King of the Raft. That was the name quarterback Matt Barkley and several of his teammates gave to a game they concocted during a visit to Barkley's parents' home in Newport Beach, Calif., over the summer. Everyone piled into the pool, and an inflatable raft was placed in the center. The person who fought off his teammates and stayed on the raft the longest was the winner.
"It was a bunch of competitive guys trying to find a way to have some fun," Barkley says.
USC's coming season could be described the same way. Due to NCAA sanctions stemming from Reggie Bush--era misdeeds, the Trojans are banned from postseason play this year and next. Thus, a bunch of competitive guys, including new coach Lane Kiffin, will have to find other ways to stay motivated.
If USC were eligible for the postseason, a redemptive trip to the Rose Bowl (after last season's sputtering 9--4 campaign) wouldn't be far-fetched. Kiffin complains about the Trojans' depth—"It is not what it was in 2004 and 2005," he says—but the team has many strengths. The defensive line may be better and deeper than the units from the glory years, with junior tackle Jurrell Casey and junior defensive end Armond Armstead among the headliners. USC has four talented and experienced linebackers, and the offensive line includes three returnees and one other with experience. A cadre of capable running backs adds dynamic freshman Dillon Baxter, who reminds Kiffin of another explosive back from San Diego: Bush.
Then there is Barkley, who had an up-and-down freshman season but showed promise. (He directed the game-winning drive at Ohio State and threw for 380 yards at Notre Dame.) He dropped his level of body fat to below 10% in the off-season, losing 10 pounds to get down to 220. "I'm leaner, and I feel quicker now," he says. "There were times last season when my legs felt tired, but I think I can now be that level 10 athlete. I also think I understand more what kind of leader I need to be."
As for the idea that the postseason ban will derail the Trojans, Barkley doesn't buy it. "You can point to this and that," he says, "but I think with this team, we don't have any excuses for being subpar."