The Gekko File: P12 South #1 - USC

Matt Barkley saw his National Championship dreams, and millions of dollars, go up in smoke in 2012. - US PRESSWIRE

The Gekko File casts its net in the general direction of Central Los Angeles to see what the USC Trojans have cooking in 2013.

It was Obi-Wan Kenobi who said:

You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy. We must be cautious.

Of course, the Star Wars fanatics among you (and, admit it, I'm talking about you) will recognize that quote as a reference to the "Mos Eisley Spaceport". In truth, Obi-Wan may as well have been talking about the USC Trojans.

While Husky fans have long been at odds with the fanbases in both Pullman and Eugene, there may not be a more despised P12 program, on both a national basis and among long-time Dawg fans, then the USC Trojans. The college football landscape has universally rejoiced and gloated over the penalties that the NCAA laid on USC following the Reggie Bush affair and didn't hesitate to pile on as Lane Kiffin got derided for every misstep he took on his way to missing just about every expectation that the world held for him and his Trojan team in 2012.

Indeed, things look bleak in Los Angeles.

But 2013 is a new season and an opportunity to redefine a program outside the glare of the national spotlight that has shone so hotly upon Kiffin over the past two seasons. With a new QB, a new defensive coordinator, and a new position as "underdog", what fate awaits the Trojans in 2013?

These are not the Trojans you are looking for. You can go about your business. Move along.

The Gekko File Accountability: What I Said in 2012.

Last year, I picked USC to finish first in the Pac 12 South, but to not be a contender in the National Championship race. Here is what I said:

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)...In spite of all these "pros", there are quite certainly some "cons". The first thing that jumps out at you is the defense...This is a 9-3 type season... 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.

By the way, I got lynched by USC fans for these comments. They derided me for my many mistakes (I always make mistakes in these things - c'mon, it's 3000 words!) and for not having a clue about how good the Trojans were. They said that I couldn't be taken seriously. They even created some of their own reply articles on other sites. It was by far the most vitriolic response that I got to any of my Gekko File posts ... despite the fact that I picked them to finish in First Place in the South.

As it turns out, and much to the chagrin of Trojan fans, I was far too optimistic about how the season would go for the Trojans. Read on.

2012 Recap

The season started out with a lot of national attention being paid to Troy. Kiffin came out with a bang by acknowledging that he had, in fact, voted his team #1 in the polls after having initially claimed that he had done no such thing, thus feeding the rabid dogs - particularly those aligned with the SEC - who already had seen Kiffin as a fabulist and a cheat. As with most things with Kiffin, the scorn delivered outweighed the crime committed and he marched on to start out the season on something of a hot streak. Armed with a potent offense that featured Matt Barkley, Robert Woods, Marqise Lee, Xavier Grimble, Curtis Neal and Penn State transfer Silas Redd, the Trojans initially delivered on the promise that the season was to have held for them. They started with six wins in their first seven games with their only hiccup being a completely respectable seven point loss on the road against a very difficult Stanford team. In fact, USC got that hot streak going riding the strength of their defense. Not once during those seven games did their defense give up more than 29 points and, collectively, they averaged a decent yards surrendered of 344 per game.

But, something was not quite right, even during that streak. The eye test told those who watched the game that something was amiss with the Trojans - and it usually seemed to grab your attention while the offense was on the field. It started with Barkley. Constantly under pressure, even during the winning streak, Barkely was not his normal, steady, accurate self. He was flushed from the pocket often. He committed 6 INTs in those first 7 games - not horrible, but not expected. His offensive play calling was choppy - often shifting from run-to-set-up-the-play action to air-it-out. His RBs were constantly rotating. Robert Woods started disappearing.

Whatever it was, it portended disaster. After that Colorado game, the Trojans season began to tank. Their two worst efforts of the season, @Arizona and vs Oregon, ensued. The Defense melted away and the offense got wild. Between those two games, the Trojans surrendered 101 points and turned the ball over eight times. While the Defense would get back on track, the turnover parade would continue to plague Barkley and his Offense the remainder of the season. During that stretch, in fact, the Trojans turnover margin was -11. Despite the fact that they were all close on the scoreboard - the Trojans never lost a regular season game by more than 11 points (Oregon) - the turnovers were killing USC. The Trojans ended it by losing 5 of their final 6, including a 14 point blowout at the hands of Georgia Tech in the Sun Bowl - a game in which Kiffin clearly lost his team. The offseason set in motion a few interesting developments, including the resignation of Monte Kiffin as the Defensive Coordinator, the turnover of several assistants, and the tumbling of Matt Barkely from "possible first overall draft pick" to the fourth round of the NFL Draft (where he was, ironically, selected by Chip Kelly and the Philadelphia Eagles). In all, a most disappointing conclusion to a season in which Trojan fans had once believed was destined to end in "destruction of the Death Star" type of glory.

