LOS ANGELES — The bar is set particularly high at USC this season, but it was Matt Barkley who put it there.
Last December, on the day he announced to much fanfare that he would return for his senior season, Barkley spoke of “unfinished business” that prompted his decision to return. The NFL would have to wait.
What no one quite figured out was the source of Barkley’s remark.
Was “unfinished business” the Pac-12 title the Trojans were denied last season, their last under NCAA probation? Was it a bowl game they were kept from playing in? The national title? Or maybe a Heisman Trophy – one final bauble to cap his incredible college career?
Turns out it was none of those, or so Barkley, the talented Trojans quarterback, said Tuesday at Pac-12 Media Day.
He was speaking more in more philosophical terms.
“The unfinished business, that thought and that ideology, is really just one game at a time and to finish those games,” he said. “You see so much about finishing, and when you’re four years at college, that concept of finishing, I want to end that on a good note.”
If that’s what he meant, it’s a worthy, although unspectacular, goal. But Barkley stayed at USC when the football program was playing under difficult circumstances, with no postseason possibilities and no chance to claim a national championship. Now that the Trojans are back in good graces, there’s no reason he shouldn’t enjoy some of the benefits.
If all goes well, there should be plenty. Coach Lane Kiffin’s team will move into the John McKay Center, a new athletic training complex, this week, and the Trojans have big hopes after a 10-2 season and No. 6 ranking in last season’s final Associated Press poll. No fewer than three preseason polls have them ranked No. 1 nationally, and a Pac-12 media poll picked them to win the conference’s South Division and title game over Oregon.
Barkley is a main reason for such expectations, but safety TJ McDonald also opted to come back rather than leave for the NFL, and Barkley’s primary passing targets, Robert Woods and Marqise Lee, will give the Trojans a formidable passing game.
Barkley, whose career completions (755) and total offense yards (9,013) rank behind only former Heisman winners Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart on the USC all-time list, prefers to downplay polls and prognostications – a lesson he learned well from his coach.
“We have all this hype going into this year, and like coach said, it’s great for our program, our school and our fan base to have that toward USC,” Barkley said. “But for us, it doesn’t mean anything. It’s not going to win any games or score any points. We’re one week at a time and trying to be 1-0 that week.”
Barkley, who turns 22 in September, admitted that he almost didn’t reach this point – that after the Trojans dealt rival UCLA a 50-0 flogging last November, he figured it was a spectacular exit to his college career.
But he’s been there before. He could have bolted when NCAA sanctions came down in 2010 but chose to stay. Is it any wonder Kiffin suggests that Barkley could become the greatest Trojan ever?
Barkley: “Right after we played UCLA, I was on an emotional high, and the way we finished out the season, I thought for sure I was going to the NFL. But once that settled down and I started looking into it, I think I made the right call. I wasn’t really thinking right after that game. I was just feeling so great about the season. But I definitely went back and forth until ultimately, I reached that conclusion.”
Kiffin thought Barkley was gone, too. He expected it. But then Barkley invited his coach for a visit to the family home before last Christmas, and that’s when he heard the news.
“I think Matt would be the first to tell you, I didn’t recruit him to stay,” Kiffin said. “Sometimes we recruit kids to stay because they’re projected as a second- or third-round picks, and they could stay and work on things and get better.
“Matt was completely ready for the NFL. I assume he would have been a top-five pick, totally ready to go in and be the face of a franchise and be ready to play in the NFL. But his situation was different, and I think it was about him wanting to do something special.”
There was also that thing about unfinished business. Maybe Barkley needed to come back the same way he refused to abandon the program two years ago.
It might sound sappy, but Barkley couldn’t leave. He’s a Trojan.
“I think it’s clear my love for USC and how much I love this school and everything about it, and I wasn’t going to give it up just for two games that we couldn’t play in,” he said. “So I haven’t looked back. I do think the sanctions have brought our team closer together and strengthened us in a way that I didn’t anticipate. It made us stronger in terms of character, and it allowed us to face adversity in a unique way that guys our age aren’t really used to.
“It seemed all bad at first, but ultimately, I think it worked in our favor for this point where we are today.”