USC opens its season against Hawaii Thursday night (11:00 p.m., CBS Sports), its third time in four years playing the Rainbow Warriors in Week 1.
Last year—back when USC was still the AP's No. 1 team—it beat Hawaii sound, 49-10, in Los Angeles. But the year before that, their last visit to the Aloha State, the Trojans struggled en route to a "mere" 14-point win.
Things should veer back toward dominance in 2013, as USC returns 15 starters, brings in a top-heavy recruiting class and is—on paper—just as talented as ever. The pain of last year's letdown should help fuel it to an easy win in Honolulu.
But even if the final score is (sort of) a given, there are plenty of things to watch for Thursday night.
Who Looks Better at Quarterback
Let's get it out of the way. There are other pressing issues in Trojans camp, and they'll all be covered properly. But the QB battle isn't just Internet click-bait or ESPN bluster. It's the most important (football) issue in Southern California.
Cody Kessler and Max Wittek will both get time Thursday evening, and while each should probably look good—Hawaii allowed 35.7 points per game last year—it's important to see who looks better. Not just who finishes with the better stats, but who gives off the better impression of a leading man.
Wittek certainly didn't in his short stint last season—especially not in the Sun Bowl Game That Shall Not be Mentioned. And reports from camp have all made it sound, accordingly, like Kessler gives off a better visceral vibe.
But those are just reports. For fans who don't have press passes or field credentials, this is their first chance to see—as opposed to reading about—the quarterback battle. It's a chance to draw firsthand conclusions instead of parsing through a mishmash of secondhand ones.
And the verdict can't come soon enough.
Effectiveness of 5-2 Defense
Only so much can be told from Week 1, when USC takes on a Hawaii offense that finished 124th—dead freakin' last—in Football Outsiders' F/+ Rankings last year. Unless there are thorough, gaping problems with their new defensive scheme, the Trojans shouldn't allow more than 10 or 13 points (tops).
But again, as with the quarterback battle, this game is the first live chance for most fans to see the 5-2 in action. Defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast was something of a spread-stopping wizard at Cal, so it's easy to accept his technique as gospel. But the adoption of a new-fangled system always comes with some dread.
As an upshot of the scheme change, it's also important to see how players adapt to their new positions. Linebacker-turned-safety Dion Bailey might miss the game with a hip injury, but Morgan Breslin sticks out as a name to watch. He'll move from a straight lineman role to that of a hybrid outside linebacker.
How much hand-on-the-ground rushing will he still do? Will he stand up the whole game? Is he fluid enough to move his hips in coverage?
All of this needs to be answered against Hawaii. Even if Washington State is...well, Washington State, you never want to face a Mike Leach offense with defensive question marks.
Agholor and Rogers: Men, Myths or Legends?
Everyone from L.A. to AL knows about Marqise Lee. He put up giant numbers as a sophomore last year (118 catches, 1,721 yards, 14 touchdowns), won the 2012 Biletnikoff Award and became an easy favorite to win it again in 2013.
But two fall-camp legends have emerged in his shadow this offseason, both of whom could become USC greats in the long term and impact players in the short term.
Nelson Agholor shone all spring and fall, capping things off with a three-touchdown performance in the final fall scrimmage. He'll start opposite Lee and give the Trojans, hopefully, America's best receiving duo.
Darreus Rogers, meanwhile, has emerged from nowhere—by USC's standards—and made it impossible for Lane Kiffin to keep him off the field. The 4-star prospect has made consistent waves in camp, immediately filling the void left by injuries to George Farmer and Steven Mitchell.
But again, as is the constant theme of this piece, those are just reports, observations and tidbits from practice. Even if the Hawaii game turns out less competitive than a scrimmage, it's a newer, bigger environment than Agholor or Rogers are used to performing in—at least with this much expected for them.
How good can this receiving corps really be?
Some of That Old-School Trojan Swagger
USC is—and always has been—a program that expects to win, but down the stretch last season, it hardly looked the part.
Back-to-back-to-back whippings from UCLA, Notre Dame and Georgia Tech put the Trojans in a much more humble place. By the time the Sun Bowl Game That Shall Not be Mentioned was over, even Tommy was shy about coming in to work.
The swagger was effectively gone.
But it wasn't dead.
Like a phoenix from the ashes, USC is expected to rise from the stink of last year's disappointment. It's supposed to storm the field in Honolulu and pound Hawaii into submission. It's supposed to expect an easy victory, demand an easy victory and leave with—you guessed it—an easy victory.
Anything else would be a more than a little disheartening.