But the most impressive thing is that the Trojans remain in the title picture year after year.
While the streak would not be able to continue without six straight top ten recruiting classes, alone they would not be enough. The Trojans lost seven players that were selected in the first two rounds of April's NFL Draft and they're still in everybody's top five preseason poll. The biggest factor in the Trojans' recent run is the culture of competition that head coach Pete Carroll has created at Heritage Hall.
Charlie Weis is in the midst of doing the same thing at Notre Dame, but until he reaches the ultimate successes on the field Carroll will be the king of competition. Both coaches go after the nation's top talent one year and then the following year go get new All-Americans to challenge last year's. This recruiting strategy is difficult to pull off, but when it is the results are special.
It seems like ages ago that Mark Sanchez was the consensus number one high school quarterback in the country. When he committed to USC, it seemed like Matt Leinart was going to leave for the NFL and Sanchez would have a chance to compete for the job right away. But Leinart came back for his final year at USC in 2005 and Sanchez redshirted. In 2006, with Leinart gone, Sanchez lost the competition for the starting job to junior John David Booty, meaning Sanchez would be waiting until 2008 for the position to become his.
Now it's 2008 and although he has the job, Carroll has admitted that Sanchez (6-3, 225) will need to stay on top of his game to remain ahead of redshirt sophomore Mitch Mustain and redshirt freshman Aaron Corp.
Mustain (6-3, 205) was the nation's number one quarterback the year after Sanchez. He was 8-0 as a true freshman starter at Arkansas before things unraveled and he ended up transferring to USC. Like it was for Sanchez in 2006, it's got to be difficult for Mustain to be behind a guy so close to him in terms of eligibility. If Sanchez hangs onto the job for this year and 2009, that leaves Mustain with just one year of eligibility and even then he would have to beat out Corp.
Corp (6-3, 185) was ranked by Scout as the country's third-best quarterback in the Class of 2007 behind Jimmy Clausen and Ryan Mallett, who has transferred from Michigan to Mustain's old school Arkansas. Corp also has a big-time arm and is probably the most mobile of the three.
Instead of letting the competition play out through the spring and into fall camp, Carroll named Sanchez the starter a week before the spring game to give Sanchez a chance to grab a leadership role on the team.
The one thing that Sanchez does have is experience. He has played more than either Leinart or Booty had when they took over the job, having started three games when Booty was injured last year. He started in wins over Arizona and Notre Dame, but was the starter when USC lost at Oregon 24-17 in the game that knocked the Trojans out of the National Championship picture.
He was 21 of 38 for 235 yards and four touchdowns in the 38-0 win at South Bend. Sanchez finished the season 69 of 114 (60.5%) for 695 yards, seven touchdowns and five interceptions. Sanchez is fundamentally sound with a strong arm and will be able to produce more with his legs than his predecessors.
USC is well-stocked at the position and with the nation's top quarterback in the Class of 2008, Matt Barkley, already signed up for next year, it will be that way for awhile.
The roster of running backs may not sport as many high profile names, but the depth situation is very similar to that at quarterback. Sophomore Joe McKnight (6-0, 180) is probably the most exciting runner, but junior Stafon Johnson (6-0, 210) is the Trojans' leading returning rusher with 673 yards on 98 carries last year. Meanwhile sophomore C.J. Gable (6-1, 195) was the starter heading into last year before sitting out the season with an abdominal injury. Junior Allen Bradford (6-0, 225) gives Carroll an option as a big body and then there's redshirt freshman Marc Tyler (6-0, 215), who was one of the highest rated running backs and linebackers while playing with Clausen at Oaks Christian High School in 2007.
Carroll has not shied away from comparing McKnight to Reggie Bush and has made it clear that he will use him in the same way. As a freshman, McKnight rushed for 540 yards and three touchdowns on 94 carries while making 23 catches for 203 yards and a score. He had his best game of the season in the Rose Bowl victory over Illinois, rushing for 125 yards and a touchdown on just 10 carries and making another six catches for 45 yards. McKnight gained another 160 yards on 19 punt returns last year.
Look for Staford and Gable to get plenty of carries as Carroll can find other ways to get McKnight the ball.
More important than who is actually carrying the ball may be who is directly in front of him. Redshirt sophomore Stanley Havili (6-1, 225) has proven his worth in just two full seasons in Los Angeles. Havili earned a start as a true freshman in just the third game of the 2006 season, but was injured in the very same game, leaving the Trojans with no suitable options at fullback. Tavili was given a medical redshirt in 2006 and returned as force last year and should be one of the top blocking backs in the country before he leaves USC. He has proven to be a reliable option in the passing game, catching 34 balls for 248 yards and five scores in 2007. But there is little behind Havili outside of junior walk-on Adam Goodman (6-2, 235) and sophomore Alfred Rowe (6-0, 205), who is primarily a special teams player.
At wide receiver, the Trojans return a pair of former #1 rated wide receivers in senior Patrick Turner (6-5, 220), who was ranked as the top wideout in the Class of 2005, and junior Vidal Hazelton (6-3, 210), who was the number one receiver in the Class of 2006. Throw in junior David Ausberry (6-4, 225), who was rated as the sixth-best receiver in the Class of 2006 by Scout, sophomore Ronald Johnson (6-1, 190) who was Scout's second-ranked cornerback in the Class of 2007 and you see a trend among the skill positions at USC. That does not include the additions of sophomore Damian Williams (6-1, 190) who transferred after playing with Mustain in high school and at Arkansas and incoming freshman Brice Butler (6-3, 189), who had offers from everyone including Notre Dame.
