Team preview: USC
Blue Ribbon Illustrated previews the 2004-05 college football season, exclusively on Insider.
The USC Trojans entered last season with a buzz around them. They were clearly the best team in the Pac-10, and if they made the most of the season they might be a national title contender in 2004.
The Trojans got there way ahead of schedule. They split the national title with LSU last season and are just where everybody thought they would be entering 2004-among the favorites to win the national championship.
USC has re-established itself as the benchmark for everybody else in the Pac-10. Just ask Washington coach Keith Gilbertson. Last year he told a story about a conversation he had with another Pac-10 coach.
"He said you pull USC out and then throw the other nine names in a hat and take your pick," Gilbertson said. "We're all pretty much the same except USC."
The Trojans are special and, Gilbertson said, "They are primed for a long run."
Entering his fourth year as USC coach, Pete Carroll has built the Trojans with that long run in mind. Carroll and his staff have scored some of the best recruiting classes in the nation, including a consensus No. 1 class last season. The Trojans are 23-3 over the last two seasons, with two Pac-10 titles, a national title, two BCS bowl wins and a Heisman Trophy to their credit.
They'd like one more of each this season.
"Our goal always will be to win the Pac-10 championship and the Rose Bowl," Carroll said.
This season, a return trip to the Orange Bowl, where they crushed Iowa after the 2002 season, would do just fine. The Orange Bowl has been designated the national title game this season.
But Carroll, his staff and players know getting another national title will be harder than last season.
"Because of our accomplishments the past two season, we know we'll be challenged to the max each game now," Carroll said. "We understand that we'll always see our opponents at their best. So we must take our game to the next level and be ready for everyone's best shot."
The Trojans will have to replace their offensive line, a talented receiving corps and an All-American defensive end if they are going to make a serious run at the title.
The Trojans think they have the offense they need to be dominant again this season with the return of Matt Leinart at quarterback and a stable of running backs with star potential. USC has scored 20 or more points in the last 26 games and scored a Pac-10-record 534 points last season.
The defense returns six starters, including all-conference tackles Shaun Cody and Mike Patterson and linebacker Matt Grootegoed.
"The last two years we were really good on defense and we played just how we drew it up," said Carroll, who is also the team's defensive coordinator. "The challenge is whether we can keep it up."
Gone are key players from last season like offensive linemen Winston Justice and Jacob Rogers, defensive end Kenechi Udeze, cornerback Will Poole and, perhaps, receiver Mike Williams.
However, the Trojans have the depth to handle such huge losses.
"We understand how to handle personnel losses and move on," Carroll said. "Our team is well-prepared for this because it presents a great opportunity for others to step to the front. They'll take this challenge on. ... It'll be fun to see who steps up."
Offensive coordinator Norm Chow can't quite explain specifically why it is Leinart (6-5, 220) was able to lead USC to a Pac-10 title last season, something very few underclassmen quarterbacks have done over the last 15 years.
"Some guys have it and some guys don't," Chow said. "He has it. I don't know how else to say it."
Leinart was almost flawless last season as he completed 255-of-402 passes for 3,556 yards, 38 touchdowns and nine interceptions. He was the MVP of the Rose Bowl and only the second sophomore to win Pac-10 offensive MVP honors. Stanford's John Elway was the other.
"He far exceeded our hopes," Carroll said. "He assumed control of the job immediately and soon was playing like a veteran. He's a smart quarterback who understands our offense. He has a good arm and is a good leader."
Leinart will be a leading candidate for the Heisman this season, but Chow says none of the hype is going to Leinart's head.
"He has an understanding of his role," Chow said. "He knows there are still people challenging for his job, even though he knows he's the man there."
Leinart had a solid spring, Chow said, as did the other quarterbacks who give USC plenty of depth.
Sophomore John David Booty (6-3, 200) enters the fall as the No. 2 quarterback. Booty skipped his senior season as a prep to play for the Trojans as a reserve last season.
"He's benefited from being here for a year," Chow said. "He's done a nice job of picking up the system."
