Record: 10-2, 7-2 Pac-12
USC returned to the nation's elite in year two under coach Lane Kiffin, and it's a pity that the Trojans can't represent the Pac-12 in the bowl season due to dubious NCAA sanctions because few teams played better at season's end.
Things didn't start off with a bang. A 3-0 start wasn't impressive against weak competition, and then the Trojans were sloppy in a loss at Arizona State. There was little hint that this was a top-10 team with a Heisman Trophy candidate at quarterback.
Then the Trojans rolled off three consecutive wins, including a dominant performance on both sides of the ball at Notre Dame. That the defense was taking such major steps after a terrible first year under Monte Kiffin was notable. USC lost a triple-overtime classic to Stanford, but then rolled off four consecutive wins to finish the season, the highlights being a 38-35 upset at Oregon and a 50-zip stomping of rival UCLA.
Offensive MVP: No quarterback in the nation was playing better than Matt Barkley at season's end. He completed 69 percent of his passes with 39 touchdowns and seven interceptions, averaging 294 yards passing per game.
Defensive MVP: Undersized but fierce redshirt freshman LB Dion Bailey was one of the key reasons the Trojans defense showed dramatic improvement this year. He tied for the team lead with 81 tackles, including two sacks, two interceptions and a forced fumble.
Turning point: The 31-17 win at Notre Dame on Oct. 22 caused the nation to raise an eyebrow at the Trojans and see they were once against relevant. Winning on the road and taking vengeance for a horrible 2010 loss at home to the Irish also was satisfying for Trojans fans. While the win at Oregon was bigger, the win in South Bend showed that the Trojans were back.
What's next: The first issue is Barkley: Might the true junior return for his senior year, giving up almost a chance to be an early first-round pick this spring? If so, he and the combination of receivers Robert Woods and Marqise Lee would give the Trojans a lethal passing attack. Of course, there are other likely NFL defectors: OT Matt Kalil, S T.J. McDonald, DE Nick Perry, etc. Without Barkley, the Trojans will be talented but young heading into 2012. With him, they are national title contenders.