Editor's note: 12th and last in a series previewing the Pac-12 football season.
UNIVERSAL CITY, Calif. — There's "unfinished business" at USC. After a two-year ban on postseason play for NCAA violations, the Trojans are once again able to make a run for the roses and a national championship.
The opportunity to do so is something quarterback Matt Barkley and safety T.J. McDonald are eager to pursue. Barkley, a Heisman Trophy candidate, and McDonald, an All-American, put pro careers on hold to play their senior seasons at USC.
Barkley explained that they decided to stick around in order to maximize their potential.
"I think that phrase 'unfinished business' has to do with finishing at a top level and finishing what we're capable of as a team," Barkley explained. "Every goal, I think, is to win every game and go all the way. For this year, I think we both feel — and a lot of us feel on the team — that it's the most realistic goal and that's not easy by any means."
The thought and ideology behind "unfinished business" involves taking things one game at a time and finishing those games, he added.
Returning to the national title picture is something the Trojans are proud of after two years of sanctions.
"It's exciting for our university and for our fans to be in those discussions," USC coach Lane Kiffin said while noting that just two years ago people were saying "SC is over" and now the Trojans are ranked No. 1 in some preseason polls.
"Right now we kind of feel like we're in a perfect storm with so many good things going," Kiffin said. "We feel good about our current team and about our future teams for years to come."
It's something Barkley insists the Trojans won't take for granted this season. They've had fun playing together and for each other.
"We can't forget how we got here," he said.
OFFENSE: The addition of Penn State star running back Silas Redd is probably just icing on the cake. The junior joins an already loaded USC offense featuring nine returning starters and plenty of flashy statistics. Barkley is the leader of the pack and has a couple of 1,000-yard receiving targets in junior Robert Woods and sophomore Marqise Lee.
DEFENSE: Eight returning starters include last season's top four tacklers as well as team leaders in interceptions, pass deflections and fumble recoveries. McDonald, who made 67 tackles and three interceptions in 2011, headlines the cast. Junior cornerback Nickell Robey is also a special talent, Linebackers Dion Bailey and Hayes Pullard were Freshman All-Americans in 2011.
SPECIAL TEAMS: As is the case with the offense and the defense, USC is loaded with experience. The only newcomer will be a long snapper. Return specialists include athletes like Woods, Lee, Robey and senior running back Curtis McNeal, a 1,000-yard rusher in 2011.
PLAYMAKERS: Take your pick. USC's roster has plenty of playmakers. Barkley, Woods and Lee are among the big-play guys on offense, while McDonald and Robey lead of list of players to watch on defense.
TOUGH STRETCH: A nine-day span in October could spell trouble for USC's Pac-12 and national championship hopes. The Trojans visit Utah and Washington in back-to-back weeks. Their Sept. 15 game at Stanford could also be challenging.Comment on this story
EXTRA POINTS: The USC football program is now housed in the new $70 million John McKay Center, a state-of-the-art athletic and academic support facility on campus. … Starting defensive end Devon Kennard, a senior, may be out for the season after suffering a torn pectoral muscle. … The Trojans were No. 6 in last season's final Associated Press rankings.
2012 media poll: 1st, South
2011 record: 10-2, 7-2
Head coach: Lane Kiffin (3rd season, 25-13 overall)
Sept. 1 — HAWAII
Sept. 8 — vs. Syracuse (East Rutherford, N.J.)
Sept. 15 — at Stanford
Sept. 22 — CALIFORNIA
Oct. 4 — at Utah
Oct. 13 — at Washington
Oct. 20 — COLORADO
Oct. 27 — at Arizona
Nov. 3 — OREGON
Nov. 10 — ARIZONA STATE
Nov. 17 — at UCLA
Nov. 24 — NOTRE DAME