The Trojans also have senior Brandon Hance (6-1, 195), who started nine games for Purdue in 2001, leading the Boilermakers to the Sun Bowl. USC also brings in Rocky Hinds (6-4, 225), a prep All-American.
"We have a great group of quarterbacks behind him [Leinart] and they all want to take over the No. 1 spot," Carroll said. "So Matt will have to continue to work hard if he wants to hold them off."
While Leinart will be the focus of all the hype this season, perhaps the root of USC's offensive prowess is the players behind him. Washington State coach Bill Doba says it is the running backs that make the Trojans so good.
The Trojans return what might be the best group of running backs in the country. "We feel really good about this position," Chow said.
The stars are junior Hershel Dennis (5-11, 190) and sophomores LenDale White (6-2, 225) and Reggie Bush (6-0, 190).
This running back position combined for 1,906 yards last season and hopes for more this season. Perhaps Chow's biggest problem will be making sure everybody gets enough playing time.
"We will try to get them all in there as much as possible," Chow said. "They all deserve a chance to play. They were young and eager last year and willing to accept their roles. I think they will be the same way this season."
Dennis led the Trojans last season with 137 carries for 661 yards and four touchdowns. He also caught 10 passes for 62 yards. He started every game.
White led the team in rushing with 754 yards and 13 touchdowns on 141 carries.
But the back getting the most hype this season is Bush, an explosive talent who carried the ball 90 times last season for 521 yards and three touchdowns. He also caught 15 passes for 314 yards and four touchdowns and had 492 yards and a touchdown on kick returns.
"The tailback position is a strong one for us," Carroll said. "While we've been effective rotating these young players, it will be interesting to see if any of them can take over a leadership role this season. Each offers something different. Hershel Dennis brings stability, Len Dale White brings power and Reggie Bush brings speed."
The Trojans also return their starting fullback, junior Brandon Hancock (6-1, 235). He had only one carry last season for minus-2 yards, but caught 13 passes for 160 yards and two touchdowns and blocked well. He'll be backed up by junior David Kirtman (6-0, 220).
How good this position will be is apparently going to be determined by the NCAA. If all goes well for USC, All-American Williams (6-5, 230) could be playing for the Trojans one more season.
When a court ruled Ohio State running back Maurice Clarett eligible for the draft despite not being three years out of high school, Williams took advantage and declared himself draft eligible after his sophomore season.
When the ruling was overturned, Williams suddenly wasn't eligible for the draft and his 2004 season is now in limbo.
In late May, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that federal labor policy allows NFL teams to set rules for when players can enter the league, thus barring Clarett yet again.
Clarett's attorney plans to appeal that ruling before the entire 12-judge panel. Should the decision go against Clarett, he could appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Williams' agent plans on filing his own suit against the NFL. The suit will allege that the NFL encouraged Williams to declare for the draft.
Williams' agent claims his client's NFL eligibility should be determined differently than Clarett's because he entered the draft only after the league set a new deadline for previously ineligible players when a lower court judge decided Clarett was eligible.
NFL officials say they warned Williams before he entered the draft they would attempt to overturn that decision and that if they were successful, they would rule Williams ineligible.
Williams forfeited his college eligibility when he signed with an agent. He'll now look to get reinstated into college by the NCAA. The process is underway, but it will take a while.
"We've been preparing for this outcome for a while," Carroll told the media after the latest Clarett ruling in alte May. "Mike was aware of this possibility.
"We're counting on the NCAA to understand the uniqueness of this situation and give Mike the opportunity to come back to school."
Almost as big a loss for the Trojans will be the loss of flanker Keary Colbert, who took some of the best stats in Pac-10 history with him. He was drafted by the NFL's Carolina Panthers.
"Those guys are going to be hard to replace," Chow said, "But I like our receivers." Perhaps the most promising of the bunch is sophomore Steve Smith (6-1, 190) who caught 17 passes for 319 yards and two touchdowns last season. He had the third most receptions among USC wide receivers last season.
