2007 Look Ahead: USC

When talk turns in Stanford circles to this year's USC game, the off-season verbal jousting between Jim Harbaugh vs. Pete Carroll takes center stage. What should instead be discussed is the team the Trojans will put on the field this fall - the consensus best in the nation. We take a closer look at the awesome strengths on both sides of the ball, plus where there may be chinks in the Trojan armor.

USC Trojans

First Down: Quick Hitters

Stanford @ USC – October 6

Last Meeting: USC 42, Stanford 0

Side-by-Side Stats: (USC/Stanford)
Returning Offensive Starters: 6/8
2006 Points Per Game: 30.5/10.6
2006 Rushing Yards Per Game: 128/65
2006 Yards Per Carry: 4.0/2.1
2006 Passing Yards Per Game: 264/167
2006 Pass Completion Rate: 61.1/52.8
Returning Defensive Starters: 10/8
2006 Points Allowed Per Game: 15.2/31.4
2006 Rushing Yards Allowed Per Game: 91/211
2006 Yards Per Carry Allowed: 3.0/4.9
2006 Passing Yards Allowed Per Game: 205/177
2006 Pass Completion Percentage Allowed: 54.6/60.3
2006 Record: 11-2/1-11
2007 Projected Record: (12-0, 9-0)/(3-9, 2-7)
2007 Projected Pac-10 Finish: 1st/T-9th

Second Down: Offense

Will the offense be top-notch (like last year) or NFL-caliber (like two years ago, in Leinart and Bush's final season)?  The safe bet is probably in the middle - though this offense lacks the experience of the 2005, this still is USC.  The talent is there.

Talk about being in the right place at the right time.  John David Booty is a darn good quarterback, granted (First-Team All Pac-10, top-ranked high school quarterback in his class).  Still, like any quarterback, Booty is largely a figurehead who will receive credit for the successes of the other 21 starters.  As such, he is the preseason Heisman favorite, hardly a bold prediction as USC should be #1 preseason and has won three of the last five Heismans (Palmer, Bush, Leinart).

But you knew all of that.  You are likely familiar too with the Chauncey Washington/C.J. Gable/Emmanuel Moody lineup at running back.  Usually if you have two tailbacks you have none - so the adage goes.  Here, though, the trio combined for 1,700 yards last season and might well be pushed by some of the awesome incoming recruits.

You may not fully realize how good the O-line is.  Senior Sam Baker should earn his third straight All-American honors, and he plays the most important position on the line, left tackle.  Right guard Chilo Rachal was Second-Team All-Conference last year, and is popping up on everyone's First Team lists this preseason.  Right tackle Drew Radovich, a senior, is the other returning starter.

That leaves the receivers, who are the Achilles heel of the offense until proven otherwise.  Sophomore Vidal Hazelton and junior Patrick Turner have all the measurables, but whether they can match the lofty bar Steve Smith and Dwayne Jarrett set remains to be seen.  Same idea with Booty and the passing game in general.  The offensive talent is there, but USC needs to play like the old USC to run the table against the most difficult schedule in the nation (Nebraska, Notre Dame, Oregon, California and Arizona State all on the road).

Third Down: Defense

There are no such questions with the defense, which should be the best in the country.

10 starters return.  All but two (corner Cary Harris and linebacker Brian Cushing, last seen two steps too slow on Vince Young's 4th-and-national-title bootleg) have earned All-Conference or All-American honors as Trojans.  Cushing, sophomore free safety Taylor Mays, junior linebacker Rey Maualuga, senior linebacker Keith Rivers and senior defensive linemen Lawrence Jackson and Sedrick Ellis were all top-10 recruits at their positions out of high school.  All have lived up to the hype - they are the stars of the stars on the USC defense.

I can think of two relative weaknesses.  One is the pass coverage of Harris, or whoever holds down the corner spot opposite solid senior Terrell Thomas.  Still, Harris is better than 95 percent of teams' second corners.  The other would be on the line, where Kyle Moore figures to be the defense's sole new starter at end.  Then again, with top-ranked recruit Everson Griffen and junior college transfer Gerald Washington, Pete Carroll has a plethora of options should Moore not live up to his hype.

The stats will not fully reflect it, because of their strength of schedule and the nice, point-conducive weather of L.A. and the Pac-10 generally, but this unit has the talent to go down as the greatest in modern college football.  (I would put Miami's 2001 defense, Ohio State's 2002 defense and USC's 2004 unit 1-2-3 in that order.)  All 11 starters clearly have the talent to start on Sundays.  Even at a top-10 powerhouse like my hometown Michigan, that number is closer to five or six.  USC is simply lapping the field.

Fourth Down: Extra Points

USC is the clear preseason number one.  As I write this, tradesports.com shows them at 22 percent to win it all.  I think that is too low and should be in the 30 to 35 percent range.

As I alluded to earlier, though, my major concern is the schedule.  They face five of their toughest six on the road (UCLA being the home finale).  I'm sure the Trojans would gladly trade to get those games at home in lieu of their current home slate (Idaho, Washington State, Stanford, Arizona, Oregon State and UCLA).

Of course, with a rotating Pac-10 schedule, the Trojans will get to do pretty much that next year.  And with just 10 starting seniors (only two in the back seven), USC is looking golden for 2008.  That is another benefit (along with the enhanced recruiting ability) of Carroll's philosophy of playing the best players, regardless of age.

Under Carroll, the Trojans are 34-2 at home, but just 31-10 away from the Colisieum.  The Trojans are 30-0 at home over the last five years.  Stanford was the last team to win at USC, in 2001.

Schedule is my one concern; the other is intensity.  The majority of these guys have already proven themselves and are looking at millions of dollars in a matter of years, if not months.  Where is the incentive to give 100 percent every practice?  USC seemed to toy with teams last year too - in consecutive weeks beating Washington State, Washington and Arizona State by less than they should have, until it finally caught up to them in their next game against Oregon State.  They should have enough intensity against Stanford, though, after Jim Harbaugh's speculation on Pete Carroll's coaching tenure.

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