The USC Trojans looked like an overwhelming preseason No. 1 pick until they were forced to absorb a series of jarring off-field blows.
One of the finest receivers in school history jumped early to the NFL, only to be barred from turning pro by a last-minute court decision. A future All-America tackle was arrested on suspicion of a felony and suspended indefinitely. The likely first-string fullback underwent knee surgery and was ruled out for the season.
Mike Williams has petitioned to the NCAA to have his eligibility restored, but it's unclear whether he'll be on the field in the fall. And the losses of Winston Justice and Brandon Hancock will take such a toll that the Trojans ... are still considered by many to be the No. 1 team in the nation.
The talent in Pete Carroll's program at USC now is so rich and deep, it can handle almost anything. A year ago, the Trojans lost a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback and the best defensive player of the early Carroll era. Yet without Carson Palmer and Troy Polamalu, they went on to finish 12-1, win the Rose Bowl and a share of the national championship with LSU.
"This is the way we operate our program now," Carroll said. "It isn't about one guy, or any two guys. It's about the football team."
This is a gifted football team that once again should challenge for the national title.
OffenseDespite the graduation loss of wide receiver Keary Colbert and the possible absence of Williams, USC's offense should be as crisp and balanced as ever -- especially if a young offensive line can mature and improve as it goes along.
"The reconstruction of the line will be critical," Carroll said. It didn't become any easier during the offseason, when the Trojans lost Justice, a future all-star tackle who was suspended indefinitely.
Matt Leinart, the Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Year and Rose Bowl MVP, will have an assortment of new targets. Steve Smith and Whitney Lewis, a pair of former prep All-Americans, are the new starting wide receivers, with acclaimed freshmen Dwayne Jarrett, Fred Davis and Derrick Jones all pressing for playing time. Offensive coordinator Norm Chow will make better use of his tight ends this fall, especially now that sure-handed Alex Holmes and speedy Dominique Byrd have recovered from injuries.
USC's tailbacks, Reggie Bush, LenDale White and Hershel Dennis, combined to rush for 1,936 yards a year ago, and all three, especially the exciting Bush, should be better this year.
Returning starter Fred Matua will provide leadership up front, where redshirt freshman left tackle Sam Baker was the talk of spring practice. Baker, sophomores Ryan Kalil and Kyle Williams must have solid years for USC to succeed.
DefenseCarroll's teams always excel on defense, and this one should be no different. The big change will be up front where Shaun Cody, one of the country's best tackles, will move outside to end, replacing All-American Kenechi Udeze. Mike Patterson, another all-star candidate, will be prominent at one tackle, with sophomore Manuel Wright and junior Frostee Rucker completing a line that should wreak plenty of havoc.
The linebacking corps is solid, with starters Lofa Tatupu in the middle and the instinctive Matt Grootegoed being joined by lanky Dallas Sartz, who started the final six games a year ago.
The starting cornerbacks must be replaced, but both Ronald Nunn and Kevin Arbet have started before. The safeties, Darnell Bing and Jason Leach, were both regulars a year ago.
"The past two years were really good on defense," Carroll said. "The challenge is whether we can keep it up."
SpecialistsUSC might have the finest kicking pair in the country. Punter Tom Malone (49.0-yard average) broke the school record by 3.4 yards last fall. Placekicker Ryan Killeen was 12th nationally in scoring and his 65 PATs broke a single season Pac-10 record.
The return men are the spectacular Bush, who's always a threat to bust kickoffs, and solid Greig Carlson, a sure-handed punt returner.
Final AnalysisA series of great recruiting classes has given Carroll the talent and depth to compete for the Pac-10 and national titles every season.
"I think we're deeper than we've ever been and probably faster, too," Carroll said after spring practice. If that doesn't tell you something, then you weren't watching when the Trojans cruised to a 12-1 season and a share of the national championship a year ago.
If an inexperienced but gifted offensive line comes through, this team could be just as successful, especially with a schedule that appears considerably softer than last year's.