Right now is the scariest time of the year to evaluate any football team. The USC Trojans have eight months of preparation and spring and fall practice behind them. How well will they do in the season before them?
How far are the Trojans going is a very tough question to ask about a team that hasn't played a single minute this season. It's a sobering thought that in a season where a team plays 13 games it is all condensed into only 13 hours on the playing field. You have put in thousands of hours of recruiting, planning, practice and preparation and it is all played out in 13 hours in which anything can happen and does.
Broadcaster Jim Healy used to love to tell the story of having lunch with USC's new coach, John Robinson the week before the 1976 season. Robinson told Healy, "We are not going to lose a game." 8th ranked USC then came out under the lights in their home opener against unranked Missouri and was slaughtered 46-25.
No one really knows. We are all guessing. So here is my guess.
How far are the 2009 Trojans going?
Preparation and practice: Chris Spielman, the great Ohio State linebacker, has said it many times, "I've never been around or told about practices like the ones that take place at USC. USC runs twice as many plays, at twice the intensity as anywhere else. The rookies at USC are not rookies by the time they finish fall practice. They are seasoned vets come September."
This is why USC has never had to rebuild, they reload.
The 2009 USC football team is loaded. And they are prepared for another run at a national championship. If you want to compete with the Trojans for a Pac-10 title or anything else you are going to need a national championship caliber team.
Schedule: USC's level of play since 2002 has raised the bar in the Pac-10. Oregon, Cal, ASU, Arizona, Stanford and UCLA all should be better this year. And Oregon State always puts a fine team on the field. USC plays Ohio State, Washington, Cal, Notre Dame, Oregon and ASU on the road in their first nine games.
Not only is it a murderous road schedule, but the teams in the Pac-10 and Ohio State and Notre Dame should be much stronger in 2009.
It's a rough schedule considering that except for Matt Barkley's play in high school last year, it's been a long time since any of the four Trojan quarterbacks have started a football game. It's not a comforting thought.
There isn't any other contender for the national championship that plays a road schedule anything like USC will. Florida, Texas and Oklahoma love home cooking, and they all have veteran proven quarterbacks.
The Quarterbacks: USC has three really good quarterbacks. I think! I attended most of spring and fall practice and all of the scrimmages.
To be honest I was sure Aaron Corp would be the starting QB. He just fits Pete Carroll's conservative style as a coach. Corp seemed to have a better command. Aaron makes his reads quicker, he know how to get the ball out, throw underneath, and wait for things to open up downfield. And if no one is open Corp can run like the wind. He doesn't have to force anything down field.
But after Corp's injury Carroll announced Matt Barkley was going to be the starting QB for San Jose State and beyond. Matt is a perfect fit for the pro-style offense that USC runs. He's the wunderkind and whenever it was going to be time for him to start at QB, he would have had little playing experience. So why not start Barkley now?
Pete Carroll's decisions do not need defending. You don't need to defend a lion from the pussycats in the neighborhood. Every time I've disagreed with Carroll, I have been wrong, but Aaron Corp sure looked good at the scrimmage Saturday.
I think Sanchez leaving early and Corp's injury put Carroll in a position where Barkley seemed the right choice to make.
The Offense: Losing WR/KR Ronald Johnson was a huge blow that the Trojans will struggle to recover from. Anytime you lose a starter it hurts, but Johnson returned kicks as well as being a great deep threat for the offense.
USC will have a strong offensive line and has plenty of depth even with the injuries to Kristofer O'Dowd and Nick Howell, who will be back. USC is going to be able to run the ball better than any year under Carroll other than 2005.
The Trojans can pass well underneath and downfield. WR Damian Williams can do magical things after he catches the ball, and USC's QB doesn't have to hit home runs. Backs like Joe McKnight and Stanley Havili can do that for him. TE Anthony McCoy should have a big year.
I love the offense. The ingredients are fantastic, but a new offensive coordinator, new quarterbacks coach, and a true freshman quarterback make me wonder if USC has the cooks that can pull all this together.
The Defense: This will be the fastest defense under Pete Carroll. They can run. The defensive line is powerful and deep in the middle. Players like Jurrell Casey and Loni Fangupo will disrupt every offense USC plays this year.
DE Malik Jackson is a budding superstar that will immerge during Armond Armstead's absence. He is faster than Everson Griffen and incredibly athletic and strong. But Armstead's absence will weaken containment some, and USC's strength against the rush.
USC's linebackers may not kill their opponents like Rey Mauluaga and Brian Cushing did. But Chris Galippo is a great technician at MLB and SLB Michael Morgan and WLB Malcom Smith have jets at OLB. Watch WLB Jordan Campbell this year. He's USC's 4th starter at LB. This group will create turnovers.
The secondary is one of USC's best ever. If Shareece Wright is ruled ineligible USC can still move Josh Pinkard to cornerback. USC's secondary is loaded with playmakers and they have 19 years of experience with their starters.
USC may give up more points than last year. It's a tough schedule and their opponents are better, but this is going to be one of Carroll's best defenses.
Special Teams: USC took a hit with the loss of Ronald Johnson, but they have a strong-legged punter and kickoff specialist. The Trojans are going to use their starting linebackers and secondary on their coverage teams. Both Jordan Congdon and Joe Houston are very accurate field goal kickers. The Trojans' have capable return men in C.J. Gable, Damian Williams and Stafon Johnson.
Special teams should be a strong plus for the Trojans in 2009. Look for more hidden yards produced by the special teams and with returns after turnovers.
What can hurt the Trojans?
Penalties and turnovers could hurt the Trojans again this year. If you watched USC last year they consistently stopped themselves in tough games against Oregon St, Cal and Arizona with turnovers and penalties.
USC was 117th in the nation last year in fewest penalties in 2008. The Trojans were terrible. And they have continued to struggle in practice this year. 10 is my over and under for off side penalties against Everson Griffen this year. And with true freshman starting at QB there is going to be mistakes made.
Matt Barkley threw 18 interceptions as a senior in high school and he's thrown 11 so far in camp. The past is a pretty good predictor of the future. With 6 out of USC's first 9 games on the road, they can't afford to turn the ball over, or lead the Pac-10 in penalties again.
Injuries have plagued the Trojans again this year. I do not know of any top contenders that have lost as many starters as USC. I hope Armstead and Johnson are back for the Oregon game October 31st.
USC has great talent and depth, but any team loses something when players like O'Dowd, Armstead and Johnson go down.
My Take:This is my 58th season of following the Trojans. If Mark Sanchez had returned I would have felt more confident heading into a season with so many tough road games at the beginning of the year.
And if ifs and buts were candy and nuts, every day would be Christmas.
USC's starting QB left after playing one year. Bradford of OU, McCoy of Texas, and Tebow of Florida have all been playing since they were freshmen. It is a huge disadvantage for USC in experience.
USC's defense will be much better than anyone knows. The Trojan offense is loaded with playmakers. But starting the year with a true freshmen QB and 6 of 9 roads games is a tremendous uphill struggle.
I believe with a healthy Aaron Corp at the reins, USC would have a fighting chance at a national championship. They still do. But with a true freshman QB Matt Barkley as a starter that belief has turned to hope.
That's okay. I felt the same way in 2003, and USC was able to win an AP national championship. I know they did. I still have the football Matt Leinart threw me at the awards ceremony.
Taylor Mays and the USC Trojans are look for their eighth straight BCS bowl in 2009.
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