What went wrong for USC this year? The easy answer is "just about everything."
The second is to point to the UCLA game last year -- a 50-0 Trojans win -- and this year -- a 38-28 Trojans loss. Both USC and UCLA welcomed back a lot of returning starters for 2012: The Trojans 19, the Bruins 16. So the teams weren't substantially different from 2011. A significant number of guys played in both games, only to very different conclusions.
What was different was mostly at UCLA: New coach Jim Mora (and his staff) and redshirt freshman QB Brett Hundley. And so, do we ascribe this massive swing to them? Maybe. Is there anyone in the Trojan camp that disagrees with the idea that the Bruins should be more happy with what happened at QB and with their coaching staff this season?
What about the numbers: How different does this 7-4 team look compared to 2011's 10-2 squad that captured the nation's fancy?
2011 (Pac-12 ranking, end of regular season), 2012 (Pac-12 ranking at present)
Scoring offense 35.8 (3), 36.1 (4)
Scoring defense 23.6 (3), 24.8 (7)
Rushing offense 162.6 (5), 160.5 (7)
Rushing defense 111.4 (3), 150.5 (5)
Passing efficiency 161.1 (2), 157.9 (2)
Pass efficiency defense 130.3 (5), 123.1 (6)
Sacks 2.58 (4), 3.82 (3)
Sacks against 8 (1), 15 (3)
3rd down offense 48.3 (2), 37.2 (6)
3rd down defense 40.1 (6), 37.5 (8)
Turnover margin -1 (7), 0 (7)
Turnovers 18 (2T), 29 (10)
Penalty yards 50.0 (1), 71.2 (8)
The bolded numbers seem fairly telling. The Trojans yielded nearly twice as many sacks and turnovers as 2011, and they were much worse on third down. As for the defense, it was much worse against the run. Further the swing in penalty yards suggest a more youthful team in 2011 was more disciplined than this season's experienced unit.
Still, that doesn't seem terribly satisfying. You'd expect a team with four losses to have worst numbers than one with two.
So here are some more possible explanations.
1. Complacency: This is a generic sports excuse, but it's nonetheless a reasonable explanation for USC in 2012: No matter what they said to the reporters, deep down, the Trojans thought it would be easy. They'd simply show up with all that touted talent and just fancypants folks into submission. Complacency is like a virus. Some catch it after others recover. Then some relapse. It often felt like the Trojans uneven performances featured some players on their games, and others not. That speaks to focus and preparation, and that shortcoming falls on team leaders and the coaching staff.
2. Coaching: In 2011, it felt like Lane Kiffin and his staff did a good job shepherding the Trojans through a season in which they couldn't play in a bowl game, due to NCAA sanctions. In 2012, it feels like Kiffin and his staff did a poor job leading the Trojans through a season in which they were expected to compete for a national title. This team didn't appear well coached, and play calling on both sides of the ball was often questionable.
3. Overrated: In 2011, the Trojans looked like one of the nation's elite teams from midseason-on, starting with a 30-9 win on Oct. 13 at California. The lone loss was in triple-overtime to Stanford and Andrew Luck. The final two games were wins at Oregon, the eventual Rose Bowl champion, and the aforementioned decimation of the Bruins. Perhaps we just read to much into what happened in 2011? It's fair to say QB Matt Barkley didn't live up to his stratospheric preseason expectations.
4. Player losses were underrated: USC struggled at left offensive tackle all year, so, yes, it took a huge step back with the loss of Matt Kalil, probably the nation's best offensive lineman in 2011. And when DE Devon Kennard was lost for the season to injury, that meant the Trojans were replacing all four starting D-linemen.
5. The Pac-12 was better this year: That can be particularly said for defense. Barkley and his scintillating offensive talent faced much better defenses this fall than last year. Last year, three Pac-12 teams won eight or more regular season games, including USC. This year, with one weekend left, four teams have won eight or more, not including USC. And Washington and Arizona have a chance to win their eighth this weekend.
6. It just didn't come together: If you've played team sports, you know things can inexplicably fall apart. You look for reasons, but it just seems like the chemistry and karma weren't there. That can happen in a single game or a stretch of games or an entire season. Kiffin himself traced the Trojans fall to a single missed pass that would have put a dagger into Arizona on Oct. 27.
Feel free to add your own.
Of course, analysis is mostly an academic exercise. Kiffin surely will make his own review this offseason.
But Trojans fans, like most fans of highly successful programs, aren't really that interested in what went wrong. They are interested it getting it right. And quickly.
The big story for Kiffin and the Trojans heading into 2012 was the potential for another national title. The big story for Kiffin and the Trojans heading into 2013 will be Kiffin's hotseat.