Another potential starter is sophomore Whitney Lewis (6-1, 225), who caught three passes for 27 yards last season.
"I'm excited about Steve Smith," Chow said. "Smith and Whitney Lewis both played well in the spring."
Some other young players who will be called on to help add depth to the receiving corps are sophomore Chris McFoy (6-1, 190), senior Jason Mitchell (6-1, 200), junior Greg Carlson (5-10, 195), converted cornerback William Buchanon (6-3, 180), red-shirt freshman John Zilka (6-4, 195), and freshmen Fred Davis (6-4, 215), Dwayne Jarrett (6-5, 195) and Derrick Jones (6-2, 180).
"We were looking for the young players like Buchanon to step up during the spring," Chow said. "And they all did."
Carroll was encouraged by his receiving corps-particularly Lewis-after spring practiced ended.
"The receiver spot has been exciting to watch," Carroll said. "That's the one where we get hit hardest with the playmaking aspects of the losses of Keary Colbert and Mike Williams. Steve Smith has had to be thrown to the front and he's taken over Keary's job and Whitney Lewis has surfaced as the top guy at split end and has shared it with William Buchanon and Fred Davis. It's been a real good spring.
"Whitney is probably the guy that's improved the most. If you gave a most improved player, he'd get it in the spring. Right from the first day he started to make statements and show his playmaking ability. He's really trim and fit and fast and strong and it showed up. We're real excited about what he can bring."
The Trojans got bad news at tight end in May when Gregg Guenther decided to quit the team to focus on basketball. He played both sports for three seasons. It might be hard to come by 6-8 tight ends, but there is good news in all of this for USC: The Trojans are loaded at the position.
Alex Holmes (6-3, 270), a preseason all conference selection by many last year, is back after red-shirting last season because of a back injury. Dominique Byrd (6-3, 255), last year's starter, is also back, although he is recovering from a knee injury. The Trojans also signed three tight ends in February, including Dale Thompson (6-4, 255), the No. 2 tight end prospect in the nation according to Rivals.com.
"I think we will be just fine at that position," Chow said.
The dominant offensive line USC had last season is gone. Only a pair of part-time starters return. All-America tackle Jacob Rogers went to the Dallas Cowboys in the second round. The biggest blow, however, might be the loss of Winston Justice, who was dominant as a sophomore last season and was an All-America candidate entering spring practice. Then he got in trouble.
Justice was arrested and charged with three misdemeanor counts of exhibiting a replica firearm in March. Justice pled not guilty to the charges in April. If convicted, Justice faces as much as 180 days in jail. He allegedly pulled a pellet gun on a student during a dispute near campus. He was released on $50,000 bail. In July 2003, Justice was sentenced to three years of probation after pleading no contest to a misdemeanor count of solicitation of a prostitute.
"We are losing a lot of good players," Chow said. "You're always a little nervous when you are starting over."
Sophomore Fred Matua (6-2, 300) impressed coaches with his aggressive attitude last season, an attitude that will likely keep him his job this season.
Senior John Drake (6-4, 350) could also start this season after getting seven starts last season. He can play tackle and guard on the right side of the line, but is still recovering from a broken ankle that kept him out late last season.
Chow said he was impressed by the play of several others during spring practice, including red-shirt freshman Sam Baker (6-5, 315), sophomore Ryan Kalil (6-4, 270), senior Travis Watkins (6-3, 305) and freshman Travis Draper (6-5, 270).
"They all are working hard," Chow said. "They know if they work hard they have a good chance to play."
Other candidates include freshmen Jeff Byers (6-3, 275) and Chilo Rachal (6-6, 310), who were prep All-Americans and junior Taitusi Lutui (6-6, 370) was a junior college All-American.
As spring practice ended, Carroll said he was generally satisfied with his reconfigured line.
"I've been most pleased with the progress of the offensive line, both units, first and second," Carroll said. "[Offensive line coach] Tim [Davis] has done a great job with these guys, getting their attitude right. They've been aggressive and tough. It's an athletic group, but very inexperienced and they're subject to making mistakes on assignments, but they're trying hard and working hard and have had some success against a good unit up front, so that's a good sign for them."
