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USC officially became the overwhelming favorite to win an unprecedented third consecutive national championship on a cool Los Angeles afternoon this past January.
That's when Heisman Trophy winner Matt Leinart stunned just about everyone by announcing he was turning down what would have been an NFL Draft bonus estimated in the $40 million range to play his senior season at USC.
The poised, left-handed maestro of a quarterback leads the Trojans' orchestra of an offense, with 14 starters returning from a 13-0 team currently owning a 22-game winning streak.
Not even the departure of four assistants -- including the highly regarded offensive coordinator Norm Chow, who left for the NFL's Tennessee Titans -- should seriously harm USC's momentum heading into the 2005 season.
What do you give an offense that already has everything? How about another season from a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback? Leinart returns for his senior season and just like that, USC's offense looks like the best in the nation once again.
Reggie Bush, a Heisman finalist himself, returns along with LenDale White to form the country's best tailback combination. Bush totaled 2,330 all-purpose yards and 15 total touchdowns, while White rushed for 1,103 yards and scored 17 total touchdowns.
Steve Smith and Dwayne Jarrett will be one of the top pass-receiving duos around, and incoming freshman Patrick Turner is expected to join the party early. Dominique Byrd, last seen making acobatic, one-handed catches in the Orange Bowl, is an All-America candidate at tight end.
The only question about the offense is whether it will be as effective without Chow. Then again, with this much talent, does it really matter what plays they call?
The only question about the two-time defending national champs is in the heart of the defensive line, where the Trojans lost All-America tackles Shaun Cody and Mike Patterson. Sedrick Ellis and LaJuan Ramsey have to step up.
The ends -- Frostee Rucker, Lawrence Jackson and Jeff Schweiger -- will be strong. So will the linebackers, despite losing two more All-Americans, Matt Grootegoed and Lofa Tatupu. Keith Rivers, a future star, takes over for Grootegoed, while Oscar Lua will probably open at middle linebacker.
The defensive backfield has taken a hit with the departure of Eric Wright, who left the team over the summer. He was facing either suspension or expulsion as a result of a sexual assault and drug case and opted to . Justin Wyatt returns at one corner, with Terrell Thomas likely to replace Wright at the other.
Darnell Bing brings a lot of intimidation to the strong safety position. Scott Ware, another big hitter, is the probable starter at free safety.
If Tom Malone isn't the most accomplished punter in the country, he's in the top two or three. Place-kicking isn't as secure with the departure of dependable Ryan Killeen.
Bush, the most dangerous open field runner in America, is a one-man team on the returns.
Pete Carroll's program clearly is on a roll, with 22 consecutive victories and back-to-back national titles. It is difficult to see how that momentum will not continue, especially with Leinart, the clear leader of this team, back to direct an offense that, beginning with Bush, is chock full of NFL-caliber athletes.
Defensively, Carroll will have to fill a couple of glaring holes up front at the tackle positions, but the rest of the defense is so deep and skilled, it probably won't matter.
This year's schedule doesn't look as difficult as last year's, and the '05 freshman class could be even better than '04's.
Once again, USC will begin the season as the nation's No. 1 team. No one will be surprised if the Trojans live up to expectations by playing in the Rose Bowl for another BCS title and a "Three-Pete" for coach Carroll.