LOS ANGELES -- The fact is that during the 2011 season, the USC Trojans had the best receiver in the Pac-12 Conference. Of course, whether it was sophomore Robert Woods or freshman Marqise Lee is anybody's guess.
Heading into the season, Woods was the only proven commodity among the wide receivers. His 65 receptions for 792 yards and six touchdowns as a freshman in 2010 made him the one offensive threat opposing defenses could key on during the first few weeks.
Lee was a revelation during fall camp, proving that he belonged among the wide receivers, rather than at safety -- the position where many saw more potential for him.
Twelve games later, they rank as perhaps the best wide receiver duo in USC history. The records they set certainly would back that up.
Woods began the season with a bang, setting a USC record with 17 receptions in a win against Minnesota. He ended it just as loudly, setting a USC and Pac-12 record with 111 catches, besting the mark of 102 set by former Trojan Keyshawn Johnson. On the way, Woods came within five yards of breaking the USC single-game mark for receiving yards -- with a 255-yard performance against Arizona -- and posted seven 100-yard receiving games, despite playing most of the season with injuries to his ankle and shoulder.
Lee was similarly impressive. He finished the season with 73 receptions for 1,143 yards, second only to Mike Williams among USC freshmen in receptions. And he saved his best work for last. Over the final five games, Lee averaged nine catches and 140 yards per game and scored seven touchdowns. Lee and Woods combined for more receptions -- 184 -- and receiving yards -- 2,435 -- than any duo in USC history. In the season finale, they became the first USC tandem to record double-digit receptions in the same game. They also finished as the fourth pair of Trojans to register 1,000-yard seasons through the air.
"I don't think anybody would have ever thought this would take place," said USC receivers coach Ted Gilmore. "To their credit, they work hard at it, and they just have this look in their eyes that they're determined to win their one-on-ones. They want to win. They want to be the best, and that shows up in their play."
Perhaps the scariest thing for future USC opponents is that Woods and Lee will be back next season, and both could be much improved from 2011 -- Woods for health reasons and Lee from another year of experience. After not posting more than five catches or 63 yards in any of the first four games, Lee went for eight catches, 144 yards and a touchdown against Arizona and finished the season by scoring touchdowns in nine of the final 10 games.
"The first couple of games, I had a hard time," Lee said. "The game speed was too fast for me. But after a while, you get used to it. And towards the end, I started settling down and actually realized how the defenses were playing, and the game slowed down for me."
As the game slowed down for Lee, the competition picked up for Woods. The two established a great friendship at Serra High School in Gardena, and competition was and always will be at the center. Lee was quick to point out after his first touchdown against Syracuse that it took him just three games to do what Woods needed four. Lee's first 100-yard performance came in his fifth game. Woods needed six.
"We haven't talked about it yet," Lee said of besting Woods' freshman marks in receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns. "But tomorrow we will. Me and Robert always have that competition. We're happy for the team and happy to get that win, but we're going to always go at it. It's just a motivation thing."
USC fans have become somewhat spoiled in recent seasons, watching Carson Palmer and then Matt Leinart rewrite the record books with wide receivers such as Mike Williams, Keary Colbert, Dwayne Jarrett and Steve Smith. But what they witnessed this season was as good as any trio to ever play at USC. The aerial attack allowed Barkley to set the single-season record for touchdown passes, and the Trojans offense became nearly unstoppable -- scoring at least 30 points in each of the final eight games.
There will be plenty of questions about Barkley's status during the offseason, whether or not he will return to guide the offense in his senior season. But no matter who is taking snaps for the Trojans next season, there will be two sets of very welcome hands waiting to greet him. The same could be said for Gilmore, who will head into 2012 with a couple of aces up his sleeve.
"I think I would have to say right now that this is probably the best tandem I've coached," Gilmore said.
Erik McKinney is the recruiting editor for WeAreSC.com and has covered the Trojans since 2004. He can be reached at email@example.com.