-year coach Mike Leach, were taken out to the woodshed in a 49-6 beatdown from Utah and were kind enough to give Colorado its only win of the season. Sounds like an easier matchup than Steve Sarkisian’s pesky Huskies.
In addition, all the Pac-12 opponents that USC lost to this year and have to play again next season (Stanford, UCLA, Arizona) will have to visit the Coliseum.
Outside of Notre Dame, the Trojans’ nonconference schedule (Hawaii, Boston College, Utah State) is cake. And will the Fighting Irish really be the same without Heisman candidate Manti Te’o anchoring their defense?
If you play it safe and chalk up three nonconference wins and potential victories against California (3-9 this year), Utah (5-7), Colorado (1-11) and Washington State (3-9), that’s seven wins.
If the team defeats Arizona State (7-5) again and gets revenge against Arizona (7-5), which is admittedly far from a sure thing, that’s nine.
And the team will have a shot to rebound against Stanford and UCLA, which are both losing star senior running backs in Stepfan Taylor and Johnathan Franklin, respectively.
If the Trojans can beat the Cardinal or the Bruins, a trip to the Pac-12 championship is likely, where USC would be just one win away from the Rose Bowl.
At that point, even if it loses, an 11-2 USC squad would get some attention for an at-large spot in a BCS bowl.
Counterpoint: Despite returning several starters, there’s no guarantee USC will improve markedly.
College football players don’t always follow linear progressions during their careers. History bears that many of these athletes won’t improve significantly as they rack up more games, because, at some point, players are who they are.
Why does this matter and how does it pertain to USC?
In the coming months, several pundits will argue that, since USC returns a lot of starters next season, the team should be considered a dark horse BCS competitor.
But before we assume returning USC players’ continued development, it’s necessary to see if the statistics really reflect what we have come to expect.
Undeniably, the greatest problem with USC during Kiffin’s tenure has been the lack of star power on defense — the dearth of game-breakers who can rip through an offensive line for a crucial sack or haul in a timely interception. Simply put, no player on the Trojans’ 2012 defense kept opposing offensive coordinators up at night.
When looking at the embarrassment of recruiting riches on defense, how can it be that none of these players can consistently terrorize offenses? Frankly, for whatever reason, Trojan defensive players who impressed as underclassmen have failed to make the leap to All-American status later in their careers.
Perhaps senior safety T.J. McDonald — billed as the face of USC’s defense — best exemplifies this trend. In 2010, McDonald notched a team-leading 89 tackles and three interceptions while also appearing on the All-Pac-10 second team. This season, McDonald closely approximated those numbers, registering 99 tackles and two interceptions and once again earning selection to the All-Pac-12 second team.
In essence, McDonald performed at the same exact level as he did as a sophomore: one of the Pac-12’s top safeties, but nowhere near a national household name like Georgia linebacker Jarvis Jones or Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o.
Even if junior cornerback Nickell Robey departs for the NFL, Trojan fans will take solace from their defense’s front seven remaining largely intact and presumably taking a step forward next season.
But many of the starters who returned from 2011 stagnated or even regressed in 2012. Let’s employ sophomore linebackers Hayes Pullard and Dion Baliey as a case study, as many expect them to assume McDonald’s mantle as the cornerstone of USC’s defense going forward. Last season, they combined for 162 tackles, two interceptions and three forced fumbles; this season, they saw only incremental improvements, as they had 166 tackles, five interceptions and two forced fumbles. Clearly, more was expected.
Given that recent years have shown we can’t assume continued improvement in core defensive players, it’s all the more distressing that the secondary might lose three of its four starters. Sophomore cornerback Josh Shaw — the only one definitively returning — cannot even stake a claim to a cornerback spot, as USC coach Lane Kiffin has hinted at transitioning him back to his natural safety position.
A secondary that surrendered 239.7 passing yards per game will quite possibly break in new starters at all four secondary positions, which is especially disconcerting because USC’s greatest talent deficiency probably lies at cornerback.
Thus, a mediocre — bordering on awful, at times — defense that surrendered 24.6 points per game in the pass-happy Pac-12 will probably get worse before it gets better.
On offense, a lot of the same question marks apply. For the second consecutive season, USC will lose its best offensive lineman — senior center Khaled Holmes — but return four other starters. Unfortunately, none of the returning offensive lineman distinguished themselves particularly well in 2012, outside of perhaps freshman tackle Max Tuerk and junior guard John Martinez, who both earned All-Pac-12 honorable mention, albeit along with a host of linemen from almost every other school.
Though a steady contributor, junior running back Silas Redd — the presumptive favorite to take over No. 1 tailback duties next season — hasn’t come close to approaching his numbers at Penn State in his first season in Los Angeles. Factor in questions about his durability and his ball security issues and it’s difficult to assume USC can improve upon its 155 rushing yards per game (70th in the nation), especially with senior Curtis McNeal leaving.
All of these issues crop up before even broaching the most drastic transition USC will undergo: the changing of the guard from senior quarterback Matt Barkley to redshirt freshman Max Wittek. Though many, including myself, are bullish on Wittek’s future, there’s no question that we should anticipate growing pains. The drop-off from Barkley to Wittek will be fairly steep, and that’s more of a compliment to Barkley than a criticism of Wittek.
USC’s easier schedule and the possibility for unexpected breakthrough performances — think junior defensive end Morgan Breslin this season — certainly leave open the chance for a BCS bowl game berth.
But don’t be surprised if USC settles in near the top middle-third of the Pac-12 next fall as well.