FanHouse's 2010 Preseason College Football Poll -- No. 14 USC
USC's season ends Dec. 4 at UCLA. Period.
But that doesn't make the Trojans any less compelling in 2010. They have the talent to win the Pac-10 title, but can't play in the Rose Bowl. They have the opportunity to hang near the top of the rankings, but go nowhere. They have lightning rod Lane Kiffin as the head coach. And all of that will make USC one of the most interesting stories in college football in many, many years.
USC got hit hard by NCAA sanctions. Players left. Coaches reeled. There's a new athletic director. Practices were scaled back to compensate for a short roster. And those who remain want to prove to everyone that being denied bowl appearances, scholarships and Heisman Trophies will not make the Trojans any less a football force.
On the field, this is a team led by sophomore quarterback Matt Barkley, who came in with talent and now has experience to smooth out some of the ups and downs of his freshman experience. He will headline an offense that returns five starters and has senior running back Allen Bradford (668 yards and eight touchdowns) and wide receiver Ronald Johnson (34 catches, 378 yards, three TDs), who might be on the verge of a breakout season.
Freshman tailback Dillon Baxter, whom Kiffin compared to Reggie Bush during spring practice, will miss the first game of the season against Hawaii after violating a team rule last week during training camp. But Bradford and Baxter will likely combine to make this a run-first offense.
Defensively, this is not quite the team is once was, but Monte Kiffin has a few very good pieces to work with: defensive tackle Jurrell Casey and end Armond Armstead are standouts. Nick Perry had eight sacks coming off the bench last season. The front seven, led by this trio, will be among the best in the Pac-10, and three returners at linebacker -- Chris Galippo, Michael Morgan and Malcolm Smith -- add to the optimism.
Depth may end up being an issue as the season wears on. WIth 71 scholarship players on the roster to start camp, Kiffin turned his practices into NFL-like exercises, minimizing contact and the risk of injury. Already during camp, 14 players sat out one scrimmage with injury.
The margin for error is thin. Injuries could derail the train. So could a lack of chemistry given all this team has already been through. But if the Trojans stay on track, they could show that they might be wounded, but they aren't dead.
THE BASICS: The Trojans went 9-4 and were thoroughly knocked from the national championship perch in 2010. They simply came up short and ended up with an unthinkable fifth-place finish in the conference and a berth in the Emerald Bowl in San Francisco in December.
KEY PLAYER YOU PROBABLY DON'T THINK OF AS A KEY PLAYER: Center Kristofer O'Dowd. An all-conference selection two years ago, O'Dowd played seven games last year, fighting through injury. He will be counted on to anchor the offensive line.
FLY IN THE OINTMENT: The same team that's played this role twice in the past three years: the Stanford Cardinal. Stanford owns two wins over USC in the past three years -- two humiliating, soul-wrenching losses for the Trojans at the Coliseum. Jim Harbaugh knew how to get under Pete Carroll's skin (in fact, the Cardinal named a season-ticket package after the coaches' "What's your deal?" exchange after last year's game) and he might be able to do the same with Kiffin.
DON'T MISS: Oct. 2 vs. Washington. It's the Pete Carroll Protege' game: Lane Kiffin vs. Steve Sarkisian. Sarkisian spanked his old coach last year in Seattle, giving the Huskies a momentum push that will last all the way into this coming season. Can Kiffin get payback at the Coliseum?
PREDICTION: 10-3, vindicated on the field, Kiffin gets some "I told you so" latitude and they're done after the UCLA game.
FanHouse's USC team page with schedule