2006 Look Ahead: USC

Any discussion of Stanford's season, the Pac-10 or college football cannot avoid the subject of USC. The Trojans lost obscene talent to the NFL Draft in April, but more is waiting in the wings. Are there areas where USC might stumble this fall? Who are the next superstars to replace Leinart, Bush, White, Rucker, Bing and the rest? Here is our in-depth look at the current kings of college football.

Southern California Trojans

First Down: Quick Hitters

USC @ Stanford – November 4

Last Meeting: USC 51, Stanford 21 ('05)

Side-by-Side Stats: (USC/Stanford)
Returning Offensive Starters: 4/10
2005 Yards Per Point: 11.8/12.9
2005 Rushing Yards Per Game: 260/92
2005 Yards Per Carry: 6.4/2.6
2005 Passing Yards Per Game: 320/224
2005 Pass Completion Rate: 64.9/61.4
Returning Defensive Starters: 6/6
2005 Yards Per Point Allowed: 15.8/14.4
2005 Rushing Yards Per Game Allowed: 131/156
2005 Yards Per Carry Allowed: 3.8/4.0
2005 Passing Yards Per Game Allowed: 230/286
2005 Pass Completion Percentage Allowed: 59.7/60.8
2005 Record: 12-1/5-6

Second Down: Offense

Their leading returning passer threw for just 327 yards, and their leading returning rusher ran for just 137 yards last season.  Gone are two backs that combined to rush for nearly 3,100 yards and catch for another 700, and a quarterback who threw for 3,815 yards.  That is not all: two Top 10 draft picks, 11 NFL draftees in total (the most from one school since the draft shortened to seven rounds in 1983) and 80 touchdowns left L.A. this spring as well.

Still, and this might be the understatement of the year, do not worry about USC.  They will be scary good as far as the eye can see.  At quarterback, John David Booty is the successor in line, and the #1 recruit of three years ago looks primed to continue what Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart started.  Talk about big shoes to fill: if you fail to win a Heisman, do you leave L.A. a disappointment?

The status of the stable of Trojan running backs (and backup quarterback Mark Sanchez) is something to keep an eye on.  Pete Carroll says running back is his biggest concern on the roster, and if Chauncey Washington cannot play (academic issues have dogged the junior his entire stay in L.A.), there is not a load of proven talent behind senior Brandon Hancock, who may be a better fit at fullback anyway.  It is unlikely it will work out this way, but how unreal would it be if on a team as loaded as USC, the starting tailback spot fell to a walk-on, junior Josh Griffin.  Injuries, academics and personal issues would have to take down a few folks ahead of Griffin, but crazier things have happened.  At any rate, this unit will be several steps down from the Lendale White - Reggie Bush backfield that was, arguably, the best in college football history.

At receiver, Steve Smith and Dwayne Jarrett form the best one-two punch in the country, and Chris McFoy and Patrick Turner add nice depth.  Replacing tight end Dominique Byrd, a third-round draft pick, presents a challenge.

While receiver is the only "sure thing" on offense, perhaps the biggest question mark comes on the line.  Gone are left guard Taitusi Lutui, right tackle Winston Justice and right guard Fred Matua, all starters who now find themselves in the NFL.  Senior center Ryan Kalil and junior left tackle Sam Baker are returning All-Americans, but those other three spots – right tackle, right guard and left guard – appear to be chinks in the armor, at least until they get more experience.

Third Down: Defense

Now it gets interesting.

The linebackers are the strength of the defense, returning nearly everyone.  Oscar Lua, Keith Rivers and Brian Cushing, despite their undressing courtesy Vince Young, are all top-notch, so expect another year of all-conference performance out of the unit.

On the line and especially in the secondary, though, it becomes dicier.

At line, Frostee Rucker (the most underrated man on last year's team, in my opinion) departs at end alongside tackle LaJuan Ramsey, both to the NFL.  Given those losses and that the unit allowed nearly four yards per carry last year, stalwarts Sedrick Ellis and Lawrence Jackson can try as they might, but the rushing defense will not be elite.

And USC might have to be careful packing the box with the departure of an entire starting secondary – Darnell Bing, Scott Ware, John Walker and Justin Wyatt.  Still, the tendency with a team as dominant as USC is to focus on all the talent leaving without fully appreciating what remains, and I do not want to fall into that trap.  The secondary is a microcosm for the entire team, then:  an unreal collection of talent, size and speed lacking in experience.  So suffice it to say the unit will be good, but whether it can be among the best in the country simply remains to be seen.  Then again, even if this year is a bit down (like, say, 10-2 and just a split of the Pac-10 title), sophomores Cary Harris and Kevin Thomas, both starters out of spring ball, should grow into lockdown corner roles for years to come.  As long as that recruiting pipeline remains golden, USC will fight on for quite some time.

Fourth Down: Extra Points

- Special teams take a big knock with the departure of punter Tom Malone and wunderkind returner Reggie Bush.  Still, Mario Danelo and his 11-of-12 field goal accuracy last season is not a bad place to start reloading.

- Think USC might be looking past Stanford a little bit?  After the visit to Palo Alto, comes Oregon, Cal, Notre Dame and at UCLA for the Trojans.

- Speaking of which, I commend USC for scheduling what the number crunchers are calling the toughest schedule in the country, but it is set to play out mighty well for the Trojans.  USC will face each of its six most highly-touted opponents this season in L.A.:  Nebraska, Arizona State, Oregon, Cal and Notre Dame visit, and the Trojans have just a few-mile trip to Westwood for their season finale.  Given that sites usually switch annually, that makes USC's run last year all the more impressive, with victories at Oregon, Notre Dame and Cal.  For surviving that, the Trojans are rewarded in 2006 with a schedule tailor-made for a third-straight undefeated regular season.

- That the toughest opponents come to L.A. Coliseum is all the more important for a team that has not lost at home since the 6-5 season of 2001, Pete Carroll's first.  Stanford pulled off the 21-16 victory in just the fourth game of the season for the Trojans.  Since then, USC has reeled off 27 straight home victories.

- Not only do the locations work out well for USC, but so too does the timing.  The four strongest teams on the schedule (Notre Dame, Cal, Oregon, UCLA) are the Trojans' last four games of the season.  That gives Pete Carroll, who seems to perform better the more time he has to prepare, months to gameplan and break in all the new talent.  Watch out.

2006 Regular Season Prediction:

12-0, 9-0 Pac-10 Champs... only to get crushed by Oklahoma in the national title game.  You read it here first.

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