|Receiver Robert Woods :: Getty Images|
After two years watching bowls on TV, USC can now think about playing in one again. The NCAA ban that confined the Trojans to their couches for the postseason has been lifted. The quest for a 12th national title is afoot.
USC hits the ground running: Last season, in their second year under coach Lane Kiffin, the Trojans won 10 games -- the most since 2008, the Pete Carroll era's penultimate season, which ended with a Rose Bowl victory over Penn State. Because of USC's ineligibility in 2011, it was UCLA that carried the flag for the South division in last December's Pac-12 title game, though that came a week after the Trojans had pummeled the Bruins 50-0.
Much of what made last year's team successful remains unchanged. Quarterback Matt Barkley, who bypassed going to the NFL because, he said, USC "has some unfinished business to attend to," is under center for the fourth straight season and is a Heisman Trophy favorite. Behind him in the backfield are two 1,000-yard running backs (senior Curtis McNeal and Penn State transfer Silas Redd), and to Barkley's left and right are a pair of 1,000-yard receivers (junior Robert Woods and sophomore Marqise Lee). On the other side of the ball, senior All-America safety T.J. McDonald -- another Trojan who delayed going to the pros -- is among six lettermen returning to the defense.
Although USC has brought in a top 10 recruiting class this season, its ongoing NCAA sentence (which was levied after a series of rules violations between 2004 and '09) limits the school to 75 scholarship players and 15 signees for each of the next three years -- 10 fewer players than the competition gets.
The lack of depth could hurt USC late in games, as the Trojans have had trouble finishing. "We've been ahead in the second half of 24 of [my] 25 games here," said Kiffin, whose team has squandered six of those advantages. If the Trojans can hold on to a few more leads, they could be the ones playing in the big game this year -- no longer stuck on the couch.
After a costly spring injury to defensive end Devon Kennard, will the Trojans find enough depth on the defensive line?
20 TDs and 2,765 -- What's needed by Matt Barkley to break Matt Leinart's and Carson Palmer's respective USC career passing marks.
Matt Barkley, QB, Sr. -- Pinpoint accuracy (his 69.1-percent completion rate broke an 18-year-old school record), poise (eight sacks in 446 passing attempts) and a never-say-die personality are why this fourth-year starter is a Heisman favorite.
Hayes Pullard, LB, So. -- The 6-foot-1, 235-pounder generated four sacks and two forced fumbles while becoming the first freshman in 58 seasons -- along with fellow backer Dion Bailey, the conference defensive freshman player of the year -- to lead the Trojans in tackles, with 81.
Robert Woods, WR, Jr. -- A Biletnikoff Award finalist and All-America in 2011, he ranked fourth nationally in catches (9.3 per game), eighth in receiving yards (107.7) and fifth in TDs (15). The 6-foot-1, 190-pounder forms the nation's best receiving duo with Marqise Lee (73 catches, 11 TDs).
Khaled Holmes, C, Sr. -- The transition from guard to center was seamless for this 6-foot-4, 305-pounder, who was snapping balls to Barkley when the two played at Mater Dei High in Santa Ana, Calif.
Aundrey Walker, LT, So. -- The 6-foot-6, 300-pounder has gotten by on his size. Practice with the first team in spring 2011 didn't work out, but now, despite another rough spring, he'll start at left tackle, replacing Matt Kalil, the first O-lineman taken in this year's NFL draft. If Walker is to remain Barkley's blind-side protector, though, he'll have to start throwing his weight around.
Jabari Ruffin, LB, Fr. -- Ruffin has the size (6-foot-4, 230 pounds) and the speed (4.64 40 time) to excel in the Trojans' backup rotation on defense. His prep experience at tailback makes him a possible contributor on the other side of the ball.
