They're still a lock to win the Pac-10 in nearly everybody's mind, but if there's a year for USC to be unseated as conference champions for the first time in seven years, this could be it.
The unknowns include a new quarterback, two new coordinators, and only three returning starters from 2008's stingy defense. The Trojans will now have to rely more on their offense to control games, whereas they could rely on their defense to get stops in recent years.
The knowns, however, include a brand of toughness and competitiveness that head coach Pete Carroll always brings to the table. We also know that USC will have eleven outstanding athletes on the field at all times-- it's just a matter of if they can perform to the level that we've come to expect from the Trojans.
Something we've also come to expect in recent years is that Oregon State will have a decent showing against the Trojans-- unless the game is played in Los Angeles. The Beavers have won only nine of seventy-one games all-time against USC, but they've won two of the last three-- both in Corvallis. Prior to the victory in 2006, the Beavers last defeated USC in 2000 in Corvallis. Oregon State has only won three games in Los Angles, the site of this year's game, and all of them came in 1960 or before.
So how will the Beavers fare this year, against what could be a sub-par team? It's been 49 years since the Beavers have won at the Coliseum-- it's just not one of those places that Mike Riley's team can walk into with confidence. That being said, big wins over Arizona, Arizona State, and Stanford could set the stage for an early Pac-10 run prior to the trip to LA.
Only two teams in the conference have a guaranteed retuning starter at quarterback, and USC isn't one of them. Aaron Corp will be the likely successor to Mark Sanchez, and is already being heralded as one of the best drop-back quarterbacks in the conference. If he indeed gets the job, he'll be backed up by freshman Matt Barkley and Arkansas transfer Mitch Mustain.
Corp will have a talented bunch of receivers to throw to, including another Arkansas transfer, Damian Williams. Patrick Turner departs from last year's squad, but Williams reeled in nearly 67 receiving yards per game last season.
USC's Offensive line is being heraleded as one of the best in the country, so whomever the quarterback may be come September, they will have good protection. Kristopher O'Dowd at center is the big name, as is sixth-year senior Jeff Byers at guard.
"The offensive line is a deep, experienced unit for us, and it will be highly-competitive all season long for playing time," said Carroll. "It's great to have Jeff Byers back for another season and we'll count on his senior leadership."
The defense, however, is not as experienced. Only three players return (Taylor Mays, Josh Pinkard, Christian Topou), although there are many with game experience from last year. This year's group has a high standard to live up to, as the 2008 Trojans led the nation in scoring defense (9