Pac-12: Mark May

Best case-worst case: USC

August, 13, 2009
8/13/09
1:33
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

Tenth in a series looking at potential dream and nightmare scenarios for all Pac-10 teams, starting at the bottom and working up from my vote in the Pac-10 media poll.

Up next: USC

Best case

Decades hence, the old timers will say the ball flew 100 yards. And that a bald eagle raced beside it for an instant, grinning with approval.

The truth is Matt Barkley's first pass as USC's quarterback only traveled 55 yards in the air. Receiver Damian Williams took it the remaining 25 for a touchdown in the Trojans season-opener against San Jose State.

"I'm pumped," USC coach Pete Carroll tells reporters.

"Wait!" he bellows as they head into the locker room. "I always say that. I say that about a tuna sandwich. Gary, what is another way for me to say 'I'm pumped'?"

"Aflame?" offers L.A. Times USC beat reporter Gary Klein. "Feverish. Blissful. Ecstatic. Perhaps tickled pink?"

Barkley, the true freshman phenom, and a defense that looked almost the equal of the 2008 unit, one of the best in college football history, roll over Ohio State in Columbus, again transforming a marquee interconference showdown into a yawner by halftime, the 40-10 final making it clear that the Trojans are contenders to win a third national title under Carroll.

"I'm tickled pink," Carroll says.

Carroll keeps his starters in well into the fourth quarter in a 40-7 win over Washington and former Trojans assistant Steve Sarkisian, but he yanks them in the third in a 55-9 win over Washington State.

That sets up the showdown in Berkeley: No. 2 USC vs. No. 4 California. ESPN's GameDay is on the scene.

Barkley throws an interception on the Trojans' first possession, which Syd'Quan Thompson returns 33 yards for a touchdown.

Thereafter, things get quiet in Strawberry Canyon. The Trojans speedy defense yields a long touchdown run to Jahvid Best, but it otherwise shuts down the Bears, while Stafon Johnson, Joe McKnight and Curtis McNeal combine for 210 yards rushing. Barkley bounces back from the early pick to compete 19 of passes for 215 yards and a touchdown as USC rolls 28-14.

"Can Notre Dame handle the mighty Trojans?" ESPN's Rece Davis asks Mark May and Lou Holtz.

"No," May replies.

"What! I'm picking an Irish upset," Holtz counters.

USC beats Notre Dame 44-0.

Oregon State heads to the Coliseum the next weekend. Suffice it to say, the Trojans weren't asleep on the bus ride to the stadium this time.

USC rolls 42-17. Barkley throws three touchdown passes.

"Is Matt Barkley a Heisman Trophy candidate?" ESPN GameDay host Chris Fowler asks.

"Maybe," replies Kirk Herbstreit.

No. 10 Oregon puts a scare into the Trojans, with Ducks coach Chip Kelly outflanking Carroll's defense a number of times, but USC prevails 38-28.

The Trojans look uninspired during lackluster wins over Arizona State and Stanford, and more than a handful of pundits wonder whether they are headed for a fall against resurgent UCLA, which has broken into the Top 25 with five consecutive victories.

USC, however, leaves little doubt, taking a 21-0 lead in the first half and coasting home 35-14.

After a 30-20 win over Arizona, the unbeaten No. 2 ranked Trojans are on a collision course with top-ranked unbeaten Florida.

"It's the matchup everyone wants to see," Fowler says. "Florida vs. USC, Tim Tebow vs. Matt Barkley. SEC vs. Pac-10. Pete Carroll vs. Urban Meyer. It's beautiful."

[Pause.]

"Are you sure it's the matchup the SEC wants, though?" Herbstreit counters with a troubled look. "This is a rebuilding USC squad with a true freshman quarterback and eight new starters on defense. The Gators are being touted as the best team in SEC history. Yet Las Vegas lists the Trojans as a 3-point favorite. Why is that?"

The line grows to five by Jan. 6.

USC covers with a 28-17 win, sacking two-time Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Tim Tebow four times. Barkley throws two touchdown passes and immediately becomes the front-runner for the 2010 Heisman.

The Trojans win their third national title under Carroll.

The NCAA announces the following week that it finds USC's football program blameless in the Reggie Bush investigation. Curiously, it ends the press release with a, "Fight ON!" though only Bruins Nation thinks that's a big deal.

Says Carroll, "I'm tickled pink."

Worst case

When USC coach Pete Carroll tapped true freshman Matt Barkley as the Trojans' starter on Aug. 29, it wasn't much of a surprise. The only problem was Aaron Corp, who missed two weeks of practice with a knee injury, was far more consistent over the final week of practice.

When Barkley throws two beautiful touchdown passes in the Trojans' opening win over San Jose State, the decision appears sound. But it seems less so when he also tosses two interceptions.

A week later in the Horseshoe, Barkley comes apart, the apparently unflappable young man looking out of sorts amid the cacophony of 103,000 fans.

Corp comes off the bench in the third quarter to rally the Trojans, but Ohio State prevails 28-24.

Corp gets the start the following weekend at Washington, but the Trojans play without inspiration. It appears that Steve Sarkisian will get the best of his mentor and notch a monumental upset until Joe McKnight takes a fourth-quarter screen pass 58 yards for a game-clinching touchdown.

No. 4 California then jolts the Trojans 40-17, handing Carroll his worst loss as USC coach.

USC bounces back with a 44-0 victory at Notre Dame and appears to be finding its rhythm at quarterback with Aaron Corp. Corp throws for two touchdowns in a win over Oregon State and is impressive for three quarters at Oregon.

But, with a 30-17 win safely in hand, Corp reinjures his knee.

Barkley takes over and is at times brilliant and other times clueless during victories over Arizona State and Stanford.

Corp returns for the UCLA game, but Bruins defensive tackle Brian Price knocks him out in the first quarter with a vicious sack. UCLA cornerback Alterraun Verner runs back two Barkley interceptions for touchdowns as the Bruins roll to a 30-24 victory.

With a Holiday Bowl berth on the line against Arizona, Barkley connects with Damian Williams for a game-winning touchdown with just 10 seconds left.

"We're pumped to play in the Holiday Bowl," Carroll says.

The Trojans whip Nebraska 45-17.

On Jan. 14, the NCAA ends its previously endless investigation into improper benefits provided by would-be sports agents to Reggie Bush. It finds USC lacked institutional contro
l and the football program is placed on probation for five years, loses 21 scholarships and receives a two-year postseason ban.

"I'm not pumped," Carroll says. "This will make it harder to win forever."

He then bolts for the NFL, becoming the Oakland Raiders' head coach.

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