The line has improved over the course of training camp but remains the Trojans’ biggest question mark. Center Kris O’Dowd, guard Zack Heberer and tackles Charles Brown and Butch Lewis all have made spot starts, but only Jeff Byers has started an entire season. The unit needs to mature quickly with Ohio State rolling into the Coliseum on Sept. 13. Quarterback Mark Sanchez has rebounded from a knee injury and appears on track to start the opener in front of a tailback rotation that will include Joe McKnight, Stafon Johnson, C.J. Gable and Allen Bradford. Arkansas transfer Damian Williams has provided the receiving corps with a needed boost.
This is the fastest defense of the Pete Carroll era. But will it be the stoutest? The national championship teams of 2003 and 2004 and the 2005 team that made it to the Bowl Championship Series title game thrived by creating and taking advantage of turnovers. Averell Spicer and Christian Tupou will rotate at nose tackle on a line that also includes speedy Everson Griffen and wily Kyle Moore at ends and experienced Fili Moala at tackle. Rey Maualuga, Brian Cushing and Kaluka Maiava are the linebackers, and Kevin Ellison and Taylor Mays the safeties for a unit deep in cornerbacks, including Cary Harris, Shareece Wright, Josh Pinkard, Kevin Thomas and freshman T.J. Bryant.
Kicker David Buehler and punter Greg Woidneck are returning starters. How freshman snapper Chris Pousson performs under fire could be the key to the kicking game. McKnight could be among the most electrifying punt returners in college football. Ronald Johnson and Gable will return kickoffs.
The Trojans’ stellar recruiting classes the last five years make them perhaps the deepest team in the nation. Example: Pinkard, now a senior, and Thomas, a junior, started the 2006 opener at Arkansas. After coming back from injuries, they will probably open the season as backup cornerbacks but could play significant roles.
Did we mention that a certain scarlet-and-gray outfit from The Ohio State University will descend on the Coliseum on Sept. 13? Judging from current ticket prices on stubhub.com -- $250 to nearly $2,150 -- it looks as if there might be some interest in the outcome.
USC will have two weeks to prepare for the Buckeyes after an opener at Virginia that the Trojans are expected to win regardless of who starts at quarterback. Ohio State plays Youngstown State and Ohio before facing the Trojans. The winner of the USC-Ohio State game will be on the fast track to the BCS national championship game, but the Trojans could still recover from a loss and make it to Miami in January.
Ten days after Ohio State, USC travels to Oregon State for a Thursday night game. In 2006, the Trojans lost at Corvallis, Ore. Two years earlier, they nearly lost in fog-shrouded Reser Stadium.
The Trojans get would-be Pacific 10 Conference challengers Oregon and Arizona State at home.
The Dec. 6 matchup at UCLA pitting Carroll against Rick Neuheisel, Norm Chow and Co. also might provide an interesting story line or two.