Senior Ryan Killeen (5-11, 200) is back after a solid junior season. Last season, Killeen made 19-of-24 field goals and 65-of-67 extra points and was second in the Pac-10 and No. 12 in the nation with an average of 9.4 points per game. His 65 extra points set a Pac-10 standard. His 19 field goals tied the school record. His 122 points were the second most ever by a USC player.
Killeen was also good on kickoffs last season, forcing opponents to start inside the 20 on 58 of his 99 kickoffs.
USC is billing Killeen, as a candidate for the Lou Groza Award, given annually to the nation's best kicker.
The kicker of the future looks might just be walk-on red-shirt freshman Mario Danelo (5-10, 200), the son of former NFL kicker Joe Danelo.
The Trojans have some big holes to fill on their "Wild Bunch 2" line with the departure of ends Kenechi Udeze and Omar Nazel.
Udeze was the 20th selection in the first round by the Minnesota Vikings. He was the first Trojan defensive lineman to be selected in the first round since Darrell Russell was the second overall pick by the Oakland Raiders in 1997. He's also the first defensive end to be selected in the first round from USC since Tody Smith in 1971 and he's the third Trojan selected in the first round during the Pete Carroll era.
However, they still have the foundation of great line with the return of two-way threat Shaun Cody (6-4, 292) and tackle Mike Patterson (6-0, 285).
Cody was moved from tackle to end in the spring, thus giving sophomore Manuel Wright (6-5, 285) a chance to show what he can do.
"The move of Shaun Cody from tackle to end to give Manuel Wright a chance to play three technique has worked out and we'll have that flexibility going into the fall and depending on how it settles, Shaun could be a starting end and Manny could be a starting tackle," Carroll said. "If we were playing today, that's how we'd go. But we'll wait and see until we get through [fall] camp. Michael Patterson and Shaun had great springs. Took up where they left off. Both are the fastest and strongest they've ever been and both seem set up to have an excellent fall. They really dominated the spring for the first two weeks. The offensive line couldn't handle them."
Cody had 26 tackles, six sacks and 10.5 tackles for loss and three blocked field goals last season. He willingly switched positions for the good of the team, even though his future lies at tackle.
"Is outside Cody's natural spot?" Carroll said. "No, his natural position is inside as he goes to the next level. He's shown he's a really good inside player. He's 292, the biggest he's ever been and he's the quickest he's ever been. He's much farther along than he was last year. He was just surviving last year, recovering from the knee. He's so much better now. He's able to play outside. He's a real stopper and technique-wise, he could play anywhere. But I think he's a more natural inside player. He's pumped up, quick and ready to go. He'll play both spots."
Patterson had 55 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss, seven sacks and three fumble recoveries in 2003.
Last season, as a true freshman, Wright was a backup defensive tackle behind Cody, appearing in nine games. He came up with eight tackles, including two for losses of 10 yards (with an 8-yard sack), plus three pass deflections. The sack and one of his deflections came against Michigan in the Rose Bowl.
Senior Van Brown (6-5, 265), junior Frostee Rucker (6-4, 240) and red-shirt freshmen Chris Barrett (6-5, 250), Lawrence Jackson (6-5, 250), and Alex Morrow (6-5, 265) will contend for the starting end jobs. Also in the mix could be prep All-Americans Thomas Herring (6-6, 315) and Jeff Schweiger (6-4, 250).
The Trojans are simply loaded at linebacker. Champ Simmons is gone to the NFL, but everybody else is back, including some young talent.
Junior Lofa Tatupu (6-0, 225) led USC with 98 tackles last season and will play in the middle again where he had 11.5 tackles for loss, three sacks and four interceptions last season. He returned one interception for a touchdown.
Senior Matt Grootegoed (5-11, 215)) is an All-America candidate who had 41 tackles, including 4.5 behind the line of scrimmage, last season.
