Matt Barkley stands tall amid sanctions

The USC Trojans cannot play in a bowl game this season.

Told that, the quarterback, Matt Barkley, laughs.

"Oh, really?" he asks.

Yes, really. In the second season of NCAA sanctions that included a two-year postseason ban, the Trojans are finally -- finally! -- starting to escape bowl-ban talk, both within the team and outside of it.

"It's nice that no one's really asking about it," Barkley said in a rare private moment recently. "For me, I haven't been thinking about it at all, and it only really gets brought up when the media asks about it or other people ask about it. Within our team, we don't talk about it. I don't see any point in that.

"Guys have moved on, which is better for us."

The moving-on process took quite a while. The sanctions were really all anyone wanted to talk about surrounding this team in 2010, especially late in the year, when a 1-3 record in the month of October dropped the Trojans out of Top 25 contention and into the special section for pride.

But now, with that year under their collective belt, the Trojans expect to focus a lot more on that whole football aspect this season. They've spent a lot of time in fall camp preparing, learning and practicing how to maintain the same mindset throughout the year, no matter the change in circumstances.

So, according to Barkley and his teammates, USC won't suffer from any sort of letdown in the effort department if it loses at any point in the season -- regardless of whether it's in Week 2 against Utah or Week 11 at Oregon.

"Because we handled it once, we can only do it better now," Barkley said. "Being in the same situation twice definitely allows you to handle it better and more efficiently."

Of course, the situation is actually better this time around. Because of the NCAA-regulated free transfer policy that gave Trojans juniors and seniors freedom to transfer without punishment in the summer of 2010, combined with former coach Pete Carroll's preference to keep roster numbers low, the Trojans were dangerously low on players. And because of that, new coach Lane Kiffin chose not to have players tackle in practice to try to keep them physically fresh.

That plan didn't work so well, for one primary reason: When it came time to tackle in game situations, the Trojans couldn't do it. The lack of practice time was evident.

They've been tackling in practice all camp this year. More players have gotten hurt, as Kiffin has connected on more than one occasion, but they've tackled better.

A lot better. And that alone is reason to be positive for the prospects of this year's team and forget about the sanctions for the time being. They'll worry about that more later, when next season comes around and Kiffin's regime is struggling to get the roster under the NCAA-mandated maximum and work with the 15-scholarships-per-year limit.

But not now. Sanctions don't matter to the Trojans now, they say.

"Especially when we're on the field, we don't think about that," Barkley said. "We're just having fun playing football.

"That's the mindset that I want to keep with these guys -- don't let anything get you down, or whatever that saying is."

Can Matt Barkley and Robert Woods take the next step in 2011?

Barkley completed nearly 63 percent of his passes for 2,800 yards, 26 touchdowns and 12 interceptions as a sophomore in 2010 -- solid numbers, but not world-beating figures by any means. Andrew Luck's numbers (71 percent completions, 3,300 yards, 32 scores, eight picks) were light-years better.

And it's the same for Woods. As a freshman, the 19-year-old caught 65 balls -- 55 from Barkley -- for 792 yards and six touchdowns, tops on the Trojans but just sixth in the Pac-10. Arizona's Juron Criner nearly doubled the scoring total and had about 450 more yards receiving.

In order for USC to seriously challenge to win double-digit games this season, both Barkley and Woods have to step up to the sort of levels Luck and Criner occupied in 2010.

Who will emerge from the Trojans' stable of running backs?

With Marc Tyler suspended for the season opener against Minnesota, the Trojans have spent the fall auditioning a quartet of players for the starting role in that game -- and potentially beyond, as Tyler's status for the rest of the season is still unknown.

All four have been impressive at times; none have been consistently better than the rest. Junior Curtis McNeal has been the steadiest, but he measures in at just 5-foot-7 and 180 pounds. Sophomore Dillon Baxter might make the most sense from an excitement standpoint, and he's improved his between-the-tackles running this fall, but he still presents question marks in the consistency category.

Amir Carlisle, a 5-10, 180-pound freshman, has impressed the coaching staff in camp, but he's small in stature and likely not yet ready for pounding at the college level. Speedster D.J. Morgan is an intriguing option who has experienced complications with his surgically-repaired knee this fall.

How will Monte Kiffin's defense do in Year 2?

USC's defensive unit was historically bad in 2010.

The Trojans gave up more yards per game, on average, than they had in any season since 1955. They allowed the second-most points per game, 26.7, in school history -- nearly three times as many as they gave up two years earlier under Carroll and Nick Holt. In crucial games against Stanford and Oregon, they gave up 498 and 599 yards, respectively.

They were just bad. But they return eight players with significant starting experience in 2011, including junior free safety T.J. McDonald, a potential All-America candidate, and pass-rushing ends Devon Kennard, Nick Perry and Wes Horton.

McDonald has said many times this fall that Kiffin has simplified the defense this year to make it easier to grasp, and that strategy has earned rave reviews from players. It also appears to be working with the first-string defense in scrimmages.

Pedro Moura covers USC for ESPNLA.com.