In early January of this year, Andrew Luck surprised some observers by announcing that he was eschewing a shot at a certain spot inside the Top Five of the NFL draft and returning to Stanford.
Nearly a year later, another Pac-12 school has officially become the beneficiary of an even more surprising decision by the leader of its offense.
With an ornate Christmas tree setting the seasonally-themed scene: Matt Barkley announced at an on-campus press conference Thursday afternoon the one gift Trojan fans have been wishing for over the past few months: the quarterback will be returning to USC for one more season. Barkley told his coaches and teammates of the news of his decision earlier in the day, a decision that was made after extensive conversations with his family, school officials and other advisers from the professional level.
“I know in my heart that I have not yet finished my journey as a Trojan football player,” the junior said. “Our USC football team has been through some tough times and we have persevered. But the 2012 team has some serious unfinished business to attend to, and I intend to play a part of it.
“So, yes, I have firmly decided to forego the NFL draft in 2012 and finish this exceptional and unique journey that I’ve had here at USC.”
Based on the early draft projections, Barkley was a near-lock to be one of the first 10 players selected in the April NFL draft and, pending the pre-draft workouts, perhaps even a top-five selection. Instead, he’s returning to solidify his legacy as one of the greatest Trojans in the football program’s storied history.
With the decision, Barkley immediately becomes one of the front-runners for the 2012 Heisman Trophy — perhaps the front-runner pending the NFL decisions of 2011 winner Robert Griffin III and this year’s other finalists, all of whom are draft-eligible — thanks to a 2011 season that saw him pass for more than 3,500 yards, 39 touchdowns and just seven picks.
More importantly is what Barkley’s decision means for the Trojans as a team. Add Barkley’s return with the fact that 16 other starters from a 10-2 squad are expected to return as well, and it will likely equal the Trojans starting the 2012 season deep inside the Top Ten of the major preseason polls.
And, with the school finally eligible following a two-year bowl ban, a run at a Pac-12 championship and berth in a BcS bowl are certainly not out of the question and should probably be expected. In fact, and even with the final chapter of the 2011 season not yet written, the Trojans would have to be considered one of a handful of legitimate national title contenders eight months or so out from the start of next season.
Thanks to Barkley’s unexpected decision, such talk is far from premature, regardless how far the start of the 2012 season is off in the distance.