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Thursday, December 22, 2011
What Barkley and USC could do in 2012

By Pedro Moura

Over the last two weeks, Matt Barkley and his father, Les Barkley, talked over every possible issue they could think of to help decide whether Matt would return for his senior season at USC.

"Do you feel there's any risk that you'll get complacent?" Les, taking on the devil's advocate role, asked his son more than once. "Do you feel there's any risk that you may not be able to progress?"

The 21-year-old Barkley's answers were enough to convince both men that the decision to stay was the right one. But the truth is that there is a chance of both of those things happening. And, perhaps moreso, there's a chance that the teammates around him won't put up the same effort next season with the spotlight on.

But that's a risk Barkley was willing to take. And, understandably so, considering the flip side. If USC continues to work that underdog angle -- somehow, someway -- the Trojans could be just about unstoppable in 2012. They just don't lose very much talent. Including special teams, 19 of 24 starters will be back.

That includes Barkley's two top receivers, Robert Woods and Marqise Lee, who could chase 3,000 combined yards in 2012. And his top running back, Curtis McNeal, and four of five starting offensive linemen. There isn't much more Barkley could want back to chase a national title.

"It's just kind of an exceptional set of circumstances that's really rare," Les said Thursday, minutes after Matt's announcement. "Things will never line up again like they are lined up for this team next year, and he wants to be part of it."

Sure. But what about actually doing it? What will it take to win the BCS title next year at Sun Life Stadium in Miami?

USC figures to start the season ranked in the Associated Press Top 5. Win out, and the Trojans are in the championship game. But it's not that easy. Not when players were already tweeting Thursday that a national championship is on the docket. Not when expectations are going to be sky-high from Day 1 of spring practice.

"I think it'll be very important for our team this year to have the same mentality going into this year, being the underdogs," Matt Barkley said Thursday, in a private moment just after the news conference finished. "It'll be hard, but we're still gonna have that mentality.

"We can't let anybody get big-headed, myself included."

That said, let's take a look at six key games the Trojans will play in 2012, keeping in mind that the order is not finalized, other than the opener. Five of the six represent USC's largest chances at losing, at least at this very early perspective point. But losses in any games other than these six will be considered colossal upsets. And the opener's just there because of what it will mean. Things could change, but for right now, this is what it looks like:

The season opener versus Hawaii

This won't be the toughest game USC has to play. But it will be one of the most hyped. Think about how much talk there's been about Barkley's senior season today, and then add on eight more months of it. That's what this will be like -- plus the added context of the Trojans facing first-time head coach Norm Chow in his first game.

On the road at Washington

Remember Steve Sarkisian's passionate comments about Barkley and how he'd take him over Andrew Luck if given the chance? That didn't work out too well. Sarkisian and defensive coordinator Nick Holt will once again have to game plan against Barkley, who will get the opportunity to win in Seattle, one of three Pac-12 locations where he hasn't yet won.

At home against Oregon

Before he announced he was staying, Barkley always talked about how he wanted to end his college career with a "big bang," a way to have people remember him and his three years in Troy. Last month's win in Eugene certainly qualified as that bang. Now, Barkley will have to do it again -- although the Ducks might be without a few prominent players.

On the road at Stanford

Stanford's one of the other two places where Barkley hasn't won. He won't get a chance to avenge his only loss at Oregon State, in which he only played a half, too. But the Cardinal will be without Luck, of course, and will be an entirely new team. What was one of USC's toughest opponents the last two seasons won't be quite as tough in 2012.

At home against Notre Dame

USC beat the Irish in October, but that was only revenge for what Notre Dame did the previous November at the Coliseum in upsetting the Trojans. Barkley was injured and didn't play in the 2010 game, and it clearly ate at him that USC wasn't able to beat the Irish. An ideal farewell tour would certainly include a victory here.

On the road at UCLA

The 50-0 victory in 2011 over the Bruins made a lot of people think Barkley was gone. But it turns out what it really did was make Barkley realize how much potential the Trojans would have in 2012. They'll face new Bruins coach Jim L. Mora and new UCLA schemes all-around. But the talent levels will still be far different between the two teams, and this game screams blowout potential, even this far in advance.