The last days of July are finally here, which means that there are three important things to do: turn on the fan in your room to full blast, watch “Breaking Bad,” and get caught up with the preseason media hype surrounding college football.
At the center of all the hype stands USC senior quarterback Matt Barkley, the new golden boy of college football.
As much as I enjoy bashing anything USC-related, it’s hard to deny that Barkley is a special quarterback. Barkley is carrying all the momentum in the world into this upcoming season. His monster 2011-2012 campaign concluded with 3,528 passing yards and a 69.1 percent completion rate. Just as impressive was his 39:7 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Not only that, but Barkley looked more deadly and surgical with each game as the season progressed. It’s no wonder then that Barkley is the both the Heisman favorite and projected first overall pick of the 2013 NFL Draft.
Yes, having one of the nation’s best wide receiving corps that includes Robert Woods and Marqise Lee certainly helps. The thought of USC having both the nation’s best quarterback and the best wide receiver is itself enough to make me sick. That being said, I’m still not buying the claim that Barkley wouldn’t be an elite college quarterback without his talented targets.
Barkley’s fundamentals are very polished to say the least. He reads through his progressions like nobody’s business, has a solid pocket presence coupled with excellent footwork and is especially dangerous throwing off of play-action.
Quarterback coach Steve Clarkson, who mentored the likes of Ben Roethlisberger and Matt Leinart, dubbed Barkley a “cross between Joe Montana and Tom Brady.” Okay, maybe I wouldn’t go that far with the praises, but at the end of the day, the message is the same: Barkley is the real deal.
By now you’re probably wondering if you’re actually reading the Daily Trojan instead of The Stanford Daily, but rest assured, I’m not letting Barkley off the hook that easily. The fact of the matter is despite his undoubted talents, Barkley still has a lot left to prove.
Andrew Luck was at the center of the media’s attention last season, regardless of whether he wanted it. Few college athletes in the country were as heavily scrutinized as he was. During the preseason, he was in a similar position that Barkley is in right now. Fresh off his announcement to forgo millions of dollars to finish school, Luck was the media’s college football darling.
But as the season went on, the pressure cranked up. What was considered extraordinary soon became expected. People started to criticize his “bland” stats sheets while completely ignoring more important aspects of his play, like his off-the-charts football IQ or underappreciated ability to throw accurately on the run.
Barkley remained well protected under Luck’s shadow. As the top quarterback going into the 2012-2013 season, however, Barkley can no longer avoid the attention. He’ll be forced to face what Luck had to go through, and while Luck managed to block out the pressure well, there’s no guarantee that Barkley will be able to do the same.
And let’s not forget that for the past two seasons, USC was bowl-ineligible. I’m not saying that there wasn’t anything on the line for Barkley last year, but having a BCS bowl bid at stake adds a considerable amount of pressure.
While Luck was putting on a clinic at the Fiesta Bowl last year, Barkley was sitting at home, more than a month removed from his last game. Sure, in that last game, the Trojans torched UCLA 50-0. Barkley could’ve shredded the Bruins secondary if he was blindfolded, but it was rather anticlimactic, with no postseason implications on the line.
This time around, Barkley will have to bear the weight of USC’s national title hopes on his shoulders. If he manages to fulfill preseason expectations and carry the Trojans into the national championship, Barkley will in all likelihood end up facing the iron-curtain defense of some SEC team—a formidable task that even Luck didn’t have to deal with. But USC’s tough schedule won’t pave an easy road for him by any means. His first real test will, fittingly enough, come against the Cardinal in a critical week three matchup.
Make no mistake: USC will certainly be favored to win that game. Whether it’s Brett Nottingham or Josh Nunes starting for us, neither one will be expected to go pass for pass against Barkley. But I doubt that the fearsome linebacker duo of Shayne Skov and Chase Thomas won’t have anything to say before the game is over.
That leaves with us with the final inevitable comparison between this upcoming season’s Barkley and last season’s Luck.
They’re certainly similar. Both quarterbacks are dangerously efficient and rarely make costly mistakes. Barkley had flashes of brilliance last season, including his four-touchdown performance against Oregon, that were comparable to Luck’s level of play. The one knock against Barkley is his arm strength, which interestingly enough was the same criticism that Phil Simms directed at Luck last year before Luck completely put that comment to shame by throwing a 70-yard bomb at Stanford’s Pro Day.
But last season’s Luck is still on a completely different level. Luck had absolute control of the offense on every down—even if he wasn’t passing—by calling his own plays and audibles at the line. And Luck took all of the pressure in stride. Even when USC fans were prematurely celebrating his late fourth-quarter interception in the epic triple-overtime game last year, he coolly and methodically led his offense on the next drive to tie up the score. That’s what made Luck a truly once-in-a-generation quarterback.
I’m not saying that Barkley can’t reach that level, but it’ll be a challenging task even with his talents. And if Lane Kiffin doesn’t start trusting him more with the playbook, I don’t know if it will happen.
Is Matt Barkley the best quarterback in college football going into this season? Yes.
Will he put up numbers similar to, if not better, than his stats last year? I don’t see why not.
But can he play at an unprecedented level in the face of constant pressure and scrutiny—the level that defined Luck’s quarterbacking abilities? I’m not quite sold on that one just yet.
George Chen thinks that saying Matt Barkley is almost as good as Andrew Luck is like saying the Daily Trojan is almost as good as The Stanford Daily. Let him know what you think at firstname.lastname@example.org.