Matt Leinart knows that the heat will be on USC this fall if the Trojans garner an expected No. 1 preseason national ranking.
But on Wednesday, during the annual Pacific 10 Conference media day, the junior quarterback said USC was prepared to handle the pressure that goes with trying to win a second consecutive national championship.
“It’s cool,” said Leinart, who finished sixth in Heisman Trophy balloting last season after leading USC to a share of its first national title since 1978. “We’ve worked hard to get to this point.... The ranking just represents how it’s paid off. We’re excited about that, but at the same time it’s not anything that we focus on.”
USC was the unanimous pick to win its third consecutive Pac-10 title in a poll of 24 media members who regularly cover the league.
Writers for The Times did not participate in the poll.
The vote marked the first time since the conference expanded to 10 schools for the 1978 season that one team received every first-place vote.
California, which dealt the Trojans their only defeat during a 12-1 season in 2003, was picked to finish second. The Golden Bears had never been chosen higher than fourth in polls dating to 1978.
UCLA, coming off a 6-7 season, was picked to finish eighth.
“We think we’re going to be pretty good, contrary to what people think,” second-year Coach Karl Dorrell said.
USC’s players are scheduled to report for training camp Tuesday and begin practice Wednesday for their Aug. 28 opener against Virginia Tech in the Black Coaches Assn. Football Classic at FedEx Field in Landover, Md.
Trojan Coach Pete Carroll said he already had addressed the No. 1 issue with his players and that “there are great lessons about dwelling on the past that we can learn from.”
Carroll could not name the last team to win consecutive national titles (Nebraska in 1994 and 1995) or the last coach to win back-to-back championships (Tom Osborne). But he was certain of the obstacles his players would encounter.
“The challenge is to keep them grounded and focused on the issues and how we play,” said Carroll, who is 29-9 in three seasons at USC, 23-3 in the last two. “We know when we go to camp, ‘Here are the stages we’re going to go through to make this thing happen.’ We’ll just watch the indicators to see if we’re on track.”
New Arizona Coach Mike Stoops expects USC to be motivated by last year’s bowl championship series outcome, which kept the Trojans out of the BCS title game and denied them a chance to claim an outright national title.
Louisiana State defeated Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl; the Trojans defeated Michigan in the Rose Bowl and finished atop the Associated Press poll.
“The biggest challenge is that week-in week-out pressure of being at the top and getting everybody’s best shot,” said Stoops, a member of Oklahoma’s coaching staff the last five seasons.
Stoops said USC would undoubtedly play well against such rivals as UCLA and Notre Dame but must be wary of games against “teams that are good enough to beat you, and they fall at a bad spot on the schedule.... Those are the trap games that you always get scared of.”
Tom Hansen, commissioner of the Pac-10, said USC’s status as defending national champion and probable preseason No. 1 in several national polls benefited the entire conference. The Pac-10 is the only major conference that has not put a representative in the BCS championship game.
“Every commissioner wants a 10-way tie for first place on the one hand, but on the other hand we do compete every year with the other major conferences for national recognition and prestige,” Hansen said.
“It really helps the conference if you get a team that has the recognition of SC going into this year. If one of the other teams plays them well, then they are helped. Cal last year got on the map because they beat USC.”
Carroll said he did not expect the NCAA to make a decision regarding Mike Williams’ eligibility until the All-American receiver finishes summer school about Aug. 10. Williams met with NCAA representatives on Monday. “I don’t think anything has been accelerated,” Carroll said. Leinart is on the cover of USC’s media guide and Williams, who finished fourth in Heisman balloting last season, is not among 10 players pictured on the back. Williams, however, is listed on the roster and his photo and biography appear inside.
Carroll said a final determination about receiver Whitney Lewis’ academic eligibility had not been made.... Sophomore running back Chauncey Washington, who sat out most of last season because of an ankle injury, will redshirt.... Carroll said the Trojans would probably decide whether to redshirt sophomore quarterback John David Booty after the first few games.
Senior offensive lineman John Drake, who suffered a season-ending ankle injury against UCLA, is expected to participate in some training camp drills, but his status for this season has not been determined, Carroll said.... Defensive lineman Van Brown has left the program and might transfer to a Division II or Division III program, a school official said.... USC announced that Leinart has started a blog on the Internet that will feature daily entries. It can be found at www.MattLeinartBlog.com.