Preseason countdown: No. 22 USC

Relative to its usual lofty standards, Troy is crumbling. Welcome to a once-mighty empire standing in ruins. The program and second-year head coach Lane Kiffin will spend the upcoming fall trying to pick up the pieces and begin recapturing some momentum.

For the first time since 2001, USC lost as many as five games in a season, looking like a shell of the school that was a perennial Pac-10 champ and one of the dominant national forces of the past decade. The offense was inconsistent down the stretch and the defense was historically bad, but was anyone truly surprised? All signs, from the new staff to the NCAA sanctions and subsequent player transfers, pointed to a messy transitional year for the cardinal and gold. The Trojans started slowly, getting exposed defensively in the opener by Hawaii, and spent the final two months alternating between missteps and blasts from the past. The best part of the 2010 campaign, by far, is that it’s now in the record books.

If you’re counting on a quick turnaround because, hey, it’s still USC, you’re going to be disappointed. Yeah, the Trojans are gushing with former four- and five-star recruits. What else is new? However, too many of those blue-chippers are still in the early stages of their college careers and Kiffin still hasn’t proved much as a head coach. The program is going to be really young; painfully young, a fact that will test its depth and consistency on a weekly basis.

The burden of keeping the school from slipping any further falls squarely on the shoulders of junior QB Matt Barkley, who’s evolving into the leader of the Trojans. He has an NFL arm, uncommon poise for a third-year player, and a solid enough supporting cast surrounding him. The backfield is going to be deep and competitive, and Robert Woods is about to explode into one of the country’s premier wide receivers. The offensive line, however, could be a speed bump to success. On defense, Monte Kiffin has a lot of bad habits to undo in his encore as the coordinator. Looking lost at times in 2010, his kids were subpar, especially when the ball was in the air. A second straight year yielding more than 400 yards a game will be completely unacceptable.

With each passing month, USC is one step closer to fixing the cracks in its foundation and paying its debt to the NCAA for a lack of institutional control. Troy must, well, fight on if it has any chance of building a bridge to the glory days anytime soon.

What to watch for on offense: Matt Kalil to increase his course load. Junior LT Kalil had to be particularly interested in the fate of teammate Tyron Smith, who was taken No. 9 overall by Dallas in April’s draft. He realizes that he’s capable of a similar destination in 2012 or 2013, which is going to be tantalizing. He’s 6-7 and 295 pounds, with enough skill to make agents pant and a full season as a starter behind him. The Trojans need him to become the anchor of a line that will enter 2011 on shaky ground.

What to watch for on defense: The ends to justify the means. It’s go time for USC’s two primary edge rushers, juniors Nick Perry and Wes Horton. Neither was quite right last season, saddled with nagging injuries and adapting to a new staff and defensive scheme. This season, however, figures to be dramatically different for both ends. The pair was healthy in the spring, looking much more comfortable in their surroundings. Perry, in particular, was borderline unblockable in March and April, playing as if he plans on being one of the Pac-12’s breakout defensive stars of 2011.

The team will be far better if: It tightens up the overall level of its play in the final 15 minutes of games. In each of the last two seasons, USC has outscored opponents in the first three quarters, yet has been trumped in the fourth quarter. In 2010, the Trojans put up just 72 last quarter points in 13 contests, and blew second-half leads in losses to Washington, Stanford, Oregon and Notre Dame. Improvement will require a higher degree of consistency for all 60 minutes.

The schedule: Lane Kiffin’s second season should get off to an interesting start with home dates against Minnesota and Syracuse wrapped around the Pac-12 opener against Utah. With four home games in the first five weeks, getting hot right away is a must. The problem is that the Trojans have to face the four best teams from the North with the Oregon game in Autzen Stadium, and they have a run of four road games in six weeks over the second half of the year. The Stanford and Washington dates are in LA, and there’s a week off before going up to Cal. However, the game against Cal starts out a run of three road games in four dates with a trip to Notre Dame coming up before the showdown against the Cardinal. The UCLA game is at home, but that comes after going up to Oregon.

Best offensive player: Junior QB Matt Barkley. Now, Barkley isn’t a finished product after just two seasons on campus. However, if he develops as a junior the way he did as a sophomore, he’ll be one of the half-dozen or so best quarterbacks in America. Playing with an NFL rifle-arm and the intelligence of a fifth-year senior, he’s ready to take the next step and become the vocal leader of the USC program. The staff is looking for more production and better decision-making after he threw 26 touchdown passes and a dozen picks, which matches the quarterback’s expectations as well.

Best defensive player: Junior safety T.J. McDonald. At 6-foot-3 and 205 pounds, with long arms and a fluid stride, McDonald has always looked the part of a prototypical safety. Last fall, he began to play that part. Eminently comfortable in the starting lineup, he racked up a team-high 89 tackles and three picks, en route to a spot on the All-Pac-10 second team. With another season to hone his skills at reading offenses and plays, he might be NFL-ready by the time the regular season has ended.

Key players to a successful season: The corners. While the Trojan defense was historically putrid a year ago, it was the secondary that let off the worst odor. USC was burned for 30 touchdown passes, more than every team in the FBS except East Carolina, Eastern Michigan, Tulsa, Rice, and Memphis. That’s just never going to cut it. Nickell Robey returns for his second season on one side, an undersized yet very active defender, and he’ll be much improved. On the opposite side, however, the staff is still trying to decide between Torin Harris, Tony Burnett, and possibly JUCO transfer Isiah Wiley, a key summer competition that could determine how well the Trojans recover from last year’s debacle.

The season will be a success if: The Trojans begin to recapture some of their swagger. You’ll know it without even focusing on the win total. Sure, Troy needs to surpass last year’s 8-5 mark to start building a head of steam and keep critics quiet, but it’s more about delivering a better product and more excellence. If USC can win nine games and get a bunch of the rookies into the flow, it’ll lay the right groundwork for 2012.

Key game: Oct. 22 at Notre Dame. No game is a better barometer check for USC than this annual rivalry with the Irish. Last November’s meeting was a microcosm of the problems the Trojans were enduring. An ugly 20-16 loss, with a number of lost opportunities, snapped their eight-game winning streak versus Norte Dame as a deflated Coliseum home crowd looked on. As both historic programs look to climb back to prominence, this fall’s meeting in South Bend takes on even more importance than usual.