By Kolby Paxton
What if Andrew Luck wasn’t Andrew Luck?
I mean, he would still be himself – just a little less Luck-y, so to speak. Imagine that the Stanford graduate was not the Colts’ top pick in April’s draft. Instead, he was merely the first round choice of the Washington Redskins; the next John Elway – not the next Peyton Manning.
Speaking of Manning, he’d still be a Denver-resident, but Robert Griffin III would likely have taken his talents to South Beach. That would have pushed Lauren Tannehill – and husband, Ryan, of course – to… Seattle? Good news for Matt Flynn, who would likely start under center for the Fightin’ Pete Carrolls. Bad news for Russell Wilson who, even with a stellar pre-season, would be holding a clipboard for the Eagles. That is, unless he free-fell to Ken Whisenhunt and Arizona; thus, single-handedly transforming the Cards into a NFC contender.
Ere this sequence of events commenced, however, Trojan gunslinger Matt Barkley brought joy to southern California by forgoing his likely perch atop the 2012 NFL Draft, in favor of sanction-free senior season at USC.
In lieu of this butterfly effect that wasn’t, Barkley is the clear front-runner amid college football’s premature field of Heisman Trophy candidates. He is also the chief reason that Southern Cal finds itself positioned squarely in the BCS National Championship hunt. Barkley tossed for 3,528 yards and a school-record 39 touchdowns a season ago, but found himself peering over the shoulder of Luck, as the Cardinal quarterback rode shotgun in the Pac-12. The Santa Ana, Calif.-native will take a back seat this fall.
When No. 7 drops back to throw, he will have the nation’s top pass catching duo on the horizon. Junior Robert Woods hauled in a USC-record 111 balls last season for 1,292 yards and 15 scores. Woods is also one of college football’s best return man, averaging nearly 25 yards per return over the last two seasons.
Opposite Woods, sophomore Marqise Lee caught 73 passes for 1,143 yards and 11 touchdowns in his first season at Southern Cal, including four consecutive games of eight or more receptions to end the season.
The Trojans found greater benefit from a Penn State defection than any other school in the country when they collected standout running back Silas Redd. Redd, who has two seasons of eligibility remaining, ran for 1,241 yards and seven touchdowns last year. He will be joined by incumbent starter Curtis McNeal. The 5-foot-7 McNeal rushed over 100 yards in five of the Trojans’ final seven games of the 2011 season.
Of course, the high-powered Trojans will need to stop opponents from scoring, eventually.
Defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin saw substantial improvements in his second season on the job, and the Trojans return the majority of the back seven.
Senior defensive ends Wes Horton and Devon Kennard will be charged with the responsibility of replacing Nick Perry and DaJohn Harris up front, while sophomore George Uko anchors the unit inside. Horton was second-team All-Pac-12 last season after recording 22 stops and four sacks.
The three freshman linebackers who were starting at the end of the year, enter their sophomore seasons with strong résumés. Outside backers Hayes Pullard and Dion Bailey were both Freshman All-Americans, and Lamar Dawson is an active middle linebacker. Bailey is a rising star that should push for All-American honors in 2012. He recorded 81 tackles in 11 starts as a redshirt freshman.
The secondary is a strength, with T.J. McDonald, an All-America free safety, and junior playmaking cornerback Nickell Robey. McDonald (6-3, 205), like Barkley, passed on NFL riches to pursue a national championship in Los Angeles. Robey has started every game since arriving at USC.
Prediction: 12-0 (9-0)
In Lane Kiffin’s first season post-Bushgate, Southern Cal is poised to return to the cream of the Pac-12 crop. As talented as USC is offensively, the Trojans will essentially play a four-game season for the right to challenge for all of the SEC’s marbles – er, the national championship. Its most difficult road challenge will likely come with a Thursday night visit to Salt Lake City, Utah. If (when) USC clears that hurdle, a two-game series with Oregon and the regular season finale versus Brian Kelly’s Fighting Irish are all that stands in the Trojans’ way of a trip to Miami, Fla.