After two years of NCAA purgatory for a crime that nobody on the current roster committed, the USC Trojans are back and they return with a vengeance. Conveniently situated in the shallow Pac 12 South and armed with a bevy of game breakers, particularly in the passing game, the Trojans figure to be in the hunt not only for the Pac 12 title, but for the BCS title in 2012. To even consider the notion that somehow the Trojans will be in such a position means that you have to credit the work being done by coaching staff not only on the recruiting trail, but also in the administration building. From this vantage point, it appears that Lane Kiffin and co put together the exact right strategy in surviving the two year suspension that the program was placed on. They have come out of the bowl ban prepared to strike back hard and to assume their place among the college football elite. Compare and contrast that to the road back for UW following the Pac 10 sanctions of the 1990s and you see two different stories. This is a remarkable accomplishment, already, for the men of Troy.
I'm not a USC fan and, in fact, have always considered them an underrated rival for UW given how often it seems that it was us versus them in the race for the conference title, especially during my developmental years. Despite my lack of enthusiasm for them, their horrid fight song, and their decrepit stadium, I can't help but to pull for them this year if for no other reason than to see the National Media give the Pac 12 a little more respect. Let's face it, we are all better off when there is a good USC program in the PAC. In addition, you have to respect a fan base who are willing to risk life and limb (as well as other well rounded body parts) by tucking the seat-belt under the armpit so as to be able to show off .... errrr.... the team logo on the tank top.
More Gekko File after the jump.
USC had the cliched "tale of two seasons" in 2012. Despite the fact that they closed the year with an impressive 10-2 record and a #5 ranking in the polls, things didn't start too well. Their first four games, three of which at home, were far less than impressive. Game 1 was a 19-17 win over a Minnesota team that, and you'd agree if you watched the game, should have beaten the Trojans on that day. Game 2 was the Pac 12 opener versus Utah, a game that was decided in the Trojans favor on a fluke play - Matt Kalil blocked a Utah FG and saw it returned for a USC TD en route to a
six nine point victory. USC seemed to get back on track with an easy win versus Syracuse, but then moved on to their first road game of the season. In this one, ASU pounded the Men of Troy by three TDs.
That would be the end of the inconsistencies...for the most part. USC turned it on in Week 5 by pulling out a shoot out at home vs Arizona and really didn't look back from that point forward, despite a 3OT loss to Stanford along the way. Matt Barkley would end up the season passing for 39 TDs and finishing eighth in the nation in passing efficiency. USC's 50-0 thrashing of UCLA in the season finale was his pinnacle - he thew for 430 yards and 6 TDs on an 83% completion rate. Along the way, he got huge assists from playmakers like Marqise Lee, Curtis McNeal, Robert Woods and Matt Kalil - the latter of which would go on as a top three pick in the NFL draft.
2011 ended with no bowl game for USC as the last season of their ban was concluded. While they finished in the top 5 overall, it is probably the case that they ended their Pac 12 season as the third best team in the conference. Yes, I am aware that they squeaked out a victory over the Ducks. However, we can't deny the whole body of work. USC finished the season statistically as the fourth best team in total offense and the fourth best team in total defense. As you would expect, they excelled in many areas - but they didn't finish as an unquestioned #1 in any key defensive or offensive category, including stats that you would have guessed such as passing efficiency (#2), Passing TDs (tied for first w/ Oregon), or Yards per Passing Attempt (5th). In fact, the categories that they were bad in are somewhat surprising. They were the second worst team in the Pac 12 in rushing TDs with just 12 as a team. Despite having one of the best yards/att averages in the league, they ranked near the bottom in rushing attempts. Defensively, they allowed more points than any other USC team in history and, for the first time ever, allowed opponents to score 40 or more in back to back games. The Trojans defense was also on the field a lot - they ranked 70th in the nation in forcing opponent 3 and outs.
Despite the stats, USC fans ended 2011 with the idea that the season had been a breakout. While I can't go along with that assessment, I certainly am impressed with the season that they pulled out under the conditions that they had to grapple with. Beating Oregon, in Oregon no less, is also a feat that I'm envious of. While a #5 ranking is gratuitous, it is not undeserved for the season they had.
2011 Rewind: UW @ USC
Reliving the 2011 road trip the Dawgs took to USC last season is only slightly more enjoyable than getting skinned alive and rubbed down with cayenne peppers. This game was an embarrassment for the UW, particularly in the run defense game, and was likely the one game that put the nail in the coffin for Nick Holt. The Trojans won this game handily, 40-17, largely on the back of Curtis McNeal who ran for 148 yards and a TD (although 79 came on just one play) as well as a long KO return by Marquise Lee. It was an odd game, if you recall, in that UW actually mounted a decent pass rush and was able to fluster Matt Barkley effectively (Barkley would have one of his worst all around games of the season). Keith Price had a horrible game and left in the third quarter with a knee injury (nevertheless, UW had a better statistical passing day than did USC). Chris Polk was also ineffectual, rushing for just 36 yards in this one.
