It has been one of the best seasons in USC history even though the NCAA took away the opportunity to compete in championship games.
The Trojans showed the NCAA that you can unfairly sanction the players who had nothing to do with one player’s violations over six years ago, but they showed the rest of college football that you cannot keep the Trojans down no matter how much they are handicapped.
The Pac-12 “championship” game has become a joke with UCLA playing at Oregon next Friday. USC has beaten the South and North division “champs” the past two weeks and is playing as well as any team in the nation.
This is karma for Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott, who did nothing to support USC with the NCAA unlike the Big Ten and SEC commissioners, who supported their colleges.
The Trojans will end the season a Top 10 team and could start next season as a Top Five team if QB Matt Barkley and his fellow juniors return for a run at a national championship.
Very few expected a 10-win season this year, so what are the best things about it?
*Week 14 AP ranking
P.S. USC ended up No. 6 in the final AP Poll.
Freshman WR Marqise Lee and others were stars of the 2011 USC team
The Trojans started the season with half the scholarship players having never played a down of college football. They ended the season with eight freshman starters and many more that played key roles.
Looking at the five games before the bye and the seven games after shows the results of the development of these young players.
The Trojans were inconsistent and made a lot of mistakes in the first five games. Although 4-1, most of their competition was not very good.
USC won six of the last seven games against three ranked teams, including two in the Top 10. Their only loss was in three overtimes against the then-No. 6 Stanford Cardinal due to a fumble.
Beating the then-No. 4 Oregon Ducks at Autzen and ruining their 21-game home winning streak proved that the Trojans are back and their players and coaches are as good as any in the country.
The USC two-deep includes 11 starters and 10 second-string players who are freshmen or sophomores.
Starters are LG Marcus Martin, RG John Martinez, RT Kevin Graf, TE Randall Telfer (Xavier Grimble), WR Robert Woods, WR Marqise Lee, LB Dion Bailey, LB Lamar Dawson, LB Hayes Pullard, CB Nickell Robey and PK Andre Heidari.
The young Trojans have gained experience in 2011, which bodes well for the next few years.
The USC swagger is back, and that is not good for other teams.
This has to be one of the most unselfish and dedicated groups of football players in USC’s history.
There are probably two reasons for that.
First, the players are led by Matt Barkley, Christian Tupou, Rhett Ellison and Chris Galippo, among others.
Given the NCAA sanctions, loss of juniors and seniors who transferred and the lack of scholarship players in 2010, the team could have given up. While the 8-5 record in 2010 wasn’t what the Trojans hoped for, they were three plays away from 11-2.
The players decided that they wanted to win every game in 2011. No one gave them any chance to do that, but they were playing for pride.
However, the inexperience of the team made that a pretty tall mountain to climb.
The second reason is the coaches.
Lane Kiffin and his staff created an environment that encouraged the team first and meeting your obligations as a player. Those who did not want to do this were encouraged to leave. Eventually this included players like 5-star RB Dillon Baxter.
The coaches worked as closely as they could with the players given the NCAA 20-hour rule and gave the best players a chance regardless of their experience.
The result was an inconsistent start and growing pains but a tremendous finish and setting the table for next season.
Lane Kiffin has now completed two seasons as a head coach.
It is hard to believe negative things that most fans and the media were saying about Monte Kiffin and him after the two Arizona games. They didn’t understand the situation with development of inexperienced players and assumed the coaches were just making excuses.
No one questions the abilities of the coaches any more.
I said Lane Kiffin was a top-10 coach in August, and that may have been premature, but accurate.
He has a better record than Pete Carroll at USC in his first two seasons. Carroll may not have had as much talent to start, but he had more scholarship players and did not have to deal with harsh NCAA sanctions.
Kiffin has proven to be a great head coach in a very difficult situation.
His two recruiting classes were top-five. Even though he is limited to 10 less scholarship recruits this year than other colleges, he will have a very good recruiting class that will fill USC's needs.
He has an outstanding coaching staff.
Together they have developed this team into one of the best in the country.
Even more impressive is the way they have developed a plan to deal with the NCAA sanctions and take short-term hits like redshirting so many players in 2010 that could have helped.
While it will be difficult to get through three years and 30 scholarship reductions, if anyone can do it, this coaching staff has shown they can do it with minimal impact.
There is no question that Monte Kiffin is a great defensive coach.
After difficulties last season, the only question was whether he could be a great college defensive coach given today’s varied offenses.
After the two Arizona games, no one thought he could do this.
Yet Monte maintained that the Trojans had a good defense and just needed time to develop.
That is exactly what happened.
He built this defense to play against all types of offenses, including Oregon’s hurry-up spread offense. The only way the Trojans could beat the Ducks was a two-deep defense built on speed with a strong front four.
