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6 questions facing USC Trojans as they head into the new season

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A year ago, USC was the preseason toast of college football, a program with the sport's most experienced quarterback and expectations of winning a national title.

It's a different scenario heading into Saturday's first training camp practice.

Embattled Coach Lane Kiffin and his players are eager to put behind them seven months spent answering questions about the Trojans' fall from preseason No. 1 to a 7-6 record in 2012.

Matt Barkley, a four-year starter at quarterback, is now a rookie with the Philadelphia Eagles, trying to win a starting job under former Oregon coach Chip Kelly.

So Kiffin must turn to either third-year sophomores Max Wittek or Cody Kessler or freshman Max Browne to run the offense.

USC still has a preseason Heisman Trophy candidate in receiver Marqise Lee. The junior is among 16 returning starters and co-starters.

The most intriguing newcomer might be defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast, who replaced Kiffin's father, Monte.

Because of NCAA sanctions, USC can have only 75 scholarship players — 10 fewer than the standard annual limit. Kiffin has said the Trojans would probably carry 70.

USC is ranked No. 24 in the USA Today Sports coaches poll.

Here are six questions the Trojans face going into the season.

Is Lane Kiffin coaching for his job?

Athletic Director Pat Haden, anticipating a barrage of questions about the topic, released a video last week saying Kiffin was not on the "hot seat" and that he was behind his coach "100%."

That might temporarily staunch queries from reporters and fans, but it won't quell the notion that Kiffin's job is on the line.

Kiffin is 25-13 in three seasons. With a schedule that does not include regular-season games against Oregon or Washington, he could add substantially to that win total.

But Kiffin cannot afford embarrassing incidents such as last season's jersey-switching and ball-deflating fiascoes.

Who will start at quarterback?

Wittek's performance last season against Notre Dame appeared to put him in line to succeed Barkley. But he opened the door for Kessler by struggling mightily in the Sun Bowl against Georgia Tech.

Kessler took advantage during spring workouts, avoiding turnovers and displaying leadership.

Now, with the opener less than a month away, it's a real competition.

Browne enrolled last January and performed very well for a player with no college experience. But he probably is on track to redshirt.

Will the defense perform better without Monte Kiffin?

Pendergast, who coached the last three seasons at California, installed a hybrid 5-2 blitzing scheme to replace Monte Kiffin's 4-3.

End Devon Kennard returns after sitting out last season because of injury and joins a line that includes junior George Uko, sophomore Leonard Williams and end Morgan Breslin.

Starting linebackers Hayes Pullard and Lamar Dawson are back, but the secondary is a project after being torched during the spring.

Who will start in the secondary?

Dion Bailey, a two-year starter at linebacker, returns to safety with hopes of providing play-making and leadership.

Senior Josh Shaw, a natural safety, could be forced to play cornerback again if senior Torin Harris, sophomore Kevon Seymour and others are not the answer.

Freshmen safety Su'a Cravens and safety-cornerback Leon McQuay III made solid impressions as early enrollees during spring.

Can Marqise Lee win the Heisman Trophy?

Lee, who finished fourth in Heisman balloting last year, has a flair for the spectacular, so a few kickoff or punt returns for touchdowns would add to his resume.

If he avoids serious injury, the 2012 Biletnikoff Award winner will almost certainly surpass Robert Woods as the Trojans' all-time receptions leader.

Nelson Agholor became the No. 2 receiver when Woods left early for the NFL, and the sophomore could take pressure off Lee.

Will the Trojans contend for the Pac-12 Conference title?

USC should defeat Hawaii, Washington State, Boston College and Utah State, enabling the Trojans to move up in the polls before a Sept. 28 South Division test at Arizona State.

USC also benefits from the conference scheduling cycle that enables it to avoid Oregon and Washington.

A Friday night game at Oregon State will be difficult, but road games at California and Colorado and home games against Arizona and Utah appear winnable. And the Trojans play Stanford and UCLA at the Coliseum.

gary.klein@latimes.com

Twitter.com: @latimesklein

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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