Getting this win was important for USC. It established McNeal as a clear go-to back and it created momentum for a team that would go in to Eugene and pull out an upset just one week later. It also ended USC's two game losing streak to UW and rekindled the fire of a dormant rivalry that is sure to endure as long as Sark and Kiffin remain on opposing sidelines.
It is hard to not look at USC and get revved up, even if you don't read the over-gratuitous rantings of Ted Miller every week (apparently, his man-crush team has gone from being Stanford to USC this year). Barkley returns after bypassing a chance to be a top 5 draft pick and goes into 2012 as the odds on favorite to win the Heisman. Curtis McNeal passes the "go-to back" sniff test. Marquise Lee and Robert Woods are each freaks and they happen to play the same position. The Trojan OL returns four starters including the best C in the league in Khaled Holmes. The Trojans roll out two ready-for-primetime TEs in Xavier Grimble and Randall Telfer, and the Trojan secondary is very likely the best such unit in the Pac 12 right now, anchored by TJ McDonald, Jr and Nickell Robey.
In spite of all these "pros", there are quite certainly some "cons". The first thing that jumps out at you is the defense. While they appear to be set in the secondary, and their LB corps is stuffed with bright young (inexperienced) talent, you can't help but to worry about that D-Line. In J.R. Tavai and George Uko, the Trojans are starting two Sophomore DTs with limited experience and both of whom are small. At DE, the Trojans bring back the productive Wes Horton but will have to replace the production of Nick Perry who went off to the NFL. Beyond the D-Line lie other question marks. Much has been made about the USC depth and deservedly so. Not only was USC only able to bring in just
12 15 recruits last season, but they saw several underclassmen depart. Depth players like Brice Butler, Jesse Scroggins, Armond Armstead, Soma Vainuku, Simione Vehikite, Dillon Baxter, Kyle Prater and Amir Carlisle have all moved on leaving big questions at the back up spots at QB, FB, WR, RB, and DL. In addition, the LT spot vacated by Matt Kalil is most likely to be filled by an enormous but green RS Fr So, Andrey Walker (6-6, 375). Finally, one can't help but to wonder about all of Matt Barkley's distractions (what was with all those interceptions in the Spring?) or Robert Woods's ankle.
- The Trojans started two true freshman LBs alongside Chris Galippo in 2011. Hayes Pullard and Dion Bailey are each physical specimens who are widely credited with being equalizers against the proliferation of spread offenses faced by the Trojans.
- Scheduling was decidedly not a factor in the success of 2011. The Trojans faced three AQ teams in the OOC and missed WSU and OSU in the Pac
- The Trojan 10-2 record was achieved despite ranking 10th in the Pac 12 with just 17 takeaways
- Nickell Robey is considered one of the best CBs in the Pac 12 coming into 2012, despite being just 5'-8" (which makes him shorter than my brother-in-law's Great Dane)
- Every team that played in a BCS bowl game were better than USC in forcing three-and-outs on the season
- USC has already secured verbal commitments from five 5-star recruits during this offseason
USC is poised to have a big year. I say that because of the talent that they have in the passing game, because of the experience that they have on the O-Line (new LT notwithstanding), because Curtis McNeal, if healthy, is good enough, because of the talent of their OLBs and because their secondary can help mitigate some of the issues on the D-Line. Playing in the Pac 12 South is a boon for the Trojans. When you examine their schedule, the OOC looks reasonable with home games versus Hawaii and Notre Dame and a neutral site with Syracuse. Missing Oregon State and Washington State again kind of sucks, but getting Oregon at home is huge. Their key road games, @Stanford, @UW, and @Utah are all going to be tough affairs, but most of that comes earlier in the season when, theoretically, health and depth are less of an issue. This is a 9-3 type season in the works and I can see USC holding on (maybe a little more close of a race than people think) with the key games being their matchups with Oregon and Utah. That said, I don't see USC as a serious contender for the National Title because a) I think they are not deep enough, b) I don't think their schedule is as favorable as some others and c) I don't think they are nearly as good as Oregon.
UW gets to host USC in October. As you all know, this game comes at the end of a gauntlet schedule stretch for UW where the Huskies figure to have played several top 10 teams in Stanford, LSU, Oregon and USC. Some have even speculated that UW may play two or even three #1 teams in the nation by the time the USC game is kicked off. On paper, you have to like the Huskies depth over the Trojans - particularly on the DLine. However, the talent of the Trojans ones are superior to the Huskies ones - particularly when you consider their RBs vs our LBs and their WRs vs our secondary. The Sark vs Kiffin dynamic also lends a certain air of unpredictability to this matchup. Truthfully, I can see this going either way, though I suspect that the Trojans will go into the game less physically beat up than UW - an advantage that I hope is mitigated by the dynamics of the C-Link, which figures to be an eye opening experience for many of the Trojans young players. Either way, this game will most certainly be a pivot point for UW in their hopes for setting a post-season trajectory.