Tim McDonald hoped his son T.J. would remain a football spectator. The little boy had to fight to stay awake in the stands while Daddy prowled the secondary for the NFL's Cardinals and 49ers. While memorabilia celebrating Tim was prevalent in their Fresno home -- he was a two-time All-America safety at USC, a six-time Pro Bowler and a Super Bowl champion with the 1994 Niners -- Tim was convinced that by belaboring the dozen surgeries he underwent in his gridiron career he had scared his boy straight into baseball. But young T.J. would not be dissuaded by his father's insinuations. When T.J. was in fifth grade, Tim got a call from one of his teachers reporting that he had sneaked onto the football team by forging his old man's autograph.
"He eventually accepted that I wanted to play," recalled T.J., now an All-America safety himself, "but he said if I was going to play, I was going to have to start the right way."
T.J. could have his pads, but Tim was getting a whistle. He blew it often -- along with his stack -- while coaching T.J. in Pop Warner and in high school; on Tim's Edison High varsity squad, T.J. emerged as a six-position star, shining brightest at safety. "There was no way I couldn't be hard on him," Tim said.
The exception was lunchtime, when T.J. ducked into Dad's office to watch film. The brown-bag-and-bull sessions made Tim's defensive system, replete with college-style zone coverages, much easier to swallow. "He's never been the type to say, 'You played a great game,' " T.J. said. "But my senior season I was like, Man, this dude made me the player that I am."
That player is one who lines up his targets and pile drives through them with the full force of his 6-foot-3, 205-pound frame. A standout varsity first baseman and centerfielder at Edison (.418 average as a senior), he quit baseball even though the Blue Jays selected him in the 30th round of the 2009 draft, and he devoted his athletic future to football. He visited USC once and signed a week later. "There was no recruitment process," T.J. said, but there was an adjustment period. He labored to apply his dad's AP-level lessons in defense against more sophisticated college offenses. A sprained ankle suffered during spring ball further limited him to five games in his freshman year.
Postseason surgery restored the spring in T.J.'s step, but his swagger remained lost. So Tim, back on campus to finish his communications degree, showed T.J. the way again. After class Tim would rush to the Trojans' practice field. After getting home to Fresno, Tim would watch practice film with T.J. over Skype. After some mousing around, it finally clicked. "I realized that I had to get back to what I know, and that's being a physical player," said T.J., who was so tough on his teammates during spring ball in 2010 that coach Lane Kiffin told him to ease up. In three seasons (two as a starter), T.J. has had 163 tackles, including a team-best 89 in '10, but also committed his share of personal fouls. None were worse than the leveling blow he put on Stanford's Chris Owusu last October, a turning point in a 56-48 triple-overtime Trojans defeat that earned T.J. a half-game suspension from the Pac-12.
T.J. has made wrapping up and going down with the ballcarrier a point of emphasis this season -- which he was thisclose to bypassing to be a potential first-round selection in the NFL draft. "We had so much going that I couldn't cut the story short," he said. So he'll keep tracking his father's footsteps in Troy, leaving his own indelible mark in its place.
SI: What's the easiest part of being the boss of your dad, assistant coach Monte Kiffin?
LK: Having so much background that it's easy to communicate with him. Anything that comes up, you just go in and talk. Obviously I've known him for a long time.
SI: Does the technological part of the job weird him out at all?
LK: With a lot of the veteran coaches the technology is so different than just face-to-face communication. Or just a phone call. That's where things have really changed.
SI: Videos of your players expressing themselves keep going viral. Why?
LK: We have guys who use a lot of media: Twitter, Facebook, etc. They're creative. As long as it's not hurting us, we encourage it.
SI: In today's culture, coaches have become celebrities. Has that impacted your public life?
LK: Old guys joke about things they used to do, stuff nowadays there's no way you could do because of camera phones. Everything's changed. You know going in that you give up a lot of privacy as a public figure.
SI: One of Junior Seau's last moments on earth was at the spring game. What was it like having him back in Troy?
LK: He was in our locker room at halftime. Guys were talking to him. He was smiling and talking about the great memories, [how] walking down the tunnel and playing at SC were just better than everything. Including the Super Bowl. It was really neat having him around.
This team preview originally appeared in Sports Illustrated Presents' Pac-12 Preview.