Matt Barkley key to USC's future

BOULDER, Colo. -- When Matt Barkley finally, mercifully, left this field with 1:55 left and the USC Trojans about to salt away their 42-17 win over Colorado, he was greeted by coach Lane Kiffin, who wrapped the crook of his left arm around the back of the quarterback's neck.

A few minutes later, the USC band leader wanted a piece of Barkley in the bleachers beyond the north end zone. A couple of minutes after that, Barkley, steam pouring off his head in the crisp Rocky Mountain air, was waving a fake sword and conducting a rousing chorus of "Conquest."

Imagine all the love Barkley will get around this team if, in a couple of months, he just repeats the three simple words the band members started chanting as Barkley picked his way down from those aluminum bleachers.

One more year.

Yeah, Barkley heard it, he acknowledged with a little sideways smile.

"It could be one more year," he said coyly.

Is it folly to think he'll be back for his senior season, that he'll do what Matt Leinart did and Mark Sanchez did not? The NFL offers too much money, too much competition, too many chances to prove he is as good as everybody has been saying since his junior year of high school. Right?

As this USC season gains a little steam and starts hinting at a return to glory just around the bend, it seems more and more sane, maybe even prudent, to think he'll leave that money on the table for 12 more months. Why not let Andrew Luck and Landry Jones take their talents to the next level and set himself up as, perhaps, the No. 1 quarterback in the nation in 2012? He might be a top-15 pick now, but he might be a No. 1 overall pick after next season.

On Friday, Barkley did what Leinart and Sanchez and Carson Palmer and all the other great USC quarterbacks of the past -- including USC athletic director Pat Haden -- never did. He threw for six touchdown passes, setting the school record. Was it hard? Not really. He admitted as much afterward. Colorado's secondary is in tatters because of injuries and suspensions, manned by former walk-ons and converts from other positions.

What Friday really did was hint at what could be. Just look at the guys who caught those touchdown passes from Barkley. Marqise Lee, a true freshman, had two. Two of them went to Robert Woods, a sophomore. One of them went to Xavier Grimble, a redshirt freshman. The other went to Amir Carlisle, a true freshman.

With all those weapons, plus another year of experience, it could feel like he's playing a video game if he returns for his senior season. Woods had nine catches for 130 yards. Lee had nine for 124. Guess which way they'll be pulling when Barkley has to decide whether to throw his name into the NFL draft mix in early January? Considering USC hadn't bothered to introduce a backup quarterback to the field until John Manoogian, a walk-on, handed off for those final two minutes Friday, the stakes are astronomical for this program. This is a tricky moment in its history, with the bowl ban about to end but the scholarship limits just ramping up.

If Barkley returns, the Trojans could -- notice I said could -- be the best team in the Pac-12 next season. If he leaves, they could be angling for the Emerald Bowl, the only bowl game Barkley will have ever played in.

"Hopefully he does come back," Woods said. "We could do great things with this program with Matt."

Said Lee: "Everybody wants Matt to come back. Hopefully, he does come back, but that's his decision. I'm going to ride with him no matter what he does."

Each week that passes, this team sends further signals that it could be something special next year. Say Barkley leads a movement of draft-eligible juniors who return, and left tackle Matt Kalil, defensive end Nick Perry and safety T.J. McDonald all come back, too? Then you're looking at virtually the same team, one year older and wiser, returning in September, this time with a BCS bowl beckoning it onward.

Kiffin has been making more and more jokes about those guys coming back, but you know it's not really all that funny to him. It could be the difference for his program between a return to national prominence and languishing for another year or two.

Friday's record-setting performance wasn't exactly heavy lifting, obviously. Colorado (1-9, 0-6 in the Pac-12) lost to Washington State, the team that used to be everybody's favorite week on the schedule, and scored two points against Oregon -- two! -- and very well might not win a game in its first Pac-12 go-round.

Most of Barkley's numbers Friday were fairly ho-hum, actually. He completed 64 percent of his 39 passes for 318 yards. Kiffin described Barkley's performance as "up and down," because he missed some open receivers and threw an interception at the end of the first half.

"As crazy as that sounds, for breaking the school record ... one we tried to break a million times around here," Kiffin said.

But there's a little rockslide of momentum behind this young USC team right now that must signify something. Barkley has thrown 28 touchdowns and six interceptions. Decent wins on the road at Cal and Notre Dame led to the team's best performance of the year -- last week against Stanford, a loss in three overtimes. At times, it has looked stylish, just like it did in the old days.

The offensive line is finding its chemistry, at last. The defense, while far from dominant, is making strides, generally holding teams off the scoreboard even while giving up yards.

Things are coming together, building toward something bigger, but it might all boil down to those three little words on the bandstand Friday night.

Mark Saxon covers USC football for ESPNLosAngeles.com.