Few predicted a 10-2 season for the Trojans. And despite smashing doubts, expectations and records, nobody could have foretold the two stars that would bring USC back to national prominence.
Receiver Marqise Lee was an unknown recruit heading into the season. His highly touted Serra teammate, five-star recruit George Farmer was thought to be the Trojans' 'X' factor.
"We knew he was good coming out of high school," USC head coach Lane Kiffin said of Lee. "But there was no way that we could know he could be this special."
Tailback Curtis McNeal was academically ineligible in 2010, Lane Kiffin's first year at the helm. The Venice High product was recruited by former coach Pete Carroll.
"We didn't really know much about him," Kiffin said of McNeal.
The coach called McNeal and Lee the "wildcards" of USC's incredible season, one which placed them atop the Pac-12 South division.
The two players, in addition to a young linebacking corps, helped sway the pendulum from an 8-5 team stained with rumors, sanctions and turmoil toward a season ending ninth-ranked team that reeks of national championship contention for years to come.
"If you look at the defensive numbers from that Colorado game on, that's really championship defense," Kiffin said. Linebacker Lamar Dawson recorded his first start at that game, wedged in between two redshirt freshmen Dion Bailey and Hayes Pullard, who led the team in tackles with 81 a piece.
"For all three linebackers to be freshmen I think it's really amazing," he added.
Fans, critics and opponents preparing for 2011 knew the talents of Robert Woods and Matt Barkley. They knew the value of veteran back Marc Tyler being able to power his way through a team's defensive line. And they were all jokes about an offensive line short on experience.
But Tyler and Woods got injured early. Both were downgraded from 100 percent in the first half of the season. Matt Barkley surprised even the believers with stellar play for 11 games (he completed just 54 percent of his passes at California) with Heisman-caliber numbers. And USC's offensive line laughed in the face of those jokers by allowing the fewest sacks (8) of any school in the Pac-12.
As for Lee and McNeal, both stepped up to the challenge of their superiors and played, well, truly superior.
"It's pretty amazing [that] Robert Woods should win the Biletnikoff Award and he's probably the second best receiver on this team," Kiffin said of Lee.
Quite the praise for the true freshman whose jolly demeanor off the field contrasts the serious numbers he puts on it. Lee ended the season with 73 catches for 1,143 yards and 11 touchdowns. He averaged four more yards per catch than Woods, who had 15 touchdowns this year.
But McNeal outright put up better numbers than Tyler in all categories. On 23 more carries and two more touchdowns, McNeal became the 27th Trojan to have 1,000 yards rushing in a season. Tyler was slightly below the mark as the Trojans' leading rusher in 2010, with 913 yards in nearly 30 more attempts than McNeal.
Many players were critical to the success of the Trojans in 2011. McNeal, Lee and three freshmen linebackers were just the sparkplugs that initiated the momentum.
If the coaches can utilize these roleplayers at an ever greater rate next fall, these Trojans ought to play with a constant fire in 2012, one fueled by actual motivations that extend past November.