CFN preview: USC needs to raise the bar

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Rich Cirminiello

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USC has become Florida State of the 1990s. Does that mean the Trojans are dynastic or underachieving? Remember the 'Noles? For a torrid 14-year period, they always seemed to have the best talent, ripping through a weak league in the 1990s and rarely drifting outside the top 10. However, for all that dominance, there were just two national titles in 1993 and 1999. Sound familiar? Hey, USC has been otherworldly over the last seven years under Pete Carroll, going 82-9 and winning a Pac-10 title each season. However, there's been just a single perfect season and outright national championship almost five years ago. It may not be fair, but the program has started to be defined by it's high-profile flubs over the last three years against UCLA, Stanford and Oregon State, which prevented a return to the title game. Considering their disparity of talent compared to just about every school in the country, don't you get the feeling that the Trojans need to raise the bar a notch higher? USC will once again be the class of the Pac-10 (insert yawn here). In fact, even with a fair amount of turnover from a year ago, the gap may have widened on the likes of Cal and Oregon. To get in the same discussion with the likes of Florida, Texas and Oklahoma, questions need to be answered at quarterback and the front seven of the defense. While the defensive line and linebackers should be fine, thanks to some of the nation's best recruiting, you always worry when an unproven player takes over behind center. For now, sophomore Aaron Corp is the anointed one, but über-recruit Matt Barkley has already looked as if he's been here before. Corp will need to recover quickly from a knee injury suffered in fall camp, or else Barkley will move quickly into the starting job. The Trojans' stranglehold on the Pac-10 appears safe. There's literally next-level talent everywhere. If, however, the program plans to finish the year in Pasadena on Jan. 7 rather than Jan. 1, it will have to navigate a thorny schedule that includes trips to Ohio State, Cal, Notre Dame and Oregon. Even one slip-up might mean that Tommy Trojan will be doing the Tomahawk Chop on New Year's Day. What to watch for on offense: The offensive line. Yeah, it's rough to focus on interior linemen, when Damian Williams, Stafon Johnson and Joe McKnight are on the playground, but these Trojans are worth the discipline. If you like dominant, athletic front walls, then USC is going to grab your eye throughout the year. After doing some shuffling and rebuilding, assistant Pat Ruel just might have his best collection of talent this decade. This group has it all, which is going to make everyone, including the new quarterback, more effective. The Trojans have tons of experience, anchors at center and left tackle, and as many as six or seven members of the two-deep, who'll someday play in the pros. It too often gets overlooked, but the line will be the catalyst for a lot of USC's success in 2009. What to watch for on defense: The new linebackers. Brian Cushing, Rey Maualuga, Clay Matthews and Kaluka Maiava were all drafted by the NFL in April. Sure, it would've been nice if even one veteran was back at the position, but there's no stopping progress. Or the next wave of stars about to populate the depth chart. Chris Galippo, Malcolm Smith and Michael Morgan are next in line, and have just as good a chance to follow their predecessors into the pros. The newcomers won't be as prolific, at least not right away, but they will be faster and potentially more apt to create turnovers. By 2010, they'll all be experienced upperclassmen, and ready to bridge the gap from Cushing, Maualuga, Matthews and Maiava.

