Coach Pete Carroll's Southern Cal team enters the 5 p.m. Saturday contest with an eight-game winning streak and a preseason ranking of eighth, which is the highest for the Trojans since 1996.
If this is unfamiliar territory for the Trojans, it is also foreign to the current group of Tigers. Ranked in the Top 10 in the preseason for the first time since 1995 and for the 14th-time in history, Auburn as a program is used to expectations, but this Tiger team is dealing with very high ones for the first time. The game will be just the second time Auburn has faced a ranked opponent to start the season in Jordan-Hare Stadium. The only other time came in 1998 when No. 16 Virginia beat the Tigers 19-0.
Offensive coordinator Norm Chow will try to plug sophomore Matt Leinart into the role of departed superstar Carson Palmer, but that will be easier said than done. Winning the Heisman Trophy last season, Palmer threw for a Pac-10 record 11,818 yards in his career. Last season he completed 63.2 percent of his passes for 3,942 yards and 33 touchdowns with just 10 interceptions. Those are the numbers of a player you just don't replace right away.
Leinart was one of the top high school quarterbacks in the country coming out of Mater Dei High in Santa Ana, Calif., when he signed with the Trojans in 2001. Following a redshirt that year, he was USC's third-string quarterback in 2003 and played in three games without attempting a pass. This preseason he has been outstanding in scrimmages, completing 75 percent of his passes with six touchdowns and just one interception. The 6-5, 220 left-hander will present the Tigers with a big challenge and if he can handle the pressure of starting on the road, the Trojan offense should be a tough one to deal with on Saturday.
One of the main reasons for that is perhaps the top receiving corps in the country led by sophomore sensation Mike Williams. A big target at 6-5, 228-pounds, Williams set record after record last season in leading the Trojans in yards, catches and touchdowns. He's back this season, bigger and better, and hopes to avoid the sophomore jinx that has plagued so many quality players in the past.
Helping to deflect some of the defensive attention away from Williams is senior Keary Colbert, perhaps the most underrated receiver in the country in 2003. A four-year starter, he has 138 career receptions for 1,951 yards and can take it the distance in an instant. Also in the mix at receiver will be converted defensive back Justin Wyatt and freshman Steve Smith.
Karlos Dansby tries to defend a pass from Carson Palmer to Mike Williams in last year's 24-17 loss to USC in the opener. Defending Williams will be one of the big keys for the Tigers this season.
In the backfield speed is the theme as sophomore Hershel Dennis is the projected starter for the Trojans, but true freshman Reggie Bush should also see great deal of playing time. Last season, backing up a trio of senior standouts, Dennis rushed for 198 yards and 49 carries with one touchdown. It will take all of Dennis' considerable talents to hold Bush out of the lineup for very long.
An All-American, named to just about every conceivable team in the country last season, Bush ran for 1,691 yards and 27 touchdowns as a senior despite missing four games with a broken wrist. In his high school career he rushed for 4,995 yards and scored 450 points. He averaged an amazing 12 yards per carry during his career using his game-breaking speed to make big play after big play. The 6-0, 190-pounder has a personal best time of 10.42 in the 100 and 21.06 in the 200 meters.
At fullback, both Brandon Hancock and Lee Webb have been banged up this fall. Hancock, the projected starter, is out of Saturday's game, but Webb should play. He will be backed up by sophomore David Kirtman. Wide receiver signee Whitney Lewis, who could also play tailback, will get some looks at fullback. With Lewis in the game, expect the fullback position to be used like a third or fourth receiver, similar to how Malaefou McKenzie was used against the Tigers last season.
Up front the Trojans return four starters with four-year starter Zach Wilson the only player they must replace from the 2002 season. The tackle position is the anchor of the offense with senior Jacob Rogers (6-6, 305) and sophomore Winston Justice (6-6, 300) back to add to their already impressive resumes. Rogers, who has been banged up this fall, was an All-Pac-10 performer last fall while Justice was a freshman All-American. In the middle reliable Norm Katnik (6-4, 280, Sr.) is back for his second season as a starter. At guard Lenny Vandermade is back for his third season as a starter with backup Eric Torres capable of filling in for him. The open guard position looks to be Fred Matua's all the way with big John Drake (6-4, 350, Jr.) backing up. Matua (6-2, 300) looked to have won the job last season as a true freshman, but an injury put an end to his season. He's back and helps form what many predict to be one of the best offensive lines in the country in 2003.