Junior Dallas Sartz (6-5, 220) will likely slide into the starting lineup this season. He had 60 tackles in six starts last season, including six for a loss, two sacks and blocked punt last season.
"Linebacker is the great strength of our defense," Carroll said. "With Lofa, Tatupu, Matt Grootegoed and Dallas Sartz, it's like we have three returning starters. Each of them had very productive seasons last year and we're hoping for more of the same this year." Carroll also likes the depth behind these veterans.
"We also have some talented young players who can make a mark," Carroll said.
Those players include junior Collin Ashton (6-1, 215) who had 28 tackles last season, red-shirt freshman Thomas Williams (6-3, 225) and seniors Lee Webb (6-0, 240) and Hawaii transfer Marco Chavez (6-3, 245).
USC also gets sophomore Oscar Lua (6-2, 245) back from a knee injury and some new blood. Ryan Powdrell (6-1, 250) was an All-American last season at Saddleback Community College, while freshmen Eugene Germany (6-4, 260) and Keith Rivers (6-3, 220) were prep All-Americans.
Both starting cornerbacks from 2003-Will Poole and Marcell Allmond-have departed. Poole was taken in the fourth round of the NFL draft by the Miami Dolphins. Allmond signed a free-agent deal with the Baltimore Ravens. But despite those seemingly huge losses, still Carroll looks at his secondary as if four starters are returning.
That's because Ronald Nunn (5-11, 180) and Kevin Arbet (5-11, 190), both seniors, are back. Arbet has six career starts and Nunn three. Arbet had five tackles last season and received a sixth year of eligibility because he missed most of the last two seasons with a foot injury. Nunn had 40 tackles, three sacks and an interception returned for a touchdown last season.
Others are in the mix for playing time at cornerback, too, including sophomore Justin Wyatt (5-10, 180), junior John Walker (6-2, 200), sophomore Eric Wright (6-0, 180), red-shirt freshman Terrell Thomas (6-2, 180) and sophomore Ryan Ting (5-10, 190).
"It's been an interesting race at the cornerback spot," Carroll said. "Ronnie Nunn has finished well. Kevin Arbet got some work done. Those two bring experience. Justin Wyatt had an excellent spring. He's just way farther ahead then where he was any time [in 2003]. Confidence-wise, he's got great speed and athleticism and Terrell Thomas and Eric Wright have had great springs as well.
"[Cornerback is] a good, competitive position where I think a lot of people looking on the outside in would have thought we'd be in trouble. I don't think that way at all. I think it'll be a strong position for us."
The Trojans seem to be set at safety with both starters returning.
Sophomore Darnell Bing (6-2, 220) had 69 tackles and two interceptions and was about as highly decorated as a freshman could be. Bing was chosen first-team freshman All-America by The Sporting News, Football Writers Association of America, Collegefootballnews.com and Rivals.com. He also made the All-Pac-10 honorable mention squad, as well as being chosen to the The Sporting News Pac-10 All-Freshman first team. TSN also selected him Pac-10 Defensive Freshman of the Year.
Senior Jason Leach (5-11, 210) was second on the team with 88 tackles last season. He also had 5.5 tackles for loss, a sack and two interceptions. He returned an interception for a touchdown.
"Darnell Bing is headed for greatness and Jason Leach does such a solid job back there," Carroll said. "But we need to establish some depth at both safety positions, so some players will have to step forward."
To the surprise of many, Tom Malone (6-0, 190) did not win the Ray Guy Award as the nation's top punter last season. He wasn't even a finalist.
If you want to blame somebody for this, you should point to the offense.
Because the Trojans were so dominant on offense last season, Malone did not get enough punting attempts to qualify for the national statistics. He was five punts shy of meeting the NCAA requirement of 3.6 punts per game.
He led the nation for five weeks before he started getting less work. Had he qualified for the national stats list, he would have easily led the nation in yards per punt.
The All-American averaged 49.0 yards per punt, 3.4 yards better than the previous USC record and 0.3 yards behind the Pac-10 record. He had the best average in the nation by a full yard per punt.
