- Associated Press - Friday, August 31, 2012

LOS ANGELES (AP) - 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 a Trojans 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.

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