At tight end Dominique Byrd (6-3, 255, So.) and Gregg Guenther (6-8, 245, Jr.) will handle the duties with returning starter Alex Holmes out with a back injury. His 29 catches last season were the most by a USC tight end since 1993. Byrd and Guenther combined for just eight catches and 49 yards last season.
Defensively, the Trojans start with one of the best front fours in college football. USC's game notes say, "Simply put, USC's defensive line is the best in the nation." That may be true, but the challenge will be on the group to slow down Auburn's potent running game and force the Tigers to throw the football. That is something they were able to do most of the time last season, holding opponents under 100 yards nine out of 13 games.
The leader of the group is defensive tackle Shaun Cody (6-4, 285, Jr.), who is back after tearing knee ligaments halfway through the 2002 season. Alongside him in the middle is sparkplug Mike Patterson (6-0, 285, Jr.), who finished the year with 37 tackles, 11 ½ tackles for losses and 5 ½ sacks. On the end Kenechi Udeze (6-4, 285, Jr.) and Omar Nazel (6-5, 245, Sr.) give the Trojans quality rushers as well as playmakers. The duo combined for 14 sacks and seven forced fumbles last season. Backups Travis Tofi (6-4, 255, RFr.) and LaJuan Ramsey (6-3, 270, So.) in the middle and Chris Barrett (6-5, 250, Fr.) and Frostee Rucker (6-4, 240, So.) on the outside gives USC plenty of quality depth.
Junior linebacker Matt Grootegoed (5-11, 215) returns after leading the team in tackles (81), tackles for loss (16 ½) and sacks (8) in 2002. On the other side senior Melvin Simmons (6-1, 220, Sr.) is back after starting last season. Simmons had 71 tackles and formed a strong duo with Grootegoed. In the middle the Trojans have to replace starter Mike Pollard, but that should be handled by sophomore Lofa Tatupu, the son of former USC and NFL star Mosi Tatupu. The younger Tatupu began his career at Maine, but transferred to USC and sat out last season.
In the secondary, while they do have to replace three starters, the story is the return of a strong group of cornerbacks in seniors Kevin Arbet and Marcell Allmond. Allmond started the final seven games of the 2002 season after returning from an injury and Arbet was the projected starter last season until a broken foot sidelined him for the season. With both in place and quality backups, the cornerback position is in good hands. The safety position is being rebuilt. Gone are two-time All-American Troy Polamalu and free safety Shaun Hill in the middle, leaving a pair of inexperienced, but talented players to take over.
Ronnie Brown is shown running vs. the Trojans last season in Los Angeles. He is expected to be a bigger factor in the rematch.
The most anticipated debut of the fall comes at strong safety where physical freak Darnell Bing takes over after sitting out last season when he didn't qualify academically. At 6-2, 220-pounds with 4.4 speed in the 40-yard dash and a linebacker's mentality, Bing has been impressive in fall camp and locked up the starting job in a matter of days. At free safety Jason Leach (5-11, 210, Jr.) started twice last season for an injured Polamalu and has 30 tackles with four interceptions.
The kicking game has a serious question mark, just like the Tigers, heading into the season opener. Punter Tom Malone (6-0, 190, So.) is back after earning second team freshman All-American honors last season, but the placekicking job isn't as secure or steady. Junior Ryan Killeen (5-11, 200) handled the job last fall and was a respectable 16-of-23 in field goals and made 47-of-49 extra points. He also had 27 touchbacks in 89 kickoffs in 2002. An erratic fall has put a question mark beside Killeen, but he has kicked strong of late.
All-in-all, this game looks to be about as even as an opening game can get between what are expeced to be two of the top teams in the country. Strong defensive fronts and potentially explosive offenses make this a game that could be won by either team with a hot hand. That means, like most football games, this will likely come down to who makes the most mistakes. The edge should go to the Tigers with veteran quarterback Jason Campbell leading the show. If Leinart struggles early, it could spell doom for the Trojans in front of what is expected to be a hostile and loud crowd on the Plains. No matter the outcome, CBS should get a game worthy of prime time on the opening weekend of the 2003 season.