With Malone punting and Killeen kicking, the Trojans have the best kicking game in the Pac-10 this season. They're also loaded on the rest of special teams.
Those prep All-Americans who haven't cracked the starting lineup yet are making solid special teams players for the time being. USC had one of its best special teams seasons in recent years in 2003.
The Trojans returned a kick for a touchdown for the first time since 1998 and they blocked six field goals and a punt.
"We've made so much progress on special teams," Carroll said. "Our kicking game ... should be very strong. You won't find anyone better than Tom Malone and Ryan Killeen. Both are weapons for us. And we have the potential to be explosive in the return game."
Bush averaged 27.3 yards per kick return last season. Carlson averaged 9.0 yards per punt return. Both are back. Malone will also be the holder on field goals again this season.
USC is looking for a new long snapper. The leading candidates are red-shirt freshman Will Collins (6-2, 225) and Ashton.
What Carroll had to say when he announced his 2004 recruiting class was the same thing most everybody else said about his class: "I have a great feeling about the players in this class."
After splitting the national championship with LSU, the Trojans outdistanced the Tigers for the consensus No. 1 recruiting class in the nation. Some recruiting experts went so far as to say it may be the best recruiting class college football has seen in more than a decade.
Gatorade and Parade national player-of-the-year Byers of Loveland, Colo., might be the best player in the class. He had 56 sacks and 14 forced fumbles in high school, but will likely play center for the Trojans.
Not only did USC land the top prospects in California-defensive end Jeff Schweiger (6-4, 250) and offensive lineman Thomas Herring (6-6, 315) -- but it collected some of the top talent from around the nation.
Receiver Davis (6-4, 215) of Ohio and linebacker Rivers (6-3, 220) of Florida were key parts of the class.
"They all will be given an immediate opportunity to show how they fit in and many of them will push for playing time this coming season," Carroll said.
Herring was a Parade All-American to go along with all his other honors. He dominated at offensive and defensive tackle at Fremont High in Los Angeles.
Rivers was the runner-up for the Mr. Football award in Florida last season at Lake Mary High. He had 111 tackles, 14 tackles for loss, two sacks and two interceptions. He was a three-time all-state player.
Schweiger was a consensus prep All-American after making 140 tackles, including 37 tackles for loss, 18 sacks, four forced fumbles, four fumble recoveries and 15 pass deflections at Valley Christian High in San Jose. Davis graduated a semester early from high school and enrolled at USC in the spring. He earned All-America honors from several publications including USA Today. He had 500 receiving and 600 rushing yards and 100 tackles as a high school senior.
In addition to Davis, offensive linemen Travis Draper (6-5, 270) and Alatini Malu (6-5, 340) enrolled at USC in January and were able to participate in spring practice. Both are junior college transfers. Draper signed with USC last year and attended Cuesta Junior College in San Luis Obispo, Calif., part-time, keeping his eligibility entact. Malue originally signed with Cal State Northridge and was set to play there after his return from a two-year Mormon mission in Austrailia. But the Matador program disbanded while he was away, so Malu attended Long Beach City.
Germany (6-4, 260) is a highly-touted linebacker and tight end prospect who had 142 tackles and nine fumble recoveries at Pomona (Calif.) High.
Quarterback Hinds (6-4, 225) was highly regarded by recruiting analysts despite missing his senior season at St. Bernard (Calif.) High with a right knee injury.
The Trojans went to New Brunswick, N.J., to land prep All-American receiver/defensive back Jarrett (6-5, 200). Jarrett scored 26 touchdowns and led New Brunswick High to a state championship last season. He also plays basketball.
USC tapped a familar pipeline-nearby Long Beach Poly High-to land receiver/defensive back Derrick Jones (6-2, 180). Jones is an All-American with track star speed. He caught 49 passes for 930 yards and 11 touchdowns and scored three more touchdowns on kick returns.
