Minnesota-Southern Cal Preview
Things are slowly getting back to normal at Southern California.
The No. 25 Trojans begin their second and final season banned from postseason play when they host rebuilding Minnesota on Saturday.
USC is seeking to win its 14th straight opener after last year's 8-5 campaign in Lane Kiffin's first year as coach. That marked the Trojans' fewest victories since going 6-6 in 2001.
The downturn was understandable given the NCAA sanctions under which the program has been placed.
"It's good to have a lot of that stuff behind us, and now we can focus on what's in front of us that's really important," Kiffin said.
The offseason still wasn't smooth since top returning rusher Marc Tyler implied that USC paid its players during an interview with TMZ outside a nightclub. Tyler, who appeared to be intoxicated and joking, was suspended for the opener.
Kiffin only reinstated Tyler for his first practice Aug. 24.
The backfield should be fine without him Saturday, with Dillon Baxter the likely starter while D.J. Morgan and Curtis McNeal provide depth.
"It's a lot better this way," Baxter said. "We've got everything we need to succeed at USC, and guys realize that. We don't make excuses."
The offense will be in its third season with Matt Barkley under center. The junior beat out highly touted Mitch Mustain last year, throwing for 26 touchdowns and 2,791 yards with 12 interceptions.
"We're still not where USC should be," Barkley said. "We've still got a lot of work to do. We haven't accomplished anything yet, really."
Sophomore Robert Woods had a team-high 65 receptions last season and will be joined by a freshmen trio of promising receivers in Kyle Prater, Marqise Lee and George Farmer. Those three are vying for starting positions.
Seven starters return on defense for coordinator Monte Kiffin, with defensive ends Wes Horton and Nick Perry named to the Hendricks Award watch list.
Barkley threw for two touchdowns and Woods returned a kickoff 97 yards for a score in a 32-21 win over Minnesota on Sept. 18 in the teams' first meeting since 1980. The Trojans had a 216-83 advantage in rushing yards.
The Golden Gophers have a new coach and a new quarterback in place after a 3-9 campaign. Jerry Kill was hired from Northern Illinois before this year after Tim Brewster was fired due to his club's 1-6 start.
The Trojans have been preparing for this game by watching film of Kill's teams at Northern Illinois. The Golden Gophers finished 10th in the Big Ten in net rushing yards a year ago while Kill's Huskies were seventh in the FBS in 2010.
"We're starting from the ground up," Kill said. "We identified there's much more than just the football players themselves - it's the whole program. We've analyzed it, we've got a vision, and now we've got to go work."
Kill is trying to become the first Minnesota coach to win his debut since John Gutekunst in 1986.
His starter at quarterback is expected to be MarQueis Gray, who played sparingly the previous two seasons. Gray will replace Adam Weber, who started 50 games to set a Big Ten record.
The Gophers are hoping Kill's emphasis on fundamentals will result in improvement for a defense that produced nine sacks last season.
"He really impressed me as a guy who would really discipline us, who would not let us get away with anything on or off the field, and he's really held true to that," linebacker Mike Rallis said. "I think that's exactly what we needed, and it's improved us as people and as football players."