LOS ANGELES - Matt Barkley has already graduated from Southern California, but 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 today against the University of 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.
NORM CHOW, ‘We just hope they’re not overwhelmed. We tried to talk to them about it. … We certainly understand and respect who they are. We just have to go out and perform.’
Not even a two-year bowl ban and scholarship reductions from the NCAA dimmed that dream, which he made real by postponing an NFL career to return for his fourth season.
"It's great to be in the mix of things again," said Barkley, at the controls of an offense with an array of playmakers, including 1,000-yard receivers Robert Woods and Marqise Lee and 1,000-yard rushers Curtis McNeal and Silas Redd.
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, Matt Leinart and Mark Sanchez.
Chow also knows all about 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.
"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."
Chow, a Punahou School graduate, still has strong ties to Los Angeles, where he was UCLA's offensive coordinator until moving to his college 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.
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 the Trojans have won 14 consecutive season openers, including three against the Warriors. Lane Kiffin's first game as USC's coach was at Aloha Stadium in 2010.
With just four defensive starters returning, Chow readily acknowledges he isn't sure how UH will slow down USC.
When the Warriors have the ball, they will debut Chow's pro-style offense after 13 years of run-and-shoot schemes.
"You know that's always an entertaining team to watch," said Trojans safety T.J. McDonald, who also passed on early NFL entry for the chance to chase a national 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."
COLLEGE FOOTBALL ON TV
3 a.m.-Navy vs. Notre Dame, CBS
6 a.m.-Buffalo at Georgia, KFVE
6 a.m.-Ohio at Penn St., ESPN
6 a.m.-Northwestern at Syracuse, ESPN2
6 a.m.-W. Michigan at Illinois, ESPNU
6 a.m.-Appalachian St. at E. Carolina, FSW
6 a.m.-Marshall at West Virginia, FX
9 a.m.-Richmond at Virginia, FSWP
9:30 a.m.-Southern Miss at Nebraska, ABC
9:30 a.m.-Bowling Green at Florida, ESPN
9:30 a.m.-Miami at Boston College, ESPN2
9:30 a.m.-Iowa vs. N. Illinois, ESPNU
9:30 a.m.-Tulsa at Iowa St., FSW
10 a.m.-Colorado St. at Colorado, FX
1 p.m.-Auburn vs. Clemson, ESPN
1 p.m.-N. Texas at LSU, ESPNU
1:30 p.m.-Hawaii at Southern Cal, FOX
2 p.m.-Alabama vs. Michigan, ABC
4:30 p.m.-Arkansas St. at Oregon, ESPN
4:30 p.m.-Toledo at Arizona, ESPNU
4:30 p.m.-Oklahoma at UTEP, FSW
6 a.m.-Alabama St. vs. Bethune-Cookman, ESPN
9:30 a.m.-Kentucky at Louisville, ESPN
1:30 p.m.-SMU at Baylor, FSWP
2 p.m.-Georgia Tech at Virginia Tech, ESPN