10 best players

  • 1. FS Taylor Mays, Sr.
  • 2. C Kristofer O'Dowd, Jr.
  • 3. WR Damian Williams, Jr.
  • 4. OG Jeff Byers, Sr.
  • 5. SS Josh Pinkard, Sr.
  • 6. QB Matt Barkley, Fr.
  • 7. RB Stafon Johnson, Sr.
  • 8. CB Kevin Thomas, Sr.
  • 9. OT Charles Brown, Sr.
  • 10. DE Everson Griffen, Jr.
The team will be far better if ... the Trojans avoid that one brain cramp that seems to zing them. At UCLA in 2006. Versus Stanford in 2007. At Oregon State in 2008. The Trojans are always more talented than their opponents, yet that unexpected regular season gaffe is becoming an annual ritual for the program. If USC can somehow maintain the same intensity throughout the season that it normally has for the mega-showdowns, it can actually start thinking seriously about a BCS title berth again. The schedule: USC starts out the season facing Dick Tomey's tough San Jose State defense, and then it's game on from there on out. The national title chase can be kick-started, or dealt a nasty blow, in the non-conference game of the year at Ohio State. There are four road games in the next five and six of the next eight including games at Cal, Notre Dame, Oregon and Arizona State. One of the home games will be against Oregon State in a revenge game, but the Trojans might not be fully jacked up after dealing with the Bears and Irish. USC will have to keep its focus through the brutal stretch, and if it can do it, there's a nice reward in the end with three home games against Stanford, UCLA and Arizona. Strangely enough, the regular season won't end against the Bruins. Best offensive player: Junior C Kristofer O'Dowd. On an offense that boasts so much off-the-charts skill position talent, it speaks volumes about O'Dowd that he's the unit's top player. So there is understandable concern in the Trojans' camp after O'Dowd suffered a dislocated knee cap in an Aug. 17 team scrimmage. Further tests were needed to determine how much time he'll miss. Arguably the best at his position in the country after just two seasons, he's a powerful 6-5, 300-pounder, with all of the intelligence and leadership qualities needed to excel at the pivot. If someone else wins the Rimington Trophy in 2009, it'll be a mild upset. Best defensive player: Senior FS Taylor Mays. Pound-for-pound, the best all-around athlete in the country, he was built for the NFL Combine. Insanely fast and agile for a 6-3, 235-pounder, he's about to step further out of the shadows of former Trojan linebackers Rey Maualuga and Brian Cushing, and become the cover boy of the USC defense. An outstanding and intimidating tackler in the open field, he makes opposing players rethink their patterns and stride, an asset which will never show up in a box score. Key player to a successful season: Sophomore QB Aaron Corp. The Trojans enter the season with just two areas of genuine concern, quarterback and the front seven. The defensive line and linebackers will be fine in time, but first-year starting quarterbacks are always a different level of importance and uncertainty. USC doesn't need Corp to be Matt Leinart right out of the gate, but it does need him to be efficient and effective at getting the ball in the hands of the playmakers. Corp suffered a cracked bone in his knee early in the August practice sessions, so his situation should be closely monitored. A prolonged absence may force true freshman Matt Barkley off the sidelines before he's completely ready.

2009 schedule

    9/5 San Jose State
    9/12 at Ohio State
    9/19 at Washington
    9/26 Washington State
    10/3 at California
    10/10 OPEN DATE
    10/17 at Notre Dame
    10/24 Oregon State
    10/31 at Oregon
    11/7 at Arizona State
    11/14 Stanford
    11/21 OPEN DATE
    11/28 UCLA
    12/5 Arizona
The season will be a success if ... USC wins an eighth consecutive Pac-10 crown and a seventh BCS bowl game in the last eight years. Easily the class of the conference once again, the Trojans will begin the season in top 5 territory, so anything less than status quo won't cut it. Technically, anything worse than a one-loss season won't fly at Troy, even with a nasty road schedule that includes trips to Ohio State, Oregon, Cal and Notre Dame. Key game: Sept. 12 at Ohio State. At places, like USC, success is defined by championships. And not just Pac-10 championships any longer, but national championships. Getting there for the first time in five years will require a win over the Buckeyes in one of the highest profile showdowns of 2009. The Trojans rolled in this game a year ago, but that was at the Coliseum and before Terrelle Pryor had taken his training wheels off. The winner in Columbus instantly joins Florida, Texas and Oklahoma as the top contenders for the throne.
Tagged: Florida State, Ohio State, Arizona State, Oregon State, Stanford, UCLA, USC, Oregon, San Jose State, Notre Dame, Oklahoma

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