Matt Barkley's Return Solidifies USC as 2012 National Title Contender

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With Matt Barkley back under center, USC will be one of college football's best teams next year

<p> With Matt Barkley back under center, USC will be one of college football's best teams next year</p>

By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)

Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart and now Matt Barkley. USC’s recent tradition of quarterbacks sticking around for their senior season continued on Thursday with Matt Barkley’s announcement that he will return for one more year in Los Angeles.

After throwing for 3,528 yards and 39 touchdowns, there was a lot of doubt that Barkley would return for another season. However, the opportunity to contend for a national title was too much to pass up. Barkley was expected to be the No. 2 quarterback selected in the 2012 draft, but could move to the top of the wishlist for teams wishing to take a signal-caller in 2013.

Barkley’s decision to return to the Trojans is huge for their national championship hopes. USC’s two-year bowl ban is over and with most of its core returning, this may be the Trojans best shot at winning a title until the scholarship reductions are over. USC didn’t make it through the offseason without a few departures to the NFL. Two key players - offensive tackle Matt Kalil and defensive end Nick Perry - will enter the draft.

Although the Trojans have to replace Kalil, four starters return on the offensive line. Also, Marqise Lee and Robert Woods headline one of the nation’s top receiving corps. The defense showed big improvement in the second year under coordinator Monte Kiffin, and the back seven will remain intact. Replacing Perry and defensive tackles Christian Tupou and DaJohn Harris are going to be the biggest question marks entering the 2012 season.

In Athlon’s very early top 25 for 2012, USC checks in at No. 2. The Trojans aren’t without flaws, but considering what is coming back, they look like one of the team’s to beat next season. Could we see a Lane Kiffin vs. the SEC in the national title? It certainly isn't out of the question. Additionally, USC is the clear favorite to win the Pac-12 South.

USC’s 2012 Schedule

Non-Conference: Hawaii, Syracuse (at New Jersey) and Notre Dame

Conference Home: Arizona State, California, Colorado and Oregon

Conference Away: Arizona, Stanford, UCLA, Utah and Washington

Here’s an early outlook for the rest of the teams in the Pac-12 South for 2012:

Arizona: New coach Rich Rodriguez was a terrific hire, but it may take a year or two to get his players in place. The Wildcats will have to transition from a pass-first offense, but Matt Scott is a good building block at quarterback. Rodriguez has yet to hire a defensive coordinator, which will be the most important addition to his staff. The Wildcats ranked near the bottom of the Pac-12 in rush, total and scoring defense – something that cannot happen if they want to contend for the conference title in 2012. Considering the change in schemes, it may be difficult for Arizona to compete with USC for the Pac-12 title next year.

Arizona State: After a promising 6-2 start, the Sun Devils finished the year with a dud, which also cost coach Dennis Erickson his job. New coach Todd Graham is bringing his brand of high-octane football from Pittsburgh and there are some nice pieces in place for the offense next season. Quarterback Brock Osweiler should get better with another set of spring practices, and running back Cameron Marshall is also back for his senior year. The defense loses some key players, and linebacker Vontaze Burfict will likely declare for the NFL Draft. Just like rival Arizona, the Sun Devils may need a year or two to adjust to Graham’s schemes. However, if Osweiler and Marshall quickly pick up the offense, Arizona State should contend for a finish in the top three of the Pac-12 South.

Colorado: After a 3-10 season, coach Jon Embree has a lot of work to do in his second year in Boulder. The Buffaloes have a lot of holes to fill, starting on offense with the departure of quarterback Tyler Hansen. Running back Rodney Stewart has also finished his eligibility. Receiver Paul Richardson is a good building block on offense, but can Colorado get him the ball? The Buffaloes also need to show improvement on defense if they want to make a bowl. Although it’s very early, Colorado is likely to be picked last in the Pac-12 South next season.

UCLA: If there’s a mystery team to watch in the Pac-12 South, the Bruins would be the choice. New coach Jim Mora does not have any collegiate head coaching experience, but is putting together quite a staff. Can UCLA put everything together and contend for the conference title next season? It’s unlikely the Bruins can beat out USC, but there is talent returning. Settling on a quarterback for coordinator Noel Mazzone’s spread offense is going to be critical for UCLA next season.

Utah: The Utes’ first year in the Pac-12 wasn’t bad (7-5), but losing to Colorado in the regular season finale cost them a chance to play in the conference title game. Although the division wasn’t overwhelmingly difficult, coach Kyle Whittingham deserves a ton of credit, especially after losing starting quarterback Jordan Wynn to a shoulder injury early in the season. The Utes have some holes to fill, starting with offensive coordinator, as Norm Chow has departed to be the head coach at Hawaii. Although the quarterback position needs to be sorted out, running back John White is back after rushing for 1,404 yards and 14 touchdowns this season. The offensive line also loses both tackles. Utah led the Pac-12 in scoring defense and this unit figures to rank among the best in the conference next season.

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