That question? "What are our chances against USC?"
It's clear that the Buckeyes' loss last season in the Los Angeles Coliseum has left quite the impact in the psyche of Ohio State fans, right up there with the loss to Florida in the 2006 national title game simply because of the apparent depth in talent and poise between the two teams on the field.
But enough about that; the Buckeyes get a rematch against the Trojans on their own turf, under the lights in Ohio Stadium on Sept. 12. Even that, though, leaves OSU fans wary because the Buckeyes have lost their last two such games, against Texas in 2005 and Penn State in '08. At least, if those two games are any guide, the atmosphere should be electric.
Will those fans have anything to cheer about come that late-September night? Well, it's time to take a look at what has changed with USC since last year's contest in the Los Angeles Coliseum.
Who's Gone: The following 11 Trojans were drafted after last season.
QB Mark Sanchez: 241-366 (65.8 percent), 34 TD, 10 INT, 3,207 yards
LB Brian Cushing: 46-27-73 tackles, 10.5 TFL, 3 sacks, INT, FF
DE Clay Matthews: 28-28-56, 9 TFL, 4.5 sacks, 2 FR, 2 FF
LB Rey Maualuga: 51-28-79, 2.5 TFL, 2 INT
DT Fili Moala: 16-14-30, 10 TFL, 4.5 sacks, FR
WR Patrick Turner: 49-741, 10 TD
LB Kaluka Maiava: 41-25-66, 7.5 TFL, INT
DE Kyle Moore: 16-14-30, 9.5 TFL, 5 sacks, FR
K David Buehler, 9-13 FG, long 43
CB Cary Harris, 26-12-38, 4 TFL, 3 INT, 2 FF
S Kevin Ellison, 20-27-47, 3.5 TFL, INT
Who Steps Up: Well, clearly USC is going to have to make up a lot of work on the defensive end after losing eight key contributors from a team that gave up just 9.0 points and 221.8 yards per game, good enough to finish first and second, respectively, in the NCAA.
The team in 2009 will be without its top four tacklers (and eight of the top 11), the top five players in tackles for loss, three of the top four in sacks and the co-interception leader.
So yeah, that's a lot. But the key becomes just who the Trojans have filling the holes that are left. First, it must be reported who the team has coming back, a list headed by a shoo-in All-American in safety Taylor Mays, a 6-3, 230-pound freak of nature who controls everything from his free safety spot. There's also Josh Pinkard, who started at cornerback last year and made 39 tackles, two fumble recoveries and an interception.
Along the defensive line, there's end Everson Griffen, a possible breakout star that made 4.5 sacks a year ago to tie for second on the team. Scout's top overall player in the class of 2007, Griffen seems to be due for a breakout year simply because of his talent and his class standing of junior.
After that, there are a lot of holes that have to be filled, but there should be plenty of talent. Our sister USC site, SCPlaybook.com, reported at the end of practice that the team seemed stocked at both defensive end and in the secondary despite the heavy losses from last season.
At defensive end, players stepping up include Armond Armstead, Averill Spicer and Nicholas Perry. Armstead, was a four-star prospect coming out of high school who has moved to defensive end after playing some as a true freshman in 2008 at tackle. Spicer, a projected starting tackle, had two sacks in the Trojans' spring game and was a five-star player coming out of high school. Then there's Perry, who exploded for four sacks in the spring game. The reserve end redshirted last season but was a top-five defensive end coming out of high school.
In the secondary, the presence of Mays and Pinkard gives the Trojans immediate credibility, and that goes up with the return of Shareece Wright, who started last year at cornerback before an injury suffered against Ohio State ended his season. He had eight tackles in just two games last year and was a four-star prospect coming out of high school. Two other players with talent and experience are one-time top-five high school safety Will Harris, who made 38 tackles and two picks last year, and four-star cornerback Kevin Thomas, who had 15 stops and three picks.
That leaves linebacker as a place in which USC will have to reload after losing all three starters in the trumpeted trio of Maualuga, Cushing and Maiava. Coming out of spring, the top three linebackers, according to SCPlaybook, are Mike Morgan, Chris Galippo and Malcolm Smith.
Morgan made 24 tackles and five stops for loss last year while trying to work into the lineup. Galippo, the projected middle linebacker, was the nation's No. 1 MLB and a five-star prospect in the class of 2007 who made 12 tackles and a pick last year. Smith had 18 tackles last year and was a four-star high school prospect and the No. 4 weakside linebacker.
On offense, the big replacement job will come at quarterback, where Sanchez commanded one of the top offenses in the country. The Trojans were balanced, placing 22nd in the country in both rushing and passing on the way to a rank of 11th in yardage and 14th in scoring.
Sanchez, of course, was a major reason behind those numbers, throwing for 3,207 of USC's 5,911 yards. Losing the star could have a major impact on USC's attack, as his ability to perform under pressure and direct the attack was one of the major reasons the Trojans were so successful.
Of course, this being USC, there are plenty of talented players ready to take over, and the one who looks to be in the driver's seat is Aaron Corp, who earned rave reviews from Pete Carroll when the head coach named him the team's starter near the end of spring ball.
Corp entered the spring competition behind Arkansas transfer Mitch Mustain and incoming freshman Matt Barkley as far as the hype was concerned but impressed the coaching staff throughout the spring by not throwing an interception through the first 12 practices.
Pretty much every weapon comes back except for Turner, who was second on the team in receptions. Speedy running backs Joe McKnight and C.J. Gable and bruisers Allen Bradford and Stafon Johnson – as well as sophomore Marc Tyler – all return from a team that ran for 194.8 yards per game. No player stood out individually – the top rusher, Johnson, had 705 yards – but both Johnson and McKnight topped 50 yards per game and Gable was right behind.
At wideout, Damian Williams asserted himself as a top target last season, catching 58 passes, while Ronald Johnson showed why he was so coveted by becoming a big-play threat as the year went on. McKnight is a talented pass-catcher out of the backfield, as is fullback Stanley Havili, who caught a touchdown last year vs. OSU. Tight ends Anthony McCoy and Blake Ayles also return.
Up front, the offensive line is solid thanks to the return of Jeff Byers, an All-American who earned a sixth year of eligibility. Six experienced players from last year's line return, and that's before figuring in possible starting right tackle Tyron Smith, a five-star prospect and the nation's No. 1 tackle in the class of 2008.
In part two, we'll take a look at what the changes could mean once the two teams get on the field come September.