The personnel and
coaching staff may change, but the beat goes on at Troy because of
two constants, Pete Carroll and recruiting classes packed with more
blue chips than a casino. Trojan fans held their collective breath
for another off-season as Carroll fielded interest from half the NFL
teams with openings, but opted to stay where he’s rebuilt the
program into a perennial top 10 factory.
USC is loaded with talent and experience on both sides of the ball,
so it’s not hyperbole to suggest the second team could win the
Pac-10 this fall. The departures of receivers Dwayne Jarrett and
Steve Smith just means there’ll be a new wave of young stars on the
horizon, but it’s on defense that the Trojans will be freakishly
good. Good luck finding a weakness on a unit that’s a who’s who of
future draft choices and welcomes back ten starters, 11 counting
safety Josh Pinkard, who missed 2006 with an ACL tear.
For USC, the 2007 campaign kicked off with a 32-18 Rose Bowl
domination of Michigan that was eerily similar to the 2004 game,
which wound up being the launching point of a perfect season. There
are a couple of question marks on offense and a nasty road gauntlet
to navigate, however, the Trojans once again have the horses to go
wire-to-wire for a national title.
What to watch on offense … Without Bush and LenDale White,
the Trojan running game regressed in 2006, but that won’t become a
trend. Now that he has healthy fullbacks, new coordinator Steve
Sarkisian wants to use more two-back sets, creating space for a slew
of gifted runners, including sophomores C.J. Gable, Emmanuel Moody
and Stafon Johnson and mega-recruit Joe McKnight. John David Booty
was sensational in the Rose Bowl, but was inconsistent in his debut
as the starter, and must find a rhythm with a new set of go-to
receivers. You don’t get better by losing Jarrett and Smith, but
behind them is an embarrassment of size and speed, led by Patrick
Turner and Vidal Hazelton.
What to watch on defense …When All-Pac-10 juniors Lawrence
Jackson, Sedrick Ellis and Keith Rivers decided to return for their
senior years, the framework of a very special defense was in place.
Rey Maualuga is a budding beast in the middle and Rose Bowl MVP
Brian Cushing, an end that could replace Dallas Sartz at strongside
linebacker, had his coming-out-party in Pasadena. The once green
secondary is a year older and tighter, which will allow the unit to
blitz with more confidence and regularity.
The team will be far better if … it gets back to being one of
the nation’s most opportunistic defenses. Under Carroll, no one in
America has been better than USC at creating turnovers, but the unit
slumped last year, picking off just 11 passes and recovering only 11
fumbles. If the Trojans return to their ball-hawking ways, beating
them in 2007 gets immeasurably tougher.
The Schedule: There are just enough landmines to either ruin
a national title run, or secure USC as the unquestioned number one
team in America. Assuming there should be a little bit of a revenge
factor against Oregon State, barring a bizarre alignment of the
planets there won’t be any problems with the five home dates before
the showdown with a UCLA team that’s got realistic dreams of a Pac
10 title. However, the six road games, an inordinate amount for a
program of this caliber, are all interesting. Oregon and Arizona
State will be more than good enough to pull off upsets, while if
everything breaks the right way, Washington could be tough at home.
Going to Notre Dame is always harsh, the date at California might be
for the national title, not just the Pac 10 championship, and the
early road trip to Nebraska is one of the toughest that any top team
has to make.
Best Offensive Player:
Sam Baker. John David Booty might be the Heisman candidate and the star
of the show, but Baker is
the unsung key to the offense. The 6-5, 305-pound, two-time
All-American is back for his fourth season on the left side where he’s
been a rock of a run blocker and one of the team’s most consistent pass
Best Defensive Player:
Sedrick Ellis. If it’s possible to play at USC and be underrated on a
national scale, it happened last year to Ellis. He was the rock the rest
of the line operated around while growing into a consistent playmaker
against the run and behind the line of scrimmage. Despite missing three
games, he finished with 34 tackles, eight tackles for loss and 4.5
sacks. He’ll be an even more dangerous playmaker this year with all the
experience around him.
Key player to a
Junior WR Patrick
Turner. The 6-5 junior might not be Mike Williams or Dwayne Jarrett, and
he doesn’t have the jaw-dropping talent of Vidal Hazelton, but he’s the
team’s experienced receiver and a huge target for Booty to rely on.
While he’s done well when give the chance to shine, he has to prove he
can be the main man game in and game out.
The season will be a
... the Trojans win the national title. This is the best team in America
with the most talented, experienced defense Pete Carroll has had yet to
go along with a slew of NFL-caliber, but untested, offensive
stars-to-be. While the schedule would be murderous for most, a team as
good as this one should be able to navigate its way through to New
Orleans as long as the focus is there week in and week out.
Nov. 10 at California.
USC has three key games (and none of them involve Notre Dame): at
Nebraska, UCLA, and at Cal. The date in Lincoln will show just how
national title-worthy the team is, the battle with the Bruins will
likely finalize the Pac 10 championship, and the showdown in Berkeley,
if all goes according to plan, should be between unbeaten heavyweights.
It’ll also be the third road trip in four weeks for the Trojans, with a
date at Arizona State two weeks after.
2006 Fun Stats:
- Fourth quarter scoring: USC 125 – Opponents 66
- Punt returns: Opponents 8.6 yards per try – USC 6.2 yards per try
- Passing touchdowns: USC 30 – Opponents 13