- Ted Miller, ESPN Staff Writer
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USC, which finished this season 10-2 and ranked No. 5, will have 19 starters returning in 2012 including both specialists and a guy by the name of Matt Barkley.
The Trojans welcome back their top rusher, top three receivers, four starting offensive lineman and a guy by the name of Matt Barkley.
Also back in 2012: The Trojans' top four tacklers. And five of their top six. And a first-team All-Pac-12 kicker. And a guy by the name of Matt Barkley.
The Trojans looked like a preseason top-10 team a month ago. They looked like the preseason Pac-12 South Division favorites. But when Barkley announced Thursday, "I have not yet finished my journey as a Trojan football player," it sent a shockwave across the college football landscape.
Remember that little girl staring at the TV snow in "Poltergeist"? All together now: "They're baaaaack!"
Barkley makes USC a national title contender. Barkley makes things around Heritage Hall feel like it's 2002-2008 all over again. Barkley means Trojans fans can stop thinking about the injustice it suffered when the NCAA whacked it with severe sanctions and start dreaming of BCS bowls again.
Just FYI: Miami on Jan. 7, 2013. What happened the last time the Trojans played in South Florida with big stakes?
Ah, the Oregon fans have just arrived. To borrow a phrase: Not so fast, my friend.
The Ducks are the three-time defending Pac-12 champions. They've got a whole bunch of key guys coming back in 2012, too. They, too, are a certain top-10 team, perhaps top-five. They will be the overwhelming favorites to win the North Division.
Both have highly favorable schedules. USC's nonconference schedule: Hawaii (with head coach Norm Chow!), at Syracuse and Notre Dame. Oregon's is, well, pitiful: Arkansas State, Fresno State and Tennessee Tech.
Oh, then there is this little date for both in LA next year. The Pac-12 schedules aren't official yet, but the conference confirmed to the Pac-12 blog that USC and Oregon will play in the Coliseum next fall. That regular-season game, not hard to project as a matchup of top-five teams, very likely could lead to a rematch in the Pac-12 title game, which could be a gateway to the national title game for the winner.
Ducks and Trojans: Feel free to talk amongst yourselves.
Meanwhile, Barkley, by passing up a chance to be a top-10 NFL draft pick as Matt Leinart and Andrew Luck did before him, immediately established himself as the leading 2012 Heisman Trophy candidate. His status as front-runner is only slightly less firm than Luck's was last year when he announced a shocking return.
And that point -- thump -- should provide a speed bump of moderation for our foray into admittedly hysterical hyperbole about Barkley and USC. Just about every time you try to write a college football season's story before it plays out, you end up being wrong.
Preseason predictions can be completely off: Oklahoma was the consensus preseason No. 1 this year. Or they can be slightly off: Luck and the overwhelming Heisman favorite in August. Or they can fall just short in the end: USC as the best team in college football history in 2005.
Or, then again, sometimes they are spot-on: USC in 2004 was preseason No. 1 as well as the postseason national champion.
Still, while grand scenarios are merely reasonably conceived potential endings for something that is a year away and laden with unforeseen variables, there is no downside on this day for USC. In fact, it spiderwebs positives throughout the program, from making the future at QB more secure, to bolstering the present recruiting effort, to getting USC fans excited and reinvested again, ready to fill up the Coliseum next fall.
By the way, USC folks aren't the only ones smiling. Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott is grinning ear-to-ear. He sees another bright, articulate Heisman Trophy candidate who conducts himself with class acting as the face of the conference, as Luck did this past fall. He sees two big ticket national title contenders in 2012, just as the conference's new TV contract kicks in. He's got broadcast partners -- ESPN and Fox -- as well as a new Pac-12 Network that are going to be thrilled that the conference's ratings-driving bell cow is back under the klieg lights in LA.
Toss in four new, high-profile coaches, and there are plenty of sexy story lines for the Pac-12 in 2012.
The week started with USC fans slapping their foreheads over Ohio State's middling NCAA sanctions for severe infractions. It was a frustrating reminder of the seeming cosmic forces that conspired to end the USC dynasty, including Pete Carroll skipping town back to the NFL.
But the week ends with an early Christmas gift for USC. Matt Barkley telling it, "I am staying because I want to finish what I started."
Yes, college football fans across the country pricked up their ears Thursday and thought, "Drat. I hear those darn "Tribute To Troy" drums again."