2013 Rewind: USC @ Washington

In a game that many Husky fans were sure would prove to be the breakout of a heretofore inconsistent offense, two emerging young defenses asserted their wills and produced one of the grittiest games of the season for either squad. Unfortunately, turnovers, special teams and a couple of mental mistakes on the Husky side staked the Trojans a 24-7 halftime lead that their Defense would not allow to be encroached upon until the latter half of the fourth quarter.

For the Huskies, the game played out as several games subsequently would. The Husky D showed up and came to play. They were active, tough and able to generate a little bit of a pass rush (to the tune of 2 sacks and a forced INT). In the end, they held the mighty Trjoans to a respectable 371 yards. Matt Barkley and the Trojan passing game was totally contained throughout as Barkley was held to 10/20 passing and just 167 yards while only being able to convert 2 third downs the whole game. Desmond Trufant was masterful in shutting down Marqise Lee - just two catches for 32 yards. Unfortunately, the Trojans O-Line was too much for the Husky front seven. Silas Red had a big day - 155 yards - as the Trojans piled up 201 yards rushing and played keepaway from the Huskies while protecting that big first half lead that they had earned.

The Husky offense did not hold up their end of the deal. Keith Price was harassed consistently, resulting in two interceptions and a forced fumble. As was typical, there was zero pocket integrity for Keith all day, with Trojan blitzers in his face before he could finish a three step drop. Unlike other games, the Huskies rushing offense could not get on track behind Bishop Sankey and that tough Trojan D dominated to the tune of just 299 yards surrendered. Mistakes in special teams - in particular a blocked punt returned for a TD - just added to the pain as the Trojans would leave Seattle with a hard fought but unspectacular 24-14 victory. It would mark the third significant let down of the season - following the blowouts at LSU and at Oregon - but the first to be played out in front of the home crowd.

2013 Preview: USC

Lane Kiffin leads a USC team into a season free of many of the lofty expectations and scrutiny that came along with the start of the 2012 season. The circus around Matt Barkley has departed to Philadelphia and the nepotism innuendos around Kiff ceased following the retirement of Daddy Monte. Unfortunately, many key contributors and playmakers are also departed including Woods, C Khaled Holmes and playmaking CB Nickell Roby, among others. While it is easy to focus on who is gone - and, with a scholarship constricted USC squad, this matters more than it does to some other teams - one should not go to sleep on what is left. As you examine the USC roster and what they bring to the table in 2013, you can quickly come to realize that the Trojans may, in fact, be a sleeping giant that is about to be reawakened. This is a dangerous team.

The Trojans return, in my opinion, the best Defense in the P12 not named Stanford. This group is absolutely loaded with talent at varying levels of maturity and they possess both the size and the speed required to compete with the myriad of offenses in the P12. The heart of the Trojan D is Hayes Pullard (107 tackles) who, in my opinion, is already the best MLB in the P12 (all apologies to Shayne Skov). Pullard will anchor new DC Clancy Pendergast's "52" defense (an attacking 3-4 style) and he will be partnered with JR Lamar Dawson, a great talent in his own right. The move to the Pendergast's new scheme gives the Trojans the opportunity to create more chaos along the line of scrimmage with athletic linemen and pass rushing LBs while freeing the talented Dion Bailey (4 Ints) to move back to his original position in the defensive backfield. The line of scrimmage promises to be a huge strength for the Trojans in this new scheme as they return Morgan Breslin (13 sacks) - a transfer revelation in 2012 - along with George Uko and Leonard Williams. This is a smaller but quicker unit that is designed to plug gaps and compete at a high level against spread offenses. If there were a question mark in the D, it would be the defensive secondary where players like Roby, T.J. McDonald and S Jawanzaa Starling have all moved on. Fear not as the Trojans, as is their tradition, possess a ton of bright young talent to reload with. True freshman, S'ua Cravens, is a key recruit who will get a chance to battle for a starting position from day 1.

The prospects on the offensive side of the ball are a little murkier, but no less exciting. The first question, of course, is about the QB position. Max Wittek replaced Matt Barkley at the end of last season and met with mixed reviews. He'll get competition from the more mobile SOPH Cody Kessler and a true freshman - Skyline's Max Browne - in what promises to be the most exciting preseason QB battle in the nation. Whomever wins the job - and my money is on Max Browne (all three were listed as co-starters in the spring) - will have the chance to develop on the job as the Trojans return an excellent backfield, anchored by Redd, JR. D.J. Morgan and exciting incoming frosh Justin Davis. They also sport a couple of receiving weapons in the reliable TE Xavier Grimble and, of course, the best receiver in the nation in Marqise Lee. The Trojans have some questions on their talented offensive line. Most notably, who will replace Khaled Holmes (Marcus Martin?) and how well, if at all, will the struggling but talented Aundrey Walker develop at LT. In addition, the Trojans will need to develop a complement to Lee on the other side of the field. Nelson Agholor is the obvious choice there and Randall Telfer will provide reliable depth, but there are few answer so far. Still, with all these questions, expect the Trojans to move the ball in a steady if not sexy sort of way with their young players really gelling by the end of the season.

Dots

  • In a comment sure to generate a sense of schadenfreude among Husky fans who felt jilted by the defection of Zach Banner two recruiting cycles ago, Kiffin was quoted over the spring as saying that Banner is "strictly a right tackle, and he has a ways to go". Rumors continue to swirl that Banner is struggling to compete at this level. It should be noted that Zach is still a very young player and, as we all know, many OLs take years to develop.
  • Coming one year after they were expected by many (not the Gekko File) to compete for a National Championship, the Trojans return 15 starters to this year's roster. Quite a few, to be sure, but tied for fifth fewest in the P12.
  • By my count, the Trojans had a ridiculous number of true freshmen - seven by my count - enroll in time to participate in Spring practices including Browne, Cravens, Davis, DL Kenny Bigelow and DB Leon McQuay III. Expect all of these guys - maybe not Browne if they opt to redshirt him - to be factors in 2013.
  • The Trojans had four players drafted into the NFL including Woods (2nd round, Bills), McDonald (3rd round, Rams), Barkley and Holmes (4th round, Colts). In a strange irony, Holmes may get a legit shot at snapping the ball to Andrew Luck in Indianapolis.
  • Clancy Pendergast was an interesting (surprise?) pick to take over as DC for the departed Monte Kiffin. Last year as Cal's DC, Pendergast presided over one of the lowest ranked D's in the nation. However, Pendergast has deep experience with the P12 and employs a flexible system that should play well with the talent that is available in Troy.
  • Lane Kiffin likes children. In fact, I'd say he loves them. Why, you ask? Because he keeps offering them scholarships. The latest is 14 year old WR Nathan Tilford who, despite not yet ever having played a snap in high school, has earned a scholarship for the class of 2017.

2013 Predictions: USC

If the media over-reacted to and over-rated the Trojans in 2012, then they certainly appear to be under-selling them in 2013. I don't blame them - it is easy to see why. It starts with the bad taste left in the collective nation's mouth when they last saw this Trojan team. The Trojans - without their emotional leader in Barkley - took the field in a bowl game in El Paso that they didn't want to be in and looked lethargic. The plethora of negative images of Lane Kiffin - from the lie he told about how he polled, to the incident where he stormed out on the LA Times reporter, to the ridiculous image of him in his parka at the Sun Bowl, collectively serve to remind us of what a total jackass he can be.

Still, to underestimate this team is to make a potentially mortal mistake if you are an opposing P12 team. No matter how you feel about Kiffin, we don't yet have a full set of data upon which to conclude that he can't coach. On the contrary, he keeps getting plum jobs which would seem to indicate that some people, presumably intelligent decision makers, see something there. On top of that, this team is still loaded with talent. Just scanning their position groups - linebackers, running backs, defensive lines, wide receivers - it is hard not to say that USC boasts the most talented starting lineups, pound for pound, on each side of the ball in the P12.

On top of that, the schedule lines up pretty nicely for USC in 2013. Sure, they continue to be challenged by the ongoing presence of Notre Dame in their non-conference schedule. But they also get to avoid both Oregon and Washington in the P12 schedule. Speaking of which, that P12 schedule lines up quite conveniently. Five games are at home with their road games including winnable affairs at Colorado, Cal, Oregon State and ASU. They get Stanford at home. They also get an extra OOC game due to their first game being a road trip to Honolulu.

In all, I think this is going to be a very solid season for USC. I'm not predicting a National Championship run - we still need to see how the QB situation plays out - but I am predicting an 11 to 12 win type of season and a first place finish in the P12 South. I do expect the Trojans to be a tough out for whomever they end up playing in the P12 championship and I can see this being the kind of season that cements Kiffin in his position and prepares the Trojans for a return to prominence as the yoke of their NCAA imposed penalties loosens in the coming years.

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