Lane Kiffin is aware of the hype that is building around USC. He knows some folks believe the Trojans are again -- after a three-season layoff -- back in the national title discussion. He knows it's possible his team will enter the 2012 season ranked No. 1.
And he has one thing to say about that hype. Well, two things. First off, thanks.
"We're appreciative of the national respect coming our way with the preseason No. 1 or No. 2 conversations," he said. "That does kind of give you a kind of state of your program right now. To know what was handed down a little over a year and a half ago [NCAA sanctions], what most people considered a death penalty and the end of 'SC for years and years, and then to be sitting where we are now, we're appreciative of that. Obviously, that excites our fan base, who have had so much taken away from them. And it excites future recruits."
The other thing he has to say about said hype? It amounts to a "whatever."
"We don't talk about that at all within our team," Kiffin said. "Like we said again and again last year, the game is about the preparation, it's not about the hype."
That attitude earned the Trojans a 10-2 finish, including a win at Oregon, and final No. 6 ranking. The program's positive momentum hasn't let up either in the offseason. First, quarterback Matt Barkley opted to return for his senior year, when he'll be one of 18 returning starters. Then Kiffin signed a highly rated recruiting class. Not including early enrollees, the Trojans signed 12 that count for the 2012 class.
The Trojans could have signed more players, but they need to be at or under 75 scholarships over the next three years per NCAA sanctions. That's 10 less than everyone else. While that can't help but have some impact, Kiffin and his staff have been dealing with fewer than 85 scholarship players and a lack of depth since he arrived in 2010. They've put together a plan that they believe will pencil out and maximize what they are allowed to have.
"We've charted out five or six years from now, how our numbers will look," Kiffin said. "We project who's going to redshirt, how long they will stay with guys who leave early. We've had a very specific plan in place. Obviously, you see some of that in place as far as guys counting backwards and signing 30 guys [last year] and having appealed scholarship reductions so we could do that."
But Kiffin still knows the sanctions will make life harder for the Trojans in the Pac-12, no matter how perfectly their plan works. It's not only about subtraction from the USC roster, after all.
"It's not just that it's 10 less that we are getting, it's 10 we're handing to our opponents that would be coming to USC," he said.
Kiffin's best recruiting job, however, was creating an atmosphere that made Barkley want to return to complete "unfinished business." With Barkley, a three-year starter, back, the USC offense could put up huge numbers. Consider the pass catching talent around him: All-American receiver Robert Woods, second-team All-Pac-12 receiver Marqise Lee, athletic tight ends Xavier Grimble and Randall Telfer as well as up-and-coming receivers George Farmer and Victor Blackwell.
After throwing a Pac-12 record 39 touchdown passes in 2011 and ranking eighth in the nation in passing efficiency, there isn't much left for Barkley to master. Last year, it was a case of getting his young supporting cast to mesh, which they did late in the season. This year? It's about becoming special on offense.
Of course, a player can always improve. Barkley won't get to chill out with a lemonade and a good book on a Barcalounger during spring practices.
"We're really challenging him to add things to his game," Kiffin said. "That's about putting stuff around him, doing different things with him, keeping him motivated, keeping him challenged, making it competitive every day in practice with our defense."
And, not unlike Andrew Luck this past year at Stanford, Barkley may get more opportunities to make play-calling decisions at the line of scrimmage.
"He already does more than he gets credit for," said Kiffin, who calls the Trojans' offensive plays. "Matt's capable of doing all that stuff. The only difference was early on that Matt had so much youth and inexperience around him on offense [last year]."
So what is USC focused on between now and spring practices? Well, Kiffin hopes to fill three coaching vacancies -- LBs, WRs and DBs -- before the end of next week.
Then Kiffin must figure out who will protect Barkley's blindside at left tackle -- likely Kevin Graf or Aundrey Walker, who's lost 30 of his 375 pounds from his freshman year. He's got to sort things out on the D-line. And he's got to ponder the curious lack of depth at running back.
There should be enough there to keep the focus on the field and not on the gathering hype.