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Matt Barkley's return makes USC a contender for BCS title next season

The Trojans are coming off a 10-2 season and will be bowl eligible for the first time in three seasons. Barkley is one of many starters who will be back.

December 22, 2011|By Gary Klein
  • USC quarterback Matt Barkley???? breaks into a grin after announcing he will return for his senior season at Heritage Hall on Thursday.
USC quarterback Matt Barkley???? breaks into a grin after announcing he… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)

Matt Barkley's decision to return to USC instantly makes the Trojans a contender for next season's Bowl Championship Series title.

USC is coming off a 10-2 season and a first-place finish in the Pac-12 Conference South Division. The Trojans were barred from the inaugural conference title game because of NCAA sanctions but finished the regular season ranked fifth in the Associated Press media poll.

Now, for the first time in three seasons, the Trojans will be bowl-eligible.

Barkley alluded to the possibilities Thursday when he said the Trojans "got that swagger back" and referred to "unfinished business."

All-American safety T.J. McDonald, who also decided to forgo turning pro, echoed Barkley's statement after the quarterback's announcement.

"We know what's within reach," McDonald said by phone. "We're happy to have him back."

Coach Lane Kiffin certainly is.

Kiffin said the quarterback's return was "an exciting day from the Xs and O's standpoint," adding that he would challenge Barkley by possibly giving him some play-calling responsibility.

Barkley is the most important piece in an offense that includes 1,000-yard receivers Robert Woods and Marqise Lee and 1,000-yard rusher Curtis McNeal.

Tight ends Xavier Grimble and Randall Telfer also will be back.

The offensive line must replace All-American left tackle Matt Kalil, who has declared for the draft, but four starters return.

Kevin Graf, the starting right tackle last season, previously worked as a backup at left tackle. Aundrey Walker, who played as a backup guard and tackle, also could be in the mix, as might a junior college transfer.

The defense lost several linemen, including end Nick Perry, who is turning pro after leading the Pac-12 in sacks. But ends Devon Kennard and Wes Horton return as seniors and George Uko and J.R. Tavai gained experience as freshmen this season.

The back seven returns intact and could be stronger if several players recover from injuries.

Outside linebackers Dion Bailey and Hayes Pullard started the entire season and Lamar Dawson started the last four games in the middle.

McDonald anchors a secondary that includes cornerback Nickell Robey and should be bolstered by the return of cornerbacks Torin Harris and Anthony Brown, who suffered season-ending injuries.

"We can't be satisfied with just playing well," McDonald said. "We can be a dominant defense. They talk about LSU and Alabama as big exciting defenses. We can be the same way."

All-conference kicker Andre Heidari and punter Kyle Negrete also return.

USC plays Hawaii at home in its opener and travels to New Jersey to play Syracuse. The Trojans play Notre Dame in a nonconference game at the Coliseum in November.

In the Pac-12, the Trojans are expected to play home games against Arizona State, California, Colorado and Oregon and road games at Utah, Arizona, Stanford, Washington and UCLA.

Because of NCAA sanctions, USC can have only 75 scholarship players on its roster the next three years. Kiffin and his staff have stockpiled players from their first two signing classes, so depth issues are not expected to be a major concern until future seasons.

In the meantime, Barkley said the Trojans must avoid getting caught up in preseason hype.

"We can't let that become a factor in us to be complacent or take it easy," he said.

gary.klein@latimes.com

twitter.com/latimesklein

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