Athlon Top-25: #6 USC

SC coach Pete Carroll has to find a replacement for Heisman Trophy winner Carson Palmer at quarterback. Matt Cassel, Palmer's backup the last two years, and Purdue transfer Brandon Hance, who has already started nine games on the collegiate level, were the early favorites. But by the end of spring practice sophomore Matt Leinart had placed himself squarely in the mix.

Wide receivers Winston Justice and Jacob Rogers comprise the nation's best offensive tackle tandem.

The top two tacklers on last year's team return in linebackers Marcell Allmond and Kevin Arbet anchor an air-tight secondary.

The Trojans will close out the 2003 regular season with home games against Oregon State. The road portion of the schedule appears daunting with trips to Notre Dame and Washington.

Double play: In 2002, The Trojans defeated both Notre Dame and UCLA in the same season for the first time since 1981.

Irish sting: USC's 610 yards of total offense and Carson Palmer's 425 passing yards are the most any Notre Dame defense has ever surrendered in a single game.

A pair of sixes: The 2002 Trojan defense finished No. 6 nationally against the run and No. 6 overall.

2002 results: 117ac-10)

2002 Bowl Game: Beat Iowa 38-17 in Orange Bowl

Returning starters: 6 offense, 6 defense, both kickers

2003 Schedule:

A. 30 at Auburn
S. 6 BYU
S. 13 Hawaii
S. 27 at California
O. 4 at Arizona State
O. 11 Stanford
O. 18 at Notre Dame
O. 25 at Washington
N. 1 Washington State
N. 15 at Arizona
N. 22 UCLA
D. 6 Oregon State

Schedule Analysis: USC has a tremendous challenge right off the bat, playing an experienced Auburn team on the road with a new quarterback. Back-to-back road trips to Notre Dame and Washington in October will also test a team that will welcome a new running back, middle linebacker and safety into the mix. The finale against Oregon State is at home and may decide the Pac-10 championship.

Final Word: Would anyone have bet against USC if there were a playoff last season? The Trojans were hot at the end of the year, winning their final five games by an average of 27.2 points, and they will have to carry that momentum over if they want to win their opener at Auburn. Strong offensive and defensive lines should give the skill players time to grow into their roles, and whatever quarterback ends up getting the call will have a terrific target in wide receiver Mike Williams. Coach Pete Carroll has his team thinking national title, and if the Trojans win their opener, that thinking is certainly reseasonable.

To pre-order the 2003 Athlon Sports Pac Ten edition, click on the magazine icon below. The Pac Ten and National editions are set to hit newsstands June 6.

#6 USC

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