LOS ANGELES -- It's a blunt question that's not always met with a blunt answer. But USC quarterback Matt Barkley isn't the kind to shy away from candor. So the question is this:
Do you care about winning the Heisman?
"I think you have to care about it," he said. "But it can't be your main focus. You have to have some sort of goals to be the best. And that typically goes to the best. So, by default, that kind of has to be the goal."
Barkley's Heisman buzz was understated during the first six games of the 2011 season, when he threw 16 touchdowns and four interceptions while completing 68 percent of his passes. Not exactly terrible numbers -- but a bowl ban and another quarterback in the conference by the name of Andrew Luck made Barkley and the Trojans a secondary thought.
Then the second half of the year hit. Barkley exploded. He went throw-for-throw with Luck in an epic triple-overtime loss and during the final six games threw 23 touchdowns to three interceptions while completing 69.9 percent of his passes. Twice he threw six touchdowns in a game, once against Colorado and again against UCLA. There were some that considered Barkley the best quarterback in the conference last season, not Luck.
We all know the Heisman thing didn't work out for Luck. Twice, actually. And Barkley is well aware that he's the preseason favorite, taking on all the jinxes and curses that accompany the title. His decision to return to USC for his senior year has placed a level of scrutiny on his shoulders that he's more than prepared for.
"I've had my share of scrutinizing being the USC quarterback, but I know it's going to be even worse," Barkley said. "You have to watch what you say, but I don't think you can shy away from being you. I knew that coming from high school and going to USC -- seeing guys like Carson [Palmer] and [Matt] Leinart and all they accomplished -- knowing that at USC you are going to do some pretty cool things and there is some responsibility that comes with that. I'm not worried about the scrutiny at all. I almost embrace it. I love everything about being the quarterback here and that's another part of it. You can't deny it. It's inevitable."
When he announced he'd return for his senior season, his declaration that the team had unfinished business became a bit of a rallying cry. That's what he's focused on. If the Heisman happens to fall into his lap along the way, he's not going to be disappointed.
"I think if I have my mind set on winning the Heisman this year, this year is a failure. We won't get anywhere," he said. "If I have my mind set on playing the best I can play to where our team is winning and as a university we're putting points on the board and winning games, that other component will fall into place. It has to be based on the mindset of team first. That's how I'm looking at it."
Barkley said he's going against his personal grain by coming back for another season. Not one to turn away from whatever lies ahead, he's coming up with new ways to challenge himself. He's looking forward to taking a more pro-active approach to on-field play-calling, citing what Luck did last season at Stanford.
"I've always been a person to move on to the next thing if I'm not challenged," Barkley said. "It started in high school when I played up, I was ready for that. Then I graduated early because I was done and wanted to move on because the opportunity was there. I've always been a step ahead. I figured going to the NFL would be the same thing. I had a great time in college, it's time for that next step.
"But when I decided to come back, it went against my history of decision-making and I'm going to have to challenge myself daily to not get complacent. When I'm surrounded by players who will push me and challenge me, that's when I'm at my best. It's different to challenge yourself. I want to be that playcaller on the field. Luck did a lot of that. You see Peyton [Manning] doing that, where you are an offensive coordinator playing the game. I've been working a lot with coach [Lane] Kiffin in terms of playing the game where I see things on that level."