The USC Trojans had a disastrous 2012 season after initially being ranked first in the country. With lowered expectations and a relatively easy early schedule in 2013, Lane Kiffin's team will get off to a strong start and bounce back in a big way from last year's disappointment.
Some concern may be present due to the changing nature of the defense under new coordinator Clancy Pendergast or the lack of a true starter at quarterback, but there is no reason that Southern Cal can't rattle off six victories out of the gate.
None of the No. 24-ranked Trojans' opponents in the early going are ranked.
The toughest home game is against Utah State, a Mountain West team who went 11-2 last year but graduated their top three receivers—including 1500-yard rusher Kerwynn Williams.
Trips to Hawaii and Arizona State shouldn't cause too many problems—even if the Sun Devils are receiving several votes in the early polls. Home showdowns with Boston College and Washington State shouldn't, either.
Now that QB Matt Scott is gone from Arizona, too, the Trojans will be keen on revenge from last year's loss to the Wildcats. This time, the meeting will come in the friendly confines of the LA Coliseum in a Thursday evening showcase.
The first time USC will meet a team in the preseason Top 25 will be in the very next contest: a road trip to South Bend in taking on arch-nemesis, 14th-ranked Notre Dame.
No matter who is quarterbacking the team—Max Wittek or Cody Kessler—the Trojan signal-caller will be tossing the pigskin to Marqise Lee, who is arguably the best athlete of any skills player in college football.
Between his electricity in the open field, knack for getting open, vision as a ball-carrier and dynamic returns, Lee is in prime position to be a Heisman Trophy contender.
In recently telling Gary Klein of The Los Angeles Times that he is 100 percent back from a shoulder injury, Lee expressed approval over both Wittek and Kessler:
One week I'll be like, "Oh, yeah, Cody did a great job." Next day, Max comes out and does a great job. I'm like "Oh, my God." So I'm glad I'm not the coach. It's a big decision for Kif. It's all on his back—his problem—all I've got to do is catch the ball.
Even though fellow prolific receiver Robert Woods graduated, the Trojans still have a strong enough running game keyed by running back Silas Redd to supplement the passing attack.
In helping Pendergast and Co. make the transition to a new defensive alignment, Kiffin has implied that the offense will run the ball more, citing the success of Alabama and Stanford as the inspiration for the change in tactics.
Plus, not having a seasoned starter under center certainly contributes to that strategy, too.
But while the defense struggled under Monte Kiffin's Tampa 2, 4-3 look—which works well at the NFL level but evidently didn't last year—Pendergast is bringing a dynamic shift to the talented unit.
Klein reports that Kiffin was looking for an immediate fix, and was intrigued by how well Pendergast turned around California in his first two years there.
More of an attacking mindset is being deployed in the unique 5-2 defense Pendergast commands, and at least a couple of players are loving it.
"Coach P is more of a 'get after the quarterback' type of guy," safety Dion Bailey said. "That's pretty much his identity."
Linebacker Hayes Pullard had similar praise, saying that "Pendergast brings that swagger. That's been great for us."
Swagger essentially defines the recent memory of the dominant USC program. When Pete Carroll was at the helm, he would mix it up with his players, celebrate on the sidelines and encourage his young men to have fun.
Football is an aggressive sport, and no player at this level is going to be repulsed by a breath of fresh air in Pendergast who is passionately advocating for more aggression and pressure on the opposing quarterback.
There are many changes taking place in terms of personnel, adjustments in schemes and in style of coaching at USC. However, it shouldn't be looked at as a chaotic, unstable time, but rather as a year of adaptability and renaissance.
Getting off to a 6-0 start playing hard-nosed, power-running football on offense and becoming more of a ball-hawking, quarterback-crushing bunch on defense should afford the Trojans plenty of Momentum heading to South Bend on Oct. 19.
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