The Big Questions

Five questions facing USC heading into the season:

1 Can John David Booty take the next step?

Booty’s 391-yard, four-touchdown Rose Bowl performance against Michigan vaulted him to the forefront of Heisman Trophy discussion. His presence as a leader appeared to grow through spring practice, summer workouts and training camp. Now, with USC ranked No. 1 starting the season, Booty is the face of the program. The pressure is on the fifth-year senior to remain healthy and lead USC to its third Bowl Championship Series title game in four years. And he must do it with offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian taking over play-calling duties from the sideline and with an inexperienced receiving corps.

2 So, what about those receivers?

Junior Patrick Turner had 29 catches last season, qualifying him as the dean of a group that must fill the void left by the departures of Dwayne Jarrett and Steve Smith. David Ausberry, a big and physical redshirt freshman, combines with Turner to give Booty two large targets. Sophomores Vidal Hazelton and Travon Patterson and freshmen Ronald Johnson and Brandon Carswell provide the speed. Booty needs someone to count on as a clutch third-down pass catcher. Tight ends Fred Davis and Anthony McCoy could play a larger role this season.

3 Will a dominant tailback emerge?

Perhaps, but it might be difficult to separate from the pack. Fifth-year senior Chauncey Washington was on track to open the season as the No. 1 tailback, but he sprained his right shoulder on Aug. 22. Sophomores C.J. Gable, Stafon Johnson and Allen Bradford all will get turns along with freshmen Broderick Green and Joe McKnight. McKnight is a wild card because of uncertainty about a stretched knee ligament that slowed his progress during training camp.

4 Is this the best defense of the Pete Carroll era?

Given the talent and experience, it could be. But injuries and clever offensive coordinators are bound to test a unit that is on a mission to create more turnovers than last season. End Lawrence Jackson and tackle Sedrick Ellis anchor the line, which got an infusion of third-down pass-rushing speed with the arrival of freshman Everson Griffen. Senior Keith Rivers and juniors Rey Maualuga and Brian Cushing form the nation’s most gifted linebacker corps. Versatile Josh Pinkard can play cornerback or safety for a secondary that features safeties Kevin Ellison and Taylor Mays and cornerback Terrell Thomas, all NFL prospects.

5 Can the Trojans go wire to wire at No. 1?

Kicker David Buehler could play a big role in answering that as he replaces the late Mario Danelo. The Trojans must negotiate a schedule that features six potentially problematic road games -- at Nebraska, Washington, Notre Dame, Oregon, California and Arizona State. As it did last season, USC’s shot at a national title could come down to the final regular-season game against UCLA.


-- Gary Klein