With bowl ban lifted, Trojans eye national title run

After spending the beginning part of the century as one of Football Bowl Subdivision's most dominant teams, including a BCS National Championship in 2004, the USC Trojans were dealt a huge blow when the NCAA suspended the program after the 2009 season following a four-year investigation into allegations surrounding Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush, which led to a two-year bowl ban and a loss of more than 20 scholarships.

With the punishment came the expected regression, as the Trojans took a step backward over the past few seasons. Former head coach Pete Carroll left to coach the Seattle Seahawks, leaving the reins to Lane Kiffin, who managed a meager 8-5 record in 2010 in his first year at the helm. Kiffin saw a significant improvement in 2011, finishing in first place in the Pac-12 Conference's South Division with a 7-2 record and a 10-2 mark overall.

Though it's been a tumultuous few seasons in Los Angeles, the Trojans have managed to right the ship under the new regime, and with the bowl ban finally being lifted for the 2012 season, they have their sights set on a national title.

Spearheading the squad this season is the Trojans' senior leader, quarterback Matt Barkley, who has been the team's starter since he arrived on campus in 2009 as a true freshman. Barkley has always shown promise as a signal caller, combining for 41 touchdown passes in his freshman and sophomore seasons, but he was able to take the next step into the nation's elite during the 2011 campaign, throwing for 3,528 yards on an outstanding .691 completion percentage, while his 39 touchdown passes set a school record and were third most in the nation. Pairing those numbers with a minuscule seven interceptions firmly planted the junior as one of the top quarterback prospects in the country.

But instead of declaring his eligibility for the 2012 NFL Draft, where he would have surely been a top-10 selection, Barkley decided to stay at USC for one last season, knowing the great opportunity ahead.

"This team has some serious unfinished business to attend to, and I intend to play a part in it," Barkley said during his press conference last December announcing his return. "I am staying because I want to finish what I started."

Barkley will have a lot of help in achieving the ultimate goal this season, as the high-powered Trojan offense returns nine of 11 starters, with Matt Kalil, who was selected fourth overall by the Minnesota Vikings in the 2012 NFL Draft, being the only major loss on that side of the ball. Even with Kalil gone, USC expects to have one of the best offensive lines in the country, with Aundrey Walker, Marcus Martin, Khaled Holmes, John Martinez and Kevin Graf returning to a unit that allowed a FBS-low eight sacks last season.

The Trojans aren't light on skill players either. After missing the entire 2010 season, running back Curtis McNeal returned in 2011 to make the All-Pac-12 honorable mention team, carrying the ball 145 times for 1,005 yards and six touchdowns in becoming USC's 27th 1,000-yard rusher. Sophomore D.J. Morgan (42 carries, 180 yards in 2011) is expected to have a bigger role.

While the running game helps take pressure off Barkley, the Trojans are at their best when they are slinging the ball down field, and they return perhaps the nation's best receiving duo this season. Robert Woods has proven to be nearly unstoppable in the open field, breaking Keyshawn Johnson's school record in catches with 111 while going for 1,292 receiving yards and 15 touchdowns. The sophomore's fantastic season earned him a First Team All-American selection and he was one of three finalists for the Biletnikoff Award as the nation's most outstanding receiver.

Not to be lost in the shuffle is Marqise Lee, who tallied 73 catches, 1,143 yards and 11 touchdowns opposite of Woods, marking one of the most impressive freshman seasons by a Trojan receiver in school history.

The defense remains largely intact for this coming season as well. The Trojans will surely miss defensive end Nick Perry (13.0 tackles for loss, 9.5 sacks), who was selected 28th overall by the Green Bay Packers, but nearly every other impact contributor will be returning in 2012, including linebackers Hayes Pullard (81 tackles, 4.0 sacks) and Dion Bailey (81 tackles, 2.0 sacks, two interceptions), defensive backs T.J. McDonald (67 tackles, three interceptions) and Nickell Robey (63 tackles, two interceptions), and defensive end Wes Horton (4.5 tackles for loss, 4.0 sacks).

With a roster mostly intact from its 10-win 2011 campaign, USC should be favored in most if not all of its games this season. A September 15 duel at Stanford doesn't seem too daunting without Andrew Luck, and bouts at home against Notre Dame, Cal and Arizona State and on the road versus Arizona and UCLA should be interesting, but very winnable. The biggest challenge for the Trojans comes on November 3 when they face Oregon, which has been the class of the Pac-12 in recent years. It should be a slugfest, but with USC having home- field advantage, it seems to be the Trojans' game to lose -- meaning a perfect 12-0 season could be in the offering.

Even if they do slip up once, an 11-1 season, the Pac-12 championship and subsequent trip to a BCS game is not only a possibility but expected from this bunch. Now all that's left is to hit the field and take care of business.