If USC's season is as difficult as its offseason, the Trojans will struggle to remain ahead of Washington State in the Pac-10 standings.
Coach Pete Carroll left for the NFL six months before the NCAA came down hard with sanctions that rendered the Trojans ineligible for the Pac-10 championship and postseason play and imposed harsh scholarship limits (a limit of 15 signees in each of the next three years instead of the normal 25). Then, top recruit Seantrel Henderson asked for his scholarship release and enrolled instead at Miami. Three upperclassmen transferred without penalty, which is allowed because of the NCAA sanctions. Mike Garrett was fired as athletic director and replaced by Pat Haden. Finally, the school returned the 2006 Heisman won by Reggie Bush, who was largely (though certainly not solely) responsible for all the previous tribulations listed.
Lane Kiffin, a former USC assistant, has arrived from Tennessee to replace Carroll, and he inherits a rising star in sophomore quarterback Matt Barkley, a strong defense and a soft early schedule, which should mean USC's season is better than its offseason.
Here's a closer look at the Trojans.
THE SCHEME: While there's a new coaching staff, the offense isn't going to change. The Trojans run a pro set and use multiple formations
STAR POWER: In one season, Matt Barkley established himself as good college quarterback. This season, he should rise to elite status. As a true freshman last season, he passed for 2,735 yards and 15 touchdowns and led a late game-winning drive at Ohio State. He's a strong passer and he's smart. Now, he's experienced, too.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: True freshman WR Kyle Prater could ease some concerns about a potential problem area. The Trojans lost their top two receivers from '09 and only one returning receiver had more than 20 catches. Prater is a big target (6 feet 5/215 pounds) with sure hands who enrolled in January and was impressive in spring practice.
STRONGEST AREA: Although '09 leading rusher Joe McKnight left early for the NFL, running back remains deep and talented. Powerful Allen Bradford is expected to step into McKnight's role as the Trojans' lead rusher. Last season, Bradford averaged 5.8 yards per carry while rushing for 668 yards in a backup role. If he falters, the Trojans could call on senior C.J. Gable and junior Marc Tyler, who is coming off a toe injury that hampered him last season. USC also has an influx of talent with heralded freshmen Dillon Baxter, a five-star prospect, and D.J. Morgan, a four-star prospect.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: The offensive line should be solid but depth is a concern, especially considering C Kristofer O'Dowd has had injury issues in the past. Backups have little to no experience, and freshman T Seantrel Henderson's decision to leave adds to the concern. If the Trojans stay healthy up front, they should be fine.
THE SCHEME: The new staff will keep the 4-3 set, but Monte Kiffin has installed his "Tampa 2" scheme. Line coach Ed Orgeron has the coordinator title, but this is Kiffin's defense.
STAR POWER: Junior T Jurrell Casey enjoyed a breakthrough season in '09 and will contend for postseason honors this fall. In his first season as a starter, Casey registered 59 tackles - a high total for an interior lineman - and also was involved in six fumbles, forcing three and recovering three. He posted nine tackles for loss. If he builds on that performance, Casey will get All-America consideration.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Redshirt freshman Torin Harris projects to step into the starting lineup at cornerback in a rebuilt secondary. A four-star prospect in '09, Harris played well enough in the spring to earn a starting job. If he continues to improve, any concerns about the secondary will be eased. At the least, he figures to make a significant contribution.
STRONGEST AREA: A common denominator of dominant defenses is a powerful line, and USC definitely will be strong up front even without T Christian Tupou, who is out for the season with an injury. Casey should be one of the best tackles in the nation. Es Nick Perry, Armond Armstead and Wes Horton form a nice rotation. Perry had eight sacks last season. Depth looks good, too.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: The secondary was inconsistent in '09, and that was with All-America Taylor Mays patrolling at free safety. All four starters are gone. CB Shareece Wright has the potential to be the best cover guy in the league if he stays healthy, and FS T.J. McDonald is a big hitter who must stay injury-free.
The Trojans were excellent in punt coverage last season, but all other aspects of the kicking game need work. Kickoff returns were lackluster, and though USC was strong on punt returns, Damian Williams no longer will be bringing them back. Senior P Jacob Harfman was so-so in '09, averaging 39.8 yards per attempt. Harfman also will compete with senior walk-on Joe Houston to handle the kicking duties. Harfman kicked 20 field goals, including one from 56 yards, as a junior college sophomore. The kickoff coverage was awful last season and must improve.
A light non-conference schedule should ensure a fast start, but the second half of the season looks treacherous; there are three games against top Pac-10 contenders and back-to-back rivalry games against Notre Dame and UCLA. In recent seasons, the Trojans' non-conference slate has included heavyweights such as Ohio State, Nebraska and Arkansas. But none of this season's non-conference opponents (Hawaii, Virginia, Minnesota and Notre Dame) had a winning record in '09. An Oct. 30 home game against Oregon starts the second-half grind that also includes contests against Arizona State, Arizona, Oregon State and the rivalry games. USC also goes on the road to face Stanford, which soundly beat the Trojans at the Coliseum last season. USC has seven road games and six home games this fall.
Physically, USC can match up favorably with any team in the Pac-10. Psychologically? Maybe not. Because of NCAA sanctions, USC is ineligible for the Pac-10 championship and the postseason. The defensive front seven will be downright nasty, the offensive line is sound, Barkley is a rising star at quarterback and the running back position is solid. That means the primary question will be how the Trojans respond to their situation.