In 2007, Turner had 48 receptions for 569 yards and three touchdowns, while Hazleton had 50 catches for 540 yards and four scores. Ausberry hauled in 26 passes for 240 yards and a pair of touchdowns and Johnson made seven grabs for 110 yards and a touchdown as a true freshman. USC has a good mix of size (Turner and Ausberry) and speed (Johnson, Williams and Butler) while Hazleton can provide both.
Tight end is the one skill position where the Trojans will have a hard time replacing last year's production. Gone is Fred Davis who led USC in catches (62), receiving yards (881) and touchdown receptions (8). Junior Anthony McCoy (6-5, 255), who had two catches last year, and senior Jimmy Miller (6-5, 250), who sat out last year with a back injury, are battling to win the job. Whoever plays, don't expect Sanchez to be able to rely on his tight end the way Booty and Leinart were able to.
If there is a position of concern for the USC offensive, it would have to be offensive line, where the Trojans lose all but one full-time starter. But even there, USC returns senior left guard Jeff Byers (6-4, 285), who has plenty of experience after overcoming injuries in 2005 and 2006. The four newcomers were All-Everything in high school and got plenty of experience as every member of line except for Byers missed time last year.
The Trojans will plug in sophomore Kristofer O'Dowd (6-5, 300) at center where he started three games last year and was a 2007 Freshman All-American. Sophomore Zack Heberer (6-5, 300) will battle for playing time at right guard where he started twice last year and former prep All-American Alex Parsons (6-4, 285) will probably start at right tackle.
While USC has the weapons in place to have another prolific offensive season, with all of the new starters they need to establish some cohesion and chemistry, especially along the line and behind center. This team is so deep that it should be able to shrug off most injuries, so it would probably take some other difficulties to derail the Trojans.
While USC's offense last year was solid, averaging 434.4 yards (29th nationally) and 32.6 points (34th), its defense was spectacular. The Trojans were second in the nation in scoring defense and total defense, allowing just 16.0 points and 273.2 yards per game. And the defense won't have to replace as many players as the offense does. USC brings back seven full-time starters from last year's group and seven more players with starting experience.
The Trojans have All-Americans or future All-Americans at each level led by senior linebackers Rey Maualuga (6-3, 250) and Brian Cushing (6-4, 240). Maualuga led the team with 79 tackles, including 10.5 for a loss, from his middle linebacker position and was a First Team All-Pac-10 choice. Cushing had 25 tackles last year as he returned to his natural position of strong side backer after spending the 2006 season at defensive end. Both are preseason All-Americans and Butkus Award candidates and with either senior Kaluka Maiava (6-0, 225) or junior Luther Brown (6-3, 230) holding down the weak side position, form the most formidable linebacker corps in the country.
Senior Clay Matthews (6-4, 240) started in two games last year for an injured Cushing and can play any of the linebacker spots. Sophomores Michael Morgan (6-3, 220) and Malcolm Smith (6-2, 215) will also be fighting for playing time at linebacker. Watch out for redshirt freshman Chris Galippo (6-2, 235), who missed most of the season with a back injury last year.
The secondary is another obvious strength on defense with three of the four starters coming back led by junior free safety Taylor Mays (6-4, 225). Mays was one of the most sought after recruits in the Class of 2006 and in just two years at Southern Cal he has shown why. Mays started the final 12 games of the 2006 season, recording 62 tackles and three interceptions and was named Pac-10 Defensive Freshman of the Year. In 2007, Mays had another 65 tackles and was named a First Team All-American by The Sporting News. Mays will be joined by senior strong safety Kevin Ellison (6-5, 235). Ellison had 57 tackles, including eight for a loss, and was a First Team All-Pac-10 selection in 2007.
USC also returns cornerback Cary Harris (6-0, 180), who had 48 tackles last year and has proven to be dependable. Junior Shareece Wright (6-0, 180) started against Washington last year and is now in a competition for the other corner spot with senior Josh Pinkard (6-1, 215), who started in 2005 and 2006 before knee injuries sidelined him.
The Trojans do have to replace two of the best defensive linemen in school history after losing nose tackle Sedrick Ellis and defensive end Lawerence Jackson. Ellis was a two-time All-American and was named the 2007 Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year before being drafted seventh overall by the Saints. Jackson led the team with 10.5 sacks and was selected by the Seahawks with the 28th pick in the first round.
The Trojans will build around two returning senior starters in defensive tackle Fili Moala (6-5, 295) and end Kyle Moore (6-6, 275) while inserting 2007 Freshman All-American Everson Griffen (6-3, 265). Moala and Moore combined for 65 tackles last year while Griffen had 21 stops including 5.5 sacks at end. Junior Averell Spicer (6-2, 290) and sophomore Christian Tupou (6-2, 275) will compete for the vacant tackle spot.
If the Trojan offense does its job, it will get plenty of attention from the national media, but it's the defense that is truly the strength of this team and if USC makes it to the Rose Bowl or National Championship Game, the defense will be the reason why.
Weis is already rivaling Carroll when it comes to recruiting, the next step is to compete on the field. USC has won the last six matchups in this rivalry and while they won't be duplicating last year's 38-0 victory anytime soon, as long as they keep winning the Trojans will have the edge.