Offensive lineman Lutui (6-6, 370), a native of Tonga, was a junior college All-American last season at Snow College in Ephraim, Utah. He signed with Utah in 2002.
Lawrence Miles (6-3, 270) had 107 tackles, 21.5 sacks and 21 deflected passes last season as a defensive lineman at La Quinta (Calif.) High on his way to All-America honors.
Tight end Jimmy Miller (6-6, 250) of Westlake Village (Calif.) High caught 40 passes for 750 yards and nine touchdowns last season. He had 85 tackles and 17 sacks at defensive end.
Defensive back Josh Pinkard (6-1, 200) of Hueneme High in nearby Oxnard also earned prep All-America honors after recording 123 tackles, two sacks and four interceptions. He had six interceptions as a junior.
Linebacker Powdrell (6-1, 250) was a junior college All-American at Saddleback (Calif.) Community College after he had 83 tackles, three interceptions and five forced fumbles last season.
Receiver Michael Stuart (6-4, 245) might be the second coming of Mike Williams with his size, strength and athleticism. He caught 75 passes for 1,279 yards and 18 touchdowns last season at Westlake Village (Calif.) High while also recording 95 tackles, 13 sacks and four forced fumbles on the defensive line.
Thompson (6-4, 260) of Santiago High in Coronoa, Calif., was one of the top tight end prospects on the West Coast. He caught 40 passes for 700 yards and 10 touchdowns last season.
Scott Ware (6-3, 220), a transfer from Santa Rosa (Calif.) Community College, might see significant playing time this season. He had 70 tackles and four interceptions in 2003 on his way to junior college All-America honors.
Offensive line? USC is basically replacing its entire offensive line from last season. They have good talent, but scant experience.
Playing time? The running backs did well last season splitting time, but can they remain that unselfish this season?
Defensive end? Can USC replace the dominating presence of defensive end Kenechi Udeze? Udeze led the nation with 16.5 sacks last season before heading to the NFL.
Matt Leinart! The Trojans have the leading candidate for the Heisman Trophy calling the signals after dominating the Pac-10 as a sophomore last season.
Reggie Bush! One of the fastest and most electrifying athletes in the conference is poised to have a break out season, but he'll have to share playing time.
Defensive line! USC's defensive line is a sturdy as any in the nation with the return of dominant Shaun Cody (who can also play defensive end) and Mike Patterson.
OFFENSE: A-; SPECIAL TEAMS: A; DEFENSE: A-; INTANGIBLES: A
The Trojans have returned to the spot they were in during the 1930s, '60s and '70s. They expect to contend for the national championship every year. If they don't, it's a major disappointment.
The Trojans have holes to fill on their offensive line and some stars to replace at receiver and defensive line, but they have the talent to make a BCS game for the third year in a row and to defend their national championship.
USC showed its balanced in the spring. The offense was dominant at times, but the defense was the highlight of the spring game. The Trojans forced seven turnovers in the scrimmage and had seven sacks and outscored the offense, 7-0.
Once again, the Trojans have a meaty schedule with four non-conference games. USC opens against Virginia Tech in Landover, Md., and also plays at BYU, and has home games against Colorado State and Notre Dame to go along with its Pac-10 schedule. Aside from the opener, the biggest game of the season might be the Oct. 9 game against California. Cal handed USC its only loss last season. Also, USC travels to Washington State in game that is moving up the charts as far as Pac-10 rivalries go. USC's success this season will likely hinge on the play of its offensive line. The line was dominant last season and instrumental in helping the Trojans cruise through the Pac-10 and win the Rose Bowl.
This season, USC has to replace its entire starting line, albeit with young, talented players. Only part-time starter Matua returns.
Will this new line be good enough for USC's stable of talented running backs to do their thing? Will Leinart be as effective behind an inexperienced line?
Otherwise, the Trojans seem to have the parts to pick up where they left off last season.
For the most comprehensive previews available on all 117 Division I teams, order the 384-page "Bible" of college football, Blue Ribbon College Football Yearbook, at www.blueribbonyearbook.com.