For four years, USC football fans have had the luxury of not having to worry about who would be the Trojans' field general. Sure, there was that brief, panic-filled holiday season last year when nobody knew whether or not Matt Barkley would return for his senior year. But return he did, and he gave USC four years of stability in one of football's most important positions.
2013, however, ushers in a new era of USC football.
No more Matt Barkley. No more Khaled Holmes, the steady and talented center who has been the heart and grit of this team. Both of them will be playing on Sundays next year.
It's not like the Trojans' quarterback cupboard lacks talent. Max Wittek and Cody Kessler were highly touted recruits and will be redshirt sophomores next year. There's also Connor Sullivan, but he isn't listed on the depth chart.
Max Browne, the No. 1-ranked quarterback of the class of 2013, is committed to USC. And therein lies a potential problem for USC.
What if Browne nabs the starting quarterback job next spring? Scout.com national recruiting analyst Greg Biggins said of Browne, "Mechanically, you could do an instruction video on him as his ball placement, release, and drops are college level right now."
He's already at the college-level, according to Biggins.
While it's highly unlikely that a true freshman gets the nod to start, precedence has been set at USC.
In 2009, then-head coach Pete Carroll chose true freshman Matt Barkley to start over veteran Mitch Mustain—an Arkansas transfer—and Aaron Corp, who missed some time during 2009's fall camp due to injury. Corp, a redshirt sophomore, transferred to Richmond five months later.
Jesse Scroggins entered the competition in 2010, but after redshirting his freshman year, he also saw his chances of starting at quarterback as minimal—he transferred out this summer.
If Browne gets the starting job next year, what will keep Kessler and Wittek around?
Both Kessler and Wittek were highly recruited quarterbacks, and both graduated from high school early in order to get a jump-start on competing for that coveted starting spot. Wittek received offers from numerous high-profile schools including Florida, Florida State, Georgia, Notre Dame and Clemson. Kessler received offers from Alabama, Nebraska, Pittsburgh, Washington and UCLA.
Kessler and Wittek are still underclassmen, so it's doubtful that they will both stay at USC if one, the other or Browne gets the starting job. 4-star and 5-star players don't come to USC to sit on the bench—they'll go to greener pastures. And that would leave USC very thin at quarterback.
In fact, USC will be very thin everywhere in 2013, since the NCAA's scholarship restriction enforcement will be in its second year. USC is only allowed to sign 15 players per year on scholarship and cannot exceed a total of 75 total players on scholarship per year.
No. 7's impending departure will hurt, no doubt. But 75/15 is the number that is—and will be—the cause of USC's struggles.
This year, USC has already started to feel the effects of the limited scholarships, specifically on the offensive line. There's plenty of talent on the line, but head coach Lane Kiffin hasn't had enough depth to make substitutions as much as he would have liked. The result was predictable.
In USC's loss against Stanford, the Cardinal pushed the gassed Trojans linemen around. Injured center Khaled Holmes had limited playing time, and Matt Barkley was sacked four times.
Not enough bodies to protect the quarterback. Next year will probably be more of the same.
But next year, USC may not have enough quarterbacks to protect, as well.