After two seasons of bowl ineligibility, Lane Kiffin’s Trojans begin the 2012 season as the team to beat and atop the preseason AP Poll. USC earned the top spot in The Associated Press’ preseason college football poll for the seventh time in school history and the first time in five seasons, edging out No. 2 Alabama and No. 3 LSU.
USC went 8-5 in 2010, then charged back to 10-2 last season. And when star quarterback Matt Barkley decided to stick around for his senior season instead of entering the NFL draft, the Trojans, free from the bowl ban, were set to make a run at No. 1.
Southern Cal opened the 2011 campaign with three straight victories before suffering a tough road loss to Arizona State in week four. The team rebounded with three straight losses including avenging a loss to Notre Dame in 2010. In one of the most highly-anticipated games of the year for the Trojans, USC fell just short against Stanford, 56-48 in triple-overtime. The team rebounded with four straight wins including a 38-35 victory over Oregon on Nov. 19. USC would have captured the South Division and a spot in the Pac-12 title game but was forced to sit out thanks to being in the final year of a two-year bowl ban.
Barkley completed 69.1 percent of his throws last year for 3,528 yards, 39 TDs and only seven interceptions. His performance in the win at Oregon was outstanding — Barkley completed 26-of-34 passes for 323 yards and four touchdowns.
When running back Silas Redd transferred Penn State, analysts who follow the program immediately penciled him in at No. 2 on the depth chart. It wasn’t hard. USC only has two returning tailbacks. Senior Curtis McNeal is No. 1 on the depth chart and rushed for 1,005 yards last season, but he’s been limited by injuries. Redshirt sophomore D.J. Morgan carried only 42 times in 2011. As a result, Kiffin recently converted freshman receiver Nelson Agholor to running back. Kiffin is concerned defenses will focus on stopping USC’s potent passing game and dare the Trojans to beat them on the ground. It’s a legitimate fear. Kiffin hopes Redd’s power running can complement McNeal (5-7, 190).
The Trojans have the best receiving duo in the nation in Robert Woods and Marqise Lee. Last season, Woods caught a Pac-12 record 111 passes, registering a USC-record 17 catches against Minnesota and scoring 15 times. Lee caught 73 balls, scored 11 times and averaged 15.7 yards per reception as a true freshman. He was unstoppable in a 50-0 rout of UCLA, catching 13 passes for 224 yards and scoring twice. The line brings back four starters.
In his second year on the job, esteemed defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin’s unit made significant improvement, and with the majority of the back seven returning, it should be effective again. The key is replacing stars such as Nick Perry and DaJohn Harris up front.
USC lost defensive end Devon Kennard to what appears to be a season-ending pectoral injury in preseason workouts. . Outside LBs Hayes Pullard and Dion Bailey were both Freshman All-Americans. In the secondary, T.J. McDonald is an All-America free safety.
The Trojans have playmakers in the secondary and linebacking corps but they were already thin and inexperienced along the defensive line before Kennard went down, specifically at tackle where both starters from last season are gone. It all starts in the trenches. If USC can’t get to the quarterback or slow opposing rushing attacks up front, it won’t matter who they’ve got behind.
USC gets Oregon at the Coliseum, a big break, and it hosts Cal, Arizona State and Notre Dame. The trip to Stanford comes early, while the Cardinal will still be breaking in its new quarterback. In short, everything looks ready for a big year.
Top returners: QB Matt Barkley, S T.J. McDonald, OL Khaled Holmes, WR Robert Woods, WR Marqise Lee, RB Curtis McNeal, DL Devon Kennard, DL Wes Horton, CB Nickell Robey, LB Dion Bailey, LB Hayes Pullard, K Andre Heidari
Key losses: OL Matt Kalil, DL Nick Perry, FB Rhett Ellison, DL DaJohn Harris, DL Christian Tupou, LB Chris Galippo, RB Marc Tyler, WR Brandon Carswell, LS Chris Pousson
Sept. 1 Hawaii
Sept. 8 at Syracuse (MetLife Stadium)
Sept. 15 at Stanford
Sept. 22 California
Oct. 4 at Utah
Oct. 13 at Washington
Oct. 20 Colorado
Oct. 27 at Arizona
Nov. 3 Oregon
Nov. 10 Arizona State
Nov. 17 at UCLA
Nov. 24 Notre Dame