USC Football: Sizing Up The Trojans' National Title Hopes
As an early Christmas present for the Trojan faithful, Barkley's decision to stay symbolized a return to prominence and an opportunity that the Men of Troy have thirsted for since the NCAA-imposed sanctions from the summer of 2010. With Barkley back for his senior season, 17 returning starters on offense and defense, a stellar incoming class and the opportunity to play in a bowl game, the stars were beginning to align for the AP preseason No. 1 Trojans.
USC appeared poised to run the table, considering the tougher opponents on its schedule, like Oregon and Notre Dame, had to make the trip to the Coliseum.
Unfortunately,the Trojans learned on Saturday that preseason hype does not equate to victories. Despite the "prep not hype" motto promoted throughout fall camp and painted on the grass of the Howard Jones practice field, the Trojans appeared unprepared against the gritty Cardinal in a 21-14 loss at rowdy Stanford Stadium.
Maybe "unprepared" is an unfair characterization, but there was certainly a significant lack of it that resulted in the Cardinal's fifth win in six seasons against USC. The reason for the loss could be attributed to any number of shortcomings on the side of the Trojans or successes for the Cardinal, but the question that undoubtedly resonates with every Trojan fan is, "What now?"
With such high expectations for 2012, there is a sense of "national championship or bust." But with this early season loss, what do these hopes really look like? As with any college football season, it is nearly impossible to gauge where everyone will be week-by-week, let alone by mid-December, but there are some things that are beginning to look clear.
For one, the Pac-12 looks good ... really good. With impressive starts from several teams in the conference, the Pac-12 currently boasts four teams other than USC in the AP Top 25 Poll, all of whom will play the Trojans later this season. And if no one has noticed, that other L.A. team over on the Westside looks pretty good with dual-threat quarterback Brett Hundley and Heisman dark-horse Johnathan Franklin coming out of the backfield.
Of teams that are not currently in the top 25, the Trojans play Washington in Seattle plus Utah in Salt Lake City in a Thursday night matchup that screams trap game. To finish off the regular season, a very strong Notre Dame team comes to the Coliseum. The Irish (3-0) enjoyed a 20-3 win over No. 10 Michigan State in East Lansing on Saturday.
If the Trojans make their way through this grueling schedule and land in the Pac-12 championship game, they would have to face the winner of the Pac-12 North, which will likely be either explosive Oregon or the same Stanford team they just lost to.
Best-case scenario, the Trojans could win out and finish 12-1 after the Pac-12 title game. They would certainly be in the running for a BCS title spot, given the Pac-12's strength is arguably second only to the SEC, but this still would not guarantee a trip to Miami.
At this point, penciling in Alabama or another SEC team for the national title game would seem a pretty smart bet as a member of that conference has won every BCS title since 2006. But on the other hand, the possibility of multiple BCS conference teams finishing with undefeated seasons is also a possibility.
Before we spell certain doom for the Men of Troy, it's important to consider one outstanding characteristic of college football -- unpredictability. Every team in the hunt to be the best in the land faces uncertainty, variability, and all the trials that come with a college football season.
It would be foolish to say that USC still has an unobstructed path to the national championship, but it would also be misguided to say that its campaign to play in Miami is a lost cause.
As always, the Trojans will watch the film, make their adjustments and prepare for one game at a time for the next 10 weeks. The road will be long and not without many tough tests, but it is important not to forget the many assets they do have.
Despite a poor performance at the Farm, Barkley is still a Heisman-caliber quarterback, a phenomenal leader, and surrounded by dynamic and explosive talent, namely Robert Woods, Marqise Lee, Curtis McNeal, Silas Redd and Xavier Grimble, among others.
And despite a number of concerns, particularly in stopping the run, the USC defense is stocked with experience and potential NFL talent. And finally, the asset that may be the most critical in getting back on track -- the relentless Trojan spirit that in any situation, with every test, unfailingly fights on.
For more on Neon Tommy's coverage of USC football, click here.
Reach Staff Writer Michael Hunter here.