USC junior quarterback Matt Barkley has had a transcendent season. Despite playing for the second straight year under the cloud of the NCAA probation, Barkley has led Coach Lane Kiffin’s Trojans to a 10-2 record, culminating in Saturday’s six-touchdown performance in SC's 50-0 wipeout of crosstown rival UCLA.
Barkley’s spectacular November has catapulted him into the Heisman conversation and probable first-round NFL draft status. And just take a look at these jaw-dropping 2011 stats: 3,528 yards, 39 touchdowns, only seven interceptions, and nearly eight yards per attempt.
Those numbers compare favorably with the two other most hyped quarterbacks this fall, Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers, and Barkley’s Pac-12 rival, Andrew Luck of Stanford.
With USC finally eligible again in 2012 for a postseason bowl, USC has visions of another glorious BCS title run.
That will largely depend on whether Barkley returns to USC for his senior year.
Here are five reasons that might not happen.
1. Injury Risk
USC Heisman Trophy winner Matt Leinart returned for his senior year and avoided injury. Oklahoma Heisman Trophy winner Sam Bradford returned for his junior year and didn’t avoid a season-ending shoulder injury.
Tackle football is a physical, violent game, and every player is just one play away from a career-ending injury.
Barkley has missed games at USC due to shoulder (2009) and ankle (2010) injuries. Will he risk his NFL future by playing another season of college football?
2. Tough Road to the BCS
Playing in the national championship game, or some other BCS bowl, presumably a key reason for Barkley’s return, allows for two regular season losses, at most.
In 2012, USC will first have to emerge as the winner of the Pac-12 Southern division. At first, this sounds like a cakewalk, but one stumble against the likes of Arizona State, Utah or the Rich Rodriguez-coached Arizona Wildcats could prove fatal. Even during Pete Carroll’s glory years, the Trojans occasionally stumbled on the road in the Pac-12.
USC’s other 2012 Pac-12 regular season opponents may include Stanford, Oregon, Washington and California, all of whom will return ample talent and figure to be ranked in the Top 25. And, one of them will likely end up facing USC in the Pac-12 title game.
Bottom line: there will be few easy outs in 2012 for Barkley and USC in their renewed quest for BCS glory.
3. More Effects of Probation
The Pete Carroll-induced NCAA probation is a gift that just keeps on giving. Or, rather a lump of coal that never disappears.
Pete Carroll got his comeuppance—he is now in dark and rainy Seattle, coaching a mediocre Seattle Seahawks team in the NFC West shadow of his college nemesis, Jim Harbaugh.
Reggie Bush is similarly in NFL purgatory, playing for the Miami Dolphins, a team destined for years to come as an AFC East doormat.
Meanwhile, the crippled USC program they left behind for Barkley and Coach Kiffin will finally be off bowl probation in 2012. Unfortunately, in 2012, the other major aspect of the NCAA punishment, scholarship reductions, will take effect.
30 fewer scholarships between 2012-14 means less depth. While the Trojans’ starting 22 may be as good as any in FBS, there may be a dramatic drop-off with their backups, leaving little margin for injuries in 2012. That may make the road to the BCS harder for Barkley.
Matt Barkley is almost surely going to be rewarded in the 2012 NFL draft with a first round selection that could land him a guaranteed eight-figure contract, and a seven-figure signing bonus.
Sure, that money should still be there for him in the 2013 draft.
Unless Barkley gets hurt.
Or has a poor season.
5. The National Football League
Barkley’s predecessor as the USC starting quarterback, Mark “Sanchize” Sanchez, was perhaps not fully ready for an NFL starting role when he jumped ship from USC after his junior year.
Some Jets fans would say he’s still not up to being an elite NFL starter, as the Jets again are underachieving toward a wild card playoff berth at best.
In contrast, Matt Barkley has had more starts, and more snaps, and seems far more game-ready than Sanchez. Barkley could immediately step in and produce big numbers for many quarterback-needy NFL teams, as Cam Newton and Andy Dalton have this fall.
Why spend another year playing against 18-year old college defensive backs when you can test your mettle against the likes of Jared Allen, Clay Matthews and Darrelle Revis?
We’ll all know by January 18.