USC listing but not out of it

USC is 5-1 and ranked 10th in the BCS standings. Its defense is playing well. And it's hanging around the national picture.

But what everyone wants to talk about is what's wrong, most notably what's wrong with the Trojans' star-laden offense.

It was supposed to be historically good. What it has been is remarkably mediocre with surprising dashes of bad.

Now, averaging 32.3 points per game isn't horrendous by most measures. But that number is only 26.3 points per game against Pac-12 foes, and the passing game is ranked sixth in yards (249.5 per game) and third in passing efficiency in the conference, behind Arizona State and Oregon teams using first-year starters at quarterback.

That's not what anyone expected from Matt Barkley, Robert Woods, Marqise Lee and company.

"We're not playing our best by any means in the passing game," coach Lane Kiffin said, dryly fielding the same question for perhaps the 345th time. "Two weeks ago, we had a pretty good day against Utah."

It did appear the Trojans had turned a corner against Utah, with Barkley completing 23 of 30 passes for 303 yards with three TDs and no interceptions. But then Barkley was just 10 of 20 for 167 yards with a TD and a pick in the 24-14 win over Washington last weekend, and it seemed Kiffin opted to shut down the passing game in the second half and play conservatively.

"We just kind of played to the game at that point because our defensive is playing so well," he said. "We wanted to makes sure we didn't force the ball downfield."

That would be perfectly reasonable if his offense were young and his QB were, say, a sophomore. But Barkley is a four-year starter who is expected to be a first-round NFL draft pick and he surrounded by experienced, outstanding talent.

USC should have an good opportunity to get back on track on Saturday. It will be at home against Colorado, owners of the worst pass defense in the Pac-12. The Buffaloes are ranked 118th in the nation in pass efficiency defense.

A couple of numbers stick out for USC. For one, it's 112th in the nation in third down conversion percentage (30.1 percent). When asked about that, Kiffin noted the Trojans have faced a lot of third and long situations, in large part due to penalties. The Trojans 78.33 penalty yards per game ranks 113th in the nation.

What this all amounts to is a talented, veteran team playing sloppy football and paying for it.

Still, USC is lurking. No lofty possibility is off the table for the season yet.

"We're looking to get back on track," Kiffin said. "We had a great second half to our season last year... Maybe we'll hit a little streak here."

You might recall that USC wasn't terribly impressive over the first half of the 2011 season. By November, some felt it was playing better than anyone, including the eventual national champions.

Seeing they don't award titles at midseason, the Trojans can't be written off. Yet, at least.

Said Kiffin, "The No. 1 goal here is to win games. We'll take the whole season at the end and see what it looks like."