LOS ANGELES » Although Matt Barkley has already graduated from Southern California, he’s eager to get to work on his final college project.
After a two-year wait for the chance to play for a national championship, the senior quarterback leads the No. 1 Trojans into their season opener Saturday against Hawaii and new coach Norm Chow.
Three years after he started his first college game at the Coliseum as a freshman, Barkley is a seasoned veteran leading one of the nation’s most talented teams into the title hunt — just how he imagined his USC career would end.
Not even a two-year bowl ban and scholarship reductions from the NCAA dimmed that dream, which he made real by postponing his NFL career to return for his fourth season.
"It’s great to be in the mix of things again," Barkley said.
The 93,607-seat Coliseum is sold out in Los Angeles’ anticipation of a return to dominance by USC, which reigned atop college football for a good part of the previous decade. That’s when Barkley was a wide-eyed fan growing up in Orange County and dreaming of following in the footsteps of Carson Palmer, fellow Mater Dei High School graduate Matt Leinart and Mark Sanchez.
Barkley has that chance this fall: He’s at the controls of an offense with an impressive array of talent, including 1,000-yard receivers Robert Woods and Marqise Lee and 1,000-yard rushers Curtis McNeal and Silas Redd. Everything is in place for a historic season — if Barkley and his teammates can make it happen.
That’s the only opportunity Barkley ever wanted.
"The overall skill is unique," Barkley said. "I’ve never been a part of a group of players this talented and special. The leadership across the board, of the seniors, I’ve never been on a team with this much leadership before. It’s really cool to be a part of."
USC is an overwhelming favorite against Hawaii, which was picked to finish seventh in its debut season in the Mountain West. Trojans coach Lane Kiffin has welcomed the hype around his team, realizing it’s unavoidable at a school with USC’s profile, but also tries to keep his players from subsisting on it.
"My No. 1 job for this season, especially with the hype around this team, is to make sure that they’re ready each week to play and they don’t get caught up in anything else," Kiffin said. "We just have to educate our guys and really guard against loss of energy. With all the anticipation and hype, it’s easy to lose that energy."
The Trojans insist they won’t have that problem. A slogan to that effect has been painted on their practice field since spring ball: "PREP NOT HYPE."
Yet it’s still pretty fun to be a Trojan right now.
"It’s just so exciting, walking around campus and everybody is talking about the game," USC sophomore linebacker Hayes Pullard said. "But we’re all seasoned veterans now. We’ve matured, and we’re better players. Anybody would get better if they played against our offense every day."
While Barkley grew up steeped in USC lore and Kiffin became enthralled by the school during his career as aTrojans assistant, Chow also knows all about Palmer, Leinart and the Trojans’ glorious recent past. He was a huge part of that success, running a stellar offense for coach Pete Carroll for four years and winning two national titles before Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian replaced him in 2005.
"You play hard when you go to USC," Chow said. "That’s the only thing that matters. Hopefully it’s the kind of culture that we’ll have one day."
Although Chow jumped at the chance to return to his native islands to land his first head coaching job after four decades in the profession, he still has strong ties to Los Angeles, where he was UCLA’s offensive coordinator until moving to his alma mater, Utah, last season. Chow and his wife still live in Manhattan Beach in the offseason, and two of their children graduated from USC.
And though Chow isn’t intimidated by the prospect of facing the nation’s top-ranked team in its historic stadium, he realizes his players don’t exactly have his range of experience.
He even thought about taking the Warriors to the Coliseum one day early to get used to the atmosphere, but decided against it.
"We just hope they’re not overwhelmed," Chow said. "We tried to talk to them about it. They understand. They read the paper. They know. You don’t fool kids. I don’t think you ever fool the players. … We certainly understand and respect who they are. We just have to go out and perform."
Hawaii has never beaten USC in seven previous tries, and USC has won 14 consecutive season openers, including three against the Warriors. Kiffin’s first game as USC’s head coach was at Aloha Stadium in 2010.
With just four defensive starters returning, Chow readily acknowledges he isn’t sure how the Warriors will slow down Barkley and the Trojans’ offensive talent. Hawaii will attempt to score enough points to keep up, debuting Chow’s pro-style offense after 13 years of Warriors football in the run-and-shoot schemes that regularly produced entertaining, high-scoring games.
"You know that’s always an entertaining team to watch," said USC safety T.J. McDonald, who also passed on early NFL entry to chase a championship. "We’re going to have to play hard to shut them down, no matter who the coach is or what offense they’re running."