USC’s 2012 national title hopes hinge squarely on the NFL decision of two players – quarterback Matt Barkley and left tackle Matt Kalil. The Trojans were dealt their first blow for next season on Thursday night, as Kalil decided to forego his final year of eligibility and will enter the NFL Draft. He is expected to be one of the first 15 picks off the board in April.
Barkley has yet to make a decision on his future, but most believe the two players are a package deal. However, the junior quarterback could still return to USC, but will be missing arguably his top offensive lineman next season.
Kalil’s departure is huge loss for a team that was just starting to find the right mix on the offensive line. The Trojans finished first tied for first nationally with just eight sacks allowed in 2011.
With a gaping hole at left tackle, USC could move Kevin Graf from the right side to fill Kalil’s spot. One bit of positive news for USC: The rest of the group should return intact. Center Khaled Holmes earned second-team All-Pac-12 honors this season and should be one of the top linemen in the conference in 2012. Also, guard Marcus Martin was one of the top freshman linemen in college football this year.
With Kalil’s decision out of the way, the focus shifts to Barkley. If he returns, the junior will likely be the Heisman frontrunner, as well as leading the Trojans to a top-five ranking in preseason polls. Considering USC has been on a bowl ban the last two years, there is an opportunity for Barkley to lead this team back to a BCS bowl or a spot in the national title game. But will that be enough for him to stick around?
Barkley is widely-regarded as the No. 2 quarterback on most draft boards, just behind Stanford’s Andrew Luck. And considering he would likely be one of the first five players selected in the NFL Draft, it’s unlikely he will return to Los Angeles for his senior year – especially with Kalil announcing his departure.
If Barkley goes to the NFL Draft as expected, three candidates will battle for the starting quarterback job in the spring: Jesse Scroggins, Cody Kessler and Max Wittek.
Even though all three candidates are inexperienced, the cupboard wouldn’t be totally bare for the new quarterback. The receiving corps is among the best in the nation, as Robert Woods and Marqise Lee should contend for All-American honors. Also, tight end Randall Telfer had a solid freshman campaign and figures to be a bigger part of the attack in 2012. The Trojans also have a good stable of running backs, led by Curtis McNeal and D.J. Morgan.
If Barkley joins Kalil as an early entrant into the NFL Draft, USC’s national title hopes will take a back seat in 2012. However, coach Lane Kiffin has done a good job on the recruiting trail and the talent in the program is back on the rise. Even if the Trojans aren’t a national title contender next year, with all of the coaching changes and turnover in the Pac-12 South Division, it’s very likely they will remain the favorite to play Oregon in the 2012 conference title game.