Matt Barkley could be the greatest

LOS ANGELES -- By the Cal game, Lane Kiffin figured he was gone. By the Oregon game, the coach wasn't quite as sure. After he saw him climb into the USC student section for the second week in a row, after a 50-0 win over UCLA, he was beginning to seriously wonder.

"I just kind of thought, watching him, 'He doesn't want to leave,'" Kiffin said.

He didn't, and the lure of fast money wasn't going to change his mind. Here's the thing about the Barkley family of Newport Beach, Calif., which showed up and sat in the front row for the announcement of Matt Barkley's surprise decision to return to USC for his senior season Thursday: It's a religious group, but with a worldly education. It has deep USC roots (his dad went here, as do his twin siblings), but it knows exactly what Matt was giving up.

Once he'd had all the evaluations, projections, spreadsheets and pie charts sorted out, it was time to retreat.

"He stepped back. He went quiet," said his dad, Les. "He thought about it, he prayed about it and, when he decided, he was absolutely firm."

This was not a decision Matt Barkley arrived at rashly. It's just that he tends to do things ahead of you or me, or anybody else. Before he got to USC, no true freshman quarterback had ever started an opener. By the time he's done here, the USC record book will look like a family album.

So, USC got to throw a Christmas party with a mystery theme Thursday, courtesy of the 21-year-old who, according to Kiffin, could soon be the greatest Trojan ever. Barkley talked for 2 minutes, 40 seconds before mentioning he would stay, at which point the Heritage Hall lobby erupted in cheers. Members of the USC band played Christmas music. A couple of song girls danced.

And where does the party move now? Will the next chapter in USC's history be another national championship run and Barkley stepping up to a podium at the New York Marriott Marquis, accepting a little stiff-arming trophy?

That's kind of the idea behind all the hoopla. If you saw the way Barkley finished the year, the chemistry he had developed with receivers Robert Woods and Marqise Lee by the end of the season, you probably wouldn't bet against those kinds of outcomes.

Barkley already has thrown eight more touchdown passes than Heisman Trophy winner Carson Palmer did as a Trojan. By the end of the 2012 college football season -- assuming he stays healthy -- he will have thrown for more yards, more touchdowns and with a comparable completion percentage to Heisman Trophy winner Matt Leinart.

You could argue he's the best all-time USC quarterback already. If it's still an argument in 12 months, maybe Thursday was a mistake. Kiffin was on the sideline as a USC assistant for the end of Palmer's career and the entirety of Leinart's. He doesn't throw around the term "greatest Trojan ever" loosely.

"If he was to have a great year this year, how could you not say he was because of all the outside stuff he went through?" Kiffin said. "None of those guys had guys being able to transfer. None of those guys had to motivate a team around them without a bowl game to go to for two years."

To pique his interest, Kiffin talked to Barkley about the possibility of calling his own plays next season. He mentioned new wrinkles in the offense that would make the quarterback an even more integral cog. Stanford did similar things for Andrew Luck between his sophomore and junior years, but it didn't prevent the Stanford quarterback from watching somebody else accept the Heisman two years in a row. Winning an award doesn't seem like the most rational reason for returning.

Again, Barkley isn't the type to do things without thinking.

"This decision is not about a single award for me," Barkley said. "In the broader sense, if we do enough correct things and I play at a high enough level, hopefully those things will take care of themselves. It's not something I'll be focused on this whole year."

If he's as focused on the right things next year as he was for the final six games of 2011, this USC team could be as fun to watch as it was in the heyday of Leinart, Reggie Bush and Pete Carroll, with a better moral compass. The Trojans' offense loses two starters, one of whom is the best left tackle in the nation, Matt Kalil. The defense loses three starters, all of whom can be replaced. All-American safety T.J. McDonald is coming back. USC's final ranking in the AP poll was No. 5. You do the math.

All of the Trojans' tough games are at home next year. The national-title chatter will be around in spring football and will linger as long as they keep winning.

"With what we have returning and the talent we have, I think that's naturally going to happen," Barkley said.

Barkley will be a graduate student by the time his USC career ends. He will have been a four-year starter. He perhaps will have ushered USC from its darkest hour to its brightest day. Who knows, he might end up even richer in the end. Last year, the No. 1 overall pick, Cam Newton, signed a four-year, $22 million deal. The No. 8 pick, Jake Locker, got four years and $12 million. Barkley wasn't going to go first overall this spring, but he might in 2013.

There's not a lot to dislike about what Barkley did Thursday unless you happen to root for another Pac-12 school.

Mark Saxon covers USC football for ESPNLosAngeles.com.