The USC 37-14 lead late in the third quarter was testimony to the Trojan defense. Unfortunately, many of the starters became injured, and that impacted the rest of the game.
There is no longer any question about the USC defense; expect it to keep improving too.
Coach John Baxter is probably the best special teams coach in the country.
The USC special teams improved significantly last season due to Baxter's leadership and Coach Kiffin’s support by allowing additional time to practice special teams with participation by the best players.
However, his recruiting influence has made the future even brighter.
Freshman PK Andre Heidari was outstanding this year, missing only two of 17 kicks and making 50 of 50 extra points. One of the missed kicks was after several Notre Dame players stepped on him during a kickoff and sprained his ankle.
He has also done an outstanding job leading the academic programs for the Trojans.
After a slow start, the USC offense has developed into a top one, averaging 41 points during the last eight games.
USC obliterated UCLA 50-0 with an offensive performance that included:
* QB Matt Barkley (35-of-42, 83 percent, 423 yards, six TDs, zero INTs) tying his own USC single-game TD record and breaking the single-game completions record with 35 and the Pac-12 season TD record with 39; he also broke the USC pass completion percentage record with 69.1 percent.
* Sophomore WR Robert Woods setting the conference single-season receptions record with 111 receptions.
* Freshman WR Marqise Lee adding 13 catches for 224 yards and two TDs.
* RB Curtis McNeal (12 carries, 124 yards, one TD) breaking 1,000 rushing yards.
The only question for the future is whether Barkley returns for a very special 2012 season along with OT Matt Kalil, or whether USC has to replace him with one of the talented three freshman QBs.
The Trojans are recruiting well for the offensive line and have several very good freshmen, so the OL should continue to improve and be a real strength of this team.
Georger Farmer with a good gain against Notre Dame
A lot of freshmen contributed to the 2011 team. However, Kiffin also redshirted a lot of very good players, including:
QB Cody Kessler
QB Max Wittek
FB Soma Vainuku
RB Javorius Allen
WR Victor Blackwell
TE Junior Pomee
OL Cyrus Hobbi
OL Cody Temple
OL David Garness
DL Armond Armstead
DL Antwaun Woods
DL Christian Heyward
DL Greg Townsend
DL Charles Burks
LB Anthony Sarao
CB T.J. Bryant
CB Ryan Henderson
P Kris Albarado
LS Peter McBride
Other outstanding freshmen like George Farmer, Amir Carlisle, Tre Madden and Aundrey Walker got to play some, but they will play a lot more next season.
The Trojans have 11 commitments for 2012. A few may drop out, leaving room for other top recruits.
USC is limited to 15 scholarship players plus five or six early enrollment recruits.
You can expect the quality of those recruits to be increased by the great finish of the 2011 team, Kiffin’s improved reputation and the outlook for the future without bowl sanctions.
USC wants to win another BCS championship
USC is back, and the college football world is on notice.
The Trojans are eligible for a bowl game and aim for the best one.
Expect the Trojans to be a preseason Top Five team if Matt Barkley returns and at least a Top 20 team if not.
USC has the talent and the coaching staff to win a national championship next season.
Let’s see if the prediction made last May comes true.
Are you listening, Matt Barkley, Matt Kalil, Nick Perry and T.J. McDonald?
Team MVP - Matt Barkley, QB, Junior
Trojan Way Leadership Award - Rhett Ellison, TE/FB, Senior
Most Inspirational - Christian Tupou, DT, Senior
John McKay Scholarship Award (Competitive Underclassman) - Nickell Robey, CB, Sophomore
Bob Chandler Award (All-Around Underclassman) - Hayes Pullard, LB, Sophomore
Trojan Football Alumni Award (Highest GPA) - Augusto Alonso, LB, Senior
Chris Carlisle Courage Award - Curtis McNeal, RB, Junior
Joe Collins Walk-On Award - Kyle Negrete, P, Junior
Jack Oakie "Rise and Shine" Award (Longest Play) - McNeal 79-yard run vs. UW
Lifters of the Year - Rhett Ellison, TE, Senior and Jawanza Starling, S, Junior
Theodore Gabrielson Award (Notre Dame MVP) - Nickell Robey, CB, Sophomore
Marv Goux Award (UCLA MVP) - Marqise Lee, WR, Freshman
Special Teams Player of the Year - Ross Cumming, FB, Senior
Offensive Perimeter Player of the Year - Robert Woods, WR, Sophomore
Defensive Perimeter Player of the Year - T.J. McDonald, S, Junior
Offensive Lineman of the Year - Matt Kalil, LT, Junior
Defensive Lineman of the Year - Nick Perry, DE, Junior
Offensive Service Team Player of the Year - Cyrus Hobbi, OL, Freshman
Defensive Service Team Player of the Year - Anthony Sarao, LB, Freshman