The Good News: If you're a USC fan, the answer here is obvious. The good news--the great news, actually--is that the Trojans are no longer banned from postseason play. Which means this program's time in purgatory is officially over, that the Trojans and their fans can dream big again, that Lane Kiffin can go gunning for biggest prizes of all, and that, quite simply, USC is back. Yes, last season must have been a frustrating one for the USC faithful, as they had to watch their team--a very, very good team, by way--mostly storm through its schedule, all the while knowing that none of it actually mattered, that they were playing for nothing at all, that there was no payoff to be had when the regular season was finally complete. That 2011 Trojans team put up more than 35 points per game, knocked off rivals Oregon and Notre Dame and polished off a 10-2 season with a hugely satisfying 50-0 beatdown of UCLA. And in the end, they got ... nothing. Nothing at all. In 2012, they won't have the same problem. This is a hungry team--a team looking to make a point. And by the looks of the roster, they'll do precisely that. This team must be considered a national title contender.
The Bad News: It's hard to find any. The Trojans were an incredibly young team in 2011, with freshman and sophomores playing key roles on offense, defense and special teams, and now that those guys--most of them, of course, all-world athletes--have a season under their belts, we can only assume that they'll play even better in 2012. The schedule looks favorable, too, with the only tricky road game being a Week 3 trip to Stanford (the Trojans get Oregon at home) and no challenging non-conference games of note (sorry, Notre Dame). But we've got a category called "The Bad News," so I feel compelled to identify some bad news. Which brings us to Kiffin. Yes, the guy turned in a great year under tough circumstances last season, and yes, he seems to be a tad more mature than he was during that nightmarish stint in Knoxville. But the fact remains that he brings into this season a career record (including both his college and NFL days) of 30-28, so it's not like we can go ahead and consider him a guaranteed winner or anything. Kiffin still needs to deliver his breakthrough season. Perhaps this is it.
Game to Watch: There was a time when the USC-UCLA game really mattered--a time when the Los Angeles rivals dominated the Pac-10, and the entire nation knew that control of the West Coast boiled down to the season-ending clash in the City of Angels at either the Rose Bowl or Los Angeles Coliseum. Those days, of course, are over. UCLA has descended into sad irrelevancy and Oregon, they of the flashy (gaudy) uniforms and Nike money, has very clearly taken its place. These days, the Pac-12 is about USC and Oregon (and maybe Stanford, too), so of course, it's easy to pinpoint the Trojans' Nov. 3 showdown with the Ducks as the game of the season out West. It's one of the great new rivalries in college football, and this year's edition figures to be as brutal and beautiful as ever.
What They'll Be Expecting: With the NCAA troubles behind them, USC fans' expectations will be simple and straightforward. They will want a Pac-12 title. They will want a national title run. And failing the latter, they will at least want big-time win in a big-time bowl game. Nothing less. The Trojans have been wandering the college football wilderness for too long, and for USC fans, the 2012 season represents their grand return. Make no mistake: For Kiffin, the pressure is on. He must deliver this season. He absolutely must.
The Schedule (key games marked with an *):
Sept. 1: Hawaii
Sept. 8: Syracuse at MetLife Stadium, East Rutherford, N.J.
Sept. 15: at Stanford
Sept. 22: California
Oct. 4: at Utah
Oct. 13: Washington at CenturyLink Field, Seattle
Oct. 20: Colorado
Oct. 27: at Arizona
Nov. 3: Oregon
Nov. 10: Arizona State
Nov. 17: at UCLA
Nov. 24: Notre Dame
Nov. 30: Pac-12 championship game
Prediction: I mean, just take a look at the roster. The Trojans will return almost everybody of note on both offense (Matt Barkley returns, with a great shot to make a Heisman run) and defense, and with the Pac-12 looking very much like a three-team race, it's difficult to see this team winning fewer than ten games. If Kiffin can get his team past Stanford on Sept. 15, it should be smooth sailing until that crucial Nov. 3 showdown against Oregon. A win there and the Trojans could be looking at a national title game bid. At the very least, this team will find itself in a BCS bowl game.