USC tries to recover from turmoil

All of a sudden, that Emerald Bowl invite doesn’t look so bad, does it?

For those who felt last year’s 9-4 mark and fifth-place tie in the Pac-10 was rock bottom, think again. Losing Pete Carroll was the first tremor, getting thrown under the bus by the NCAA created the earthquake, and being officially out of the national title picture for the next few years is the ugly aftermath.

Without Carroll at the controls, and coming off their worst season since 2001, the Trojans are now saddled with a two-year bowl ban, four years of probation, and the loss of 30 scholarships over a three-year period. Welcome back, Lane Kiffin.

The program’s offseason has become so turbulent that Kiffin’s return, via Oakland and Knoxville, has sort of drifted to the back page. And maybe that’s not such a bad thing. If there’s a silver lining in the current state of affairs at Troy, it’s that a lot of the pressure has been lifted off the new staff. Oh, there will still be expectations, but not nearly as many as originally anticipated. Back in January, succeeding Carroll appeared to be an impossible feat. Today? Not so much.

With no hope for championships or the postseason over the next two years, USC will be in a quasi-rebuilding phase while getting the players acclimated to the new staff and new systems. There’ll be plenty of teaching going on, but most important, the coaches will try to maintain their edge in amassing blue-chip talent. Considering the scholarship reductions, there’s no margin for error.

NFL scouts will still be paying close attention. Matt Barkley remains one of the brightest young quarterbacks in America, and both sides of the ball gush with mega-talent. USC, however, is a shadow of its former self. The team will play 13 games, generate some buzz and big plays, but this season will be nothing like the last decade of Pac-10 dominance. These are strange times in Los Angeles.

What to watch for on offense: Matt Barkley’s next chapter. For the blue-chip quarterback, last year was all about getting accustomed to the speed of the game and the pressure of being a first-year starter. This season, however, is about taking that next step toward being the total package behind center. Predictably erratic just a year out of high school, he’ll begin 2010 in better shape and better equipped to beat opposing defenses. At this stage of his career, he’s one of the most physically gifted passers to enter college football in some time. With that awkward debut now in the rear view mirror, he’s determined to put his career into overdrive.

What to watch for on defense: The move of Devon Kennard from end to linebacker. Coming out of high school, Kennard was the defense’s version of Barkley, a precocious freshman starting early in his career. The new coaches want him on the field and with that in mind, he’s been moved from defensive lineman to middle linebacker in order to toughen up that group. While he’s going to play, will he start? If so, it could mean that Chris Galippo gets shifted to strong side and Michael Morgan goes to the bench. It’ll be worth following Kennard’s career path, because his destination will have a ripple effect throughout the defense.

The team will be far better if … it improves on third-down conversions. The defense isn’t going to be as air-tight as it used to be, so it’s up to the offense to become more efficient. Last year’s Trojans ranked 89th nationally on third downs, which meant a lot of stalled drives and Jacob Harfman punts. It’s time for the offense to grow up around Barkley, RB Allen Bradford, and WR Ronald Johnson, and start churning out more 11-play possessions that wind up in the end zone.

The schedule: If USC was really USC with Pete Carroll at the helm and everything rocking and rolling for one of college football’s premier juggernauts, you’d have tickets booked for Glendale for Jan. 10. There are names on the non-conference schedule, but a vintage Trojan team picks its teeth with games at Hawaii, Virginia, at Minnesota, and Notre Dame, winning the four games by a combined score of around 200-35. If USC is really USC again under Lane Kiffin, then a 5-0 start is a given before a revenge battle at Stanford. Cal and Oregon have to come to L.A. as part of a nice run of three straight home games in four weeks, but that’s followed up by three road games in the final four, including a beartrap at Oregon State. The trip to Pasadena to face UCLA is hardly a road game, but it’s still going to be away from the Coliseum.

Best offensive player: Senior RB Allen Bradford. While his resume may not back this up, his final season certainly will. After showing flashes a year ago, running for 668 yards and eight touchdowns on 115 carries, he’s ready to become a breakout star in an offense that will use him liberally. A punishing 5-11, 235-pounder, he has unexpected speed, a rare combination that’ll have NFL scouts and Pac-10 defensive coordinators buzzing as the season progresses.

Best defensive player: Junior DT Jurrell Casey. Not a household name, even in some Pac-10 circles, he will be by the end of the year. At 6-1 and 295 pounds, he plays as if he’s channeling a young Warren Sapp, using bursts of speed and good pad level to beat his man into the backfield. A difficult assignment for one blocker, he’s going to require extra attention throughout the fall. In just his first year as a starter, he delivered a stepping-stone year, leading all linemen with 59 tackles to go along with nine tackles for loss, and 4.5 sacks.

Key player to a successful season: Senior CB Shareece Wright. In a defensive backfield that’s replacing all four starters, the Trojans desperately need Wright to play up to his sizable potential. An injury and academic casualty over the last two seasons, he’s been unable to showcase the next-level cover skills that coaches have raved about in practice. If he’s anything less than an all-star in his final season of eligibility, the USC pass defense will be painfully vulnerable throughout the year.

The season will be a success if … USC gets the last laugh by finishing the year atop the Pac-10 standings. The Trojans won’t be "crowned" champion or represent the league in the Rose Bowl, but how sweet would the mythical title be for the players who stuck around, especially the seniors? Don’t think for a second that the program isn’t motivated to be the best on the field and grab some bragging rights in the face of difficult circumstances.

Key game: Dec. 4 at UCLA. It’ll be the earliest USC has finished a season since 2000, so go ahead and label it a de facto bowl game. Oh, it’s the second meeting between Lane Kiffin and Rick Neuheisel (the two faced off last year when Tennessee lost at home to UCLA), which ought to be interesting on many levels. With all the banter that the Bruins could be narrowing the gap, this is the Trojans’ chance to maintain the chain of command in Los Angeles.