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AFTER TWO YEARS OF 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 is a 1,000-yard running back (senior Curtis McNeal), 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. It's an added obstacle for a team smarting from linebacker turned rusher Tre Madden's season-ending knee injury this spring, which created a hole that the diminutive McNeal (5' 7"), for all of his pluck, can't fill by himself.
The lack of depth could also hurt USC late in games; it has had trouble finishing. "We've been ahead in the second half of 24 of [my] 25 games here," says 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.
COACH Lane Kiffin (3rd year) 18--7 (12--6 in Pac-12)
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR Kennedy Polamalu
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR Ed Orgeron