LOS ANGELES -- There were many unanswered questions for the Trojans coming into the 2011 season, and the source of the good feelings that surround the program currently is the fact that so many of those questions got answered positively.
When training camp started, no one knew how things were going to turn out with Lane Kiffin.
Matt Barkley hadn't turned the corner yet as an elite quarterback. There was a hole at running back, the lack of a clear No. 2 receiver and a whole lot of worry about the offensive line. That's not even mentioning the concerns about the defense.
The season started off with wins over Minnesota, Utah and Syracuse, but they were all closer than they should have been, and there wasn't any indication that this USC team was ready to explode.
The first big test came on the road against Arizona State, which only confirmed a lot of the fears that USC fans had about their team. The Trojans came out flat, couldn't stop the Sun Devils offense and then imploded at the end with a flurry of turnovers that sealed ASU's win.
The Trojans then came home and survived a shootout against Arizona and QB Nick Foles. In hindsight, this game was critical to the turnaround of the season. If the Trojans had lost that game -- which was in doubt until the very end -- it could have been a very different season. Instead they survived and headed into a bye week before facing Cal.
Kiffin took that bye week to focus particularly on red-zone defense. To that point in the season, USC's opponents had scored 14 touchdowns in 17 red zone trips. Offensively, Barkley was playing well, Marc Tyler was still the leading rusher and Marqise Lee was starting to show that he might be a dependable second option on the other side of Robert Woods. There was also some settling along the offensive line after true freshman Marcus Martin had been inserted into the lineup at left guard.
The USC defense exploded against Cal with five turnovers, setting the stage for Notre Dame. This was expected to be a statement game in terms of where this season would go for the Trojans, and that sentiment turned out to be completely accurate. The Trojans dominated in a physical fashion, walking out of South Bend with one of the most satisfying victories of the year.
The domination of Notre Dame set up a nationally hyped battle with Stanford at the Coliseum, with Heisman frontrunner Andrew Luck going against a red-hot Barkley. The game itself delivered -- as did Barkley and Luck -- and there was optimism despite the triple-overtime loss.
Lee continued to emerge not only as a dependable option, but as a big-time playmaker. Curtis McNeal was providing explosive runs in the backfield. Nickell Robey was shutting down receivers left and right. All of this suggested that USC had a lot to look forward to down the stretch.
The final month of the season set up extremely well for the Trojans.
They had Colorado -- a program that was struggling and didn't pose much of a problem. Then Washington came to town, providing USC a revenge opportunity after two last-second field goal losses to the Huskies the previous two seasons. The Trojans looked strong in both games, but there was also a huge hurdle waiting on the calendar in the form of the Oregon Ducks.
USC traveled to Autzen Stadium for a game with so much on the line. It was pretty clear that Oregon had become the dominant team in the Pac-12 Conference. For the Trojans to be clearly "back," they needed to knock off the Ducks. It was as simple as that.
The game couldn't have turned out much better for USC. The full Trojans offensive arsenal was on display, and the defense showcased a new sideline-to-sideline pursuit speed that was necessary to slow down the Ducks. The whole nation took notice, as this team with nothing to play for suddenly was playing as well as any team around.
The season finale turned out to be less of a game and more of a coronation. It was one last opportunity to see how far Kiffin had come as a play-caller. It was a chance for McNeal to be the latest -- and one of the more unlikely – 1,000-yard rushers at USC. It left no doubt that Woods and Lee form the most dynamic receiving duo in the nation.
It showed us a defense that rose up for a pair of goal-line stands to help preserve the shutout. It also was a perfect ending for a defense that turned its red zone issues around 180 degrees, as the Trojans gave up only 14 touchdowns in the last 29 opponent red zone opportunities.
Finally, the UCLA game gave us a chance to see Barkley at his finest. He had his second six-touchdown game, with more records falling left and right. He completed his last pass of the year to his cousin, Robbie Boyer, then posed for photos on the field after the game with his smiling family. It was picture perfect.
Perfect is just about what Barkley became in the final stretch of the season, as the junior became the kind of leader and quarterback that made it happen for the USC Trojans. Of all the things that went right for the Trojans this year, none of them needed to go right more than Barkley, and boy did he respond. He put the team on his back and delivered a magical ride that will long be remembered in Cardinal and Gold lore.
There will be much speculation in the coming weeks about Barkley's future -- as well as Matt Kalil's and Nick Perry's -- but those discussions are for another time. For now it is time to look back and reflect upon a season where so many things fell into place, where the dark clouds moved away and a foundation was put in place for the future. It was a special season at USC, one that will not be forgotten anytime soon.
Garry Paskwietz is the publisher of WeAreSC.com and has covered the Trojans since 1997. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.