Preseason countdown: No. 6 USC

Welcome back, USC.

Wasn’t it just yesterday that the Trojans were down and out, a little wobbly in the legs from the right cross delivered by the NCAA nearly two years ago?

That was then, and this is now.

Troy regrouped from its bowl ban and scholarship reduction with unexpected suddenness last fall, winning seven of its final eight games to ascend back into the national consciousness. After beating Oregon — at Autzen Stadium — and rival UCLA, 50-0, to put a bow on the season, it had become vividly clear that USC was once again set to join the game’s elite schools.

And then just before Christmas, QB Matt Barkley gave a beleaguered fan base exactly what it wanted, one more season behind center. All of the stars have aligned for the Trojans to explode back on to the grand stage. Barkley is the most prominent of 17 starters who’ll begin the 2012 campaign with a strong sense of purpose.

For these players, many of whom have endured the lean times and fought on for a chance to once again compete for titles, this will be no ordinary season. No, this is a chance for redemption, and validation for not being one of the handful of players who jumped ship and transferred to a less rocky environment.

USC is going to feature one of the country’s two or three most talented rosters this fall — future pros and All-Americans are once again congregating in high numbers at the Coliseum. However, the program will not be without its concerns. Depth is going to be an unavoidable issue, the byproduct of those scholarship reductions over the past couple of years. Plus, there are legitimate question marks in the trenches, both on the offensive and defensive side of the ball. Matt Kalil was the country’s premier left tackle, providing flawless backside protection for Barkley, but now he’s being replaced by unproven sophomore Aundrey Walker. On defense, three starting linemen must be replaced, namely All-Pac-12 DE Nick Perry, who gave up his final season of eligibility for the NFL.

Forget about simply returning to the postseason now that the ban has been lifted. No, USC will be shooting big in 2012, with the right mix of talent to contend for a Pac-12 crown and a national championship. Barkley and his teammates are back in cardinal and gold to take care of some unfinished business. And not one of these Trojans is going to be satisfied until the job is completed.

What to watch for on offense: Even more use of the tight ends. Oh, Barkley doesn’t plan on ignoring his elite corps of wide receivers, but with Robert Woods and Marqise Lee attracting so much attention, he’ll delight in using his bigger pass-catchers in the middle of the field. Channeling his inner Andrew Luck, Barkley will have access to three quality tight ends, Randall Telfer, Xavier Grimble and Christian Thomas. Telfer and Grimble combined for 31 receptions and nine touchdowns a year ago … as rookies. The former is the big-play weapon. The latter is a load, who is most dangerous near the end zone and on third-and-short.

What to watch for on defense: A proper send-off for the ends. Senior defensive ends Devon Kennard (who may be out for the season with a muscle tear in his chest) and Wes Horton have shown flashes of brilliance at times during their career, but sustained excellence has eluded both. However, now that Perry is a member of the Green Bay Packers, both of last year’s part-time starters have a golden opportunity to become full-time nuisances in opposing backfields. The pair has a disparate skill set, but common goals of igniting the Trojans, while supercharging their own NFL careers. Kennard is a lot more like Perry, a combustible end packaged in the body of an outside linebacker.

The team will be far better if: It’s able to exterminate the injury bug. The secondary aside, USC is perilously thin and young beyond the starters. The Trojans can compete with anyone in the country this season, but not if they’re forced to dig deep into a bench populated by wide-eyed underclassmen. While the program has recruited very well under Lane Kiffin, scholarship reductions and a spate of transfers have forced it to become very green on the second and third teams.

The schedule: It’s not boring. The Trojans kick things off hosting former offensive coordinator Norm Chow in his first game as the Hawaii head man, and then it’s to the road for four away games in the next five including a showdown at Stanford and what might be the Pac-12 South championship at Utah. Getting to play Stanford and Cal from the North is a bad break, and while playing Oregon really hurts, there aren’t any games outside of the Los Angeles area in November with the battles against the Ducks, Arizona State and Notre Dame at home, and finishing up the conference slate up the road at UCLA.

Best offensive player: Senior QB Barkley. Barkley returns for his senior year as one of the most polished passers in America, an early favorite to win the Heisman Trophy and possibly be picked No. 1 overall in next April’s draft. He completely turned the corner in his evolution as a hurler a year ago by going 308-of-446 for 3,528 yards, 39 touchdowns and just seven picks. He’s the complete package in a franchise quarterback, from his poise and leadership in the huddle to his tight spirals and perfectly-timed touch passes.

Best defensive player: Senior safety T.J. McDonald. McDonald is to the defense what Barkley is to the offense, a pro-caliber athlete who surprisingly returned to school for his senior year. The 6-foot-3, 205-pounder is a hybrid in the secondary; he’s big, physical and tenacious enough to defend the run like a linebacker, yet has the long arms and smooth hips to emulate a cornerback on throwing downs. The two-time All-Pac-12 selection is the type of three-down defensive back who’ll make an impact whenever his helmet is on.

Key player to a successful season: Sophomore LT Walker. Your mission, Aundrey, should you choose to accept it, will be to supplant All-American Matt Kalil as the blindside protector of golden-armed QB Matt Barkley. The only thing that’ll slow down Barkley this fall will be a persistent pass rush, and the sophomore is going to be the biggest question mark up front. He’s had a very good offseason — on the practice field and in the weight room — but that needs to bleed into September in order for the USC offense to play to its full potential.

The season will be a success if: USC wins the Pac-12 championship. The Trojans are poised to snap Oregon’s three-year grip on a free pass to the Rose Bowl, bolstered by a talented starting lineup and a tailwind from the end of last season. The Trojans were given a gift when Barkley opted to return to the program for his senior year. If they fail to bring home the hardware, and appear in a BCS bowl game, they’ll have squandered that final chance to have arguably the best quarterback in school history for one more year.

Key game: Nov. 3 vs. Oregon. The game of the year in the Pac-12 also happens to be one of the marquee games of the entire 2012 season in college football. It’s been 13 seasons since neither the Ducks nor the Trojans won at least a share of the conference championship, and now both powerhouses are about to go head-to-head in a high-profile quest for league supremacy. Not only could this have major BCS Championship Game implications, but it might also be repeated a month later in the Pac-12 Championship Game.