No. 4: USC. Even before the NCAA brought the hammer down on USC’s football program, there were problems in Trojan country. After last season, the aura of superiority had waned, and a fifth-place finish had turned USC into just one of the top programs in the Pac-10, not the undisputed ruler.
Yes, it was only one season, but it is clear the Trojans don’t have quite the level of home run hitters they’ve had in the past. There is no Reggie Bush, Mike Williams or Dwayne Jarrett — guys that really kept opposing defensive coodinators up at night. And although there is talent across the board on defense, there is nobody like Ray Maualuga or Brian Cushing on the current version of the Trojans.
This says more about the lofty heights the Trojans had enjoyed for the better part of the past decade. Of course, the NCAAs findings have cast a new perspective on those accomplishments, and the bottom line is USC right now isn’t what USC once was.
The Trojans were shockingly undominant in some of their games last season. We all know they were crushed by Oregon and Stanford, but just as startling was their loss to Washington, their inability to put away Arizona State and the fact that they didn’t blow out Washington State. Their season-ending loss to Arizona didn’t seem as shocking because by that time we had all learned this wasn’t the same USC team as years past.
Reeling at the NCAA sanctions and transitioning to a new coach, the Trojans aren’t exactly riding a wave of momentum heading into the season. But USC hopes to build off its Emerald Bowl win over Boston College, not the fact that it lost three of its final five regular season games last season.
The Trojans’ offense was fifth in the Pac-10 last season. They could improve on that just with normal maturation of quarterback Matt Barkley, who showed enormous promise at times but also looked like a true freshman at others. With another strong offensive line returning, Barkley should improve.
But USC needs more explosiveness from its skill positions to return to the top. Allen Bradford should be the No. 1 tailback, but he is more of an inside, bruising runner. Senior C.J. Gable is a talent and new coach Lane Kiffin may not be able to hold off touted freshman Dillon Baxter. As for the receivers, Barkley needs Ronald Johnson to develop into the next great USC pass-catching threat becasue the rest of the corps is unproven.
Malcom Smith and Michael Morgan return at outside linebacker but Chris Galippo is being replaced by Devon Kennard at middle linebacker. The Trojans are pretty strong up front on defense with Jurrel Casey, a potential high NFL draft pick, leading the way. USC must replace its entire secondary, including All-Pac-10 safety Taylor Mays.
The NCAA placed a two-year postseason ban on the Trojans. It seems the team could respond two ways — hunker down and use it as motivation to dominate the regular seasoh, or resign themselves to the fact that their accomplishments on the field between September and December won’t be rewarded over the holidays.