Before everything fell apart, the Trojans were the class of the Pac-10 Conference, and even some years the class of the nation. However, USC seemed very beatable last year for the first time since 2001, and even though the team opened the year with a victory over Hawaii, the defense allowed close to 600 yards.
USC moved to 3-0 with wins over Virginia and Minnesota, but neither victory was all that impressive. The Trojans finally showed a glimpse of dominance that their fans had grown accustomed, as they throttled Washington State by 34 points.
However, that wasn't a precursor of things to come as the Trojans were back on the ropes against their next two opponents, but this time Kiffin's bunch was unable to avoid the loss column. First came former coordinator Steve Sarkisian and his Washington Huskies. USC missed a late field goal to extend its lead, and because of that the Huskies were able to win the contest on a last-second field goal (32-31). That was followed by another heartbreaking defeat, as the Trojans saw another field goal on the last play send them to their second setback.
After a convincing win over California, USC was pitted against Oregon and it was another dogfight for the weakened Trojans. USC actually led the game, 32-29, in the third quarter, but the Ducks scored the final 34 points of the matchup to show there was a new top dog in the conference.
USC rebounded with back-to-back victories over Arizona State and Arizona, and just like most of the team's matchups the games were nail-biters, as the Trojans won by a combined four points.
The close victories must have put a strain on USC's players, because those victories followed by losses to Oregon State and Notre Dame.
The Trojans closed out the year with a win over rival UCLA (28-14), but because of the sanctions USC was unable to take part in the postseason. It wasn't the best of years for USC, but eight wins is still a strong showing considering what the program had to endure.
OFFENSE: Despite knowing that the team wouldn't be going to a bowl game, the USC offense still put up some pretty big numbers last season. Those same sanctions are in place this time around, but so is the majority of coach Kiffin's offense, which should produce similar stats here in 2011.
First and foremost, the offense will only go as far as quarterback Matt Barkley will take it. Barkley is one of the top signal callers in the nation, and after throwing 26 touchdowns a year ago, the junior is ready to up the ante. Kiffin feels he has to get Barkley ready to take that next step, just like he did in 2010.
"Our goal for Matt is to improve his decision making," said coach Kiffin. "As you look at what he did last year in the touchdown/interception ratio he improved a lot there, and now we need to go to the next level, so he can have one of those seasons like we've seen here before."
His chances of duplicating or even surpassing last year's stats are increased substantially with Robert Woods entering his sophomore season. As a true freshman last year, Woods led the team in receptions and receiving yards and also finished with six touchdowns. Woods, who was named the conference's Freshman of the Year, lived up to the hype surrounding him and should only be better this time around. Kyke Prater and freshman George Farmer should also give Barkley a couple more reliable options down the field.
Kiffin is going to have to rely heavily on Barkley and the passing attack, at least until he decides if and when Marc Tyler will come off suspension. Tyler made a few comments in the off-season that landed him in the dog house, and he is currently suspended for the season opener.
So, with the team's top back out of action in week one, the job will likely fall to either Dillion Baxter or D.J. Morgan, but neither of them have much experience.
DEFENSE: The offense gets most of the glory at USC, but over the past few seasons, the defense has been equally, if not more important. In 2008, the unit held opponents to just nine points per game, but that figure climbed to 26.0 ppg last year, so there is certainly room for significant improvement.
A big reason for the large drop-off was the play up front, as the defensive line was punished for 4.4 yards per carry. That is the highest total for a USC defense since 1991, so clearly Kiffin has to clean up shop in that area. The player that should instantly give the team a boost is redshirt freshman George Uko, who is a nasty nose tackle built to stuff the run. If Uko can be a strong presence in the middle, expect ends Nick Perry and Wes Horton to have more space on the outside.
Kiffin realizes the struggles his defensive line had a year ago, and has changed some things up to make the front four a more dangerous unit.
"I think our defensive line has the potential to be a very strong group," said Kiffin. "We moved Devon Kinnard from middle linebacker to defensive end. I think cause you look at this conference as it spread out you know it's not like it was when we were here before. It's more important to not have big linebackers, but to have fast defensive ends."
If the defensive line can perform at a higher level, then the defensive backfield should improve on last year's shockingly poor numbers. In fact, the secondary should be better on its own, but a steady pass rush will only make the group better. T.J. McDonald, a First Team All-Pac-10 selection in 2010, led the Trojans in tackles and should continue to show steady improvement. Nickell Robey is another player who should continue to make positive strides. As a freshman Robey collected four interceptions, and has all the makings of the next great USC corner.
SPECIAL TEAMS: While both the offense and defense appears like it has taken the appropriate steps to improve, the special teams will have to be completely revamped. Kiffin will have a new kicker and punter, but more importantly Andre Heidari and Kris Albarado will have to prepare for the life in the new Pac-12, which is filled with big-time competition, and what is expected to be many close games.
The majority of the return men from last year have also moved on, but there is still Woods who averaged 25.6 ypr. However, it is unlikely Kiffin will use his best receiver as a return man. It is likely that there will be a few players with a chance to take over the reins in that area.
OUTLOOK: The Pac-12 will have its first-ever championship game this year and because of sanctions the Trojans are not eligible to play in it. That is truly a shame, because this squad is good enough to win the south division. USC has one of the best quarterbacks in the nation and a rapidly improving defense, but regardless none of that will matter this year.
Besides, coach Kiffin's team does not have the easiest schedule. In fact, USC will have to battle Stanford and Oregon out of the north, and the matchup with the Ducks will be on the road. In addition the Trojans will also have to battle Arizona State, USC's top contender in the south division, in Tempe.
Regardless, if the Trojans take part in postseason action or not, this team is still built to win a good amount of games, and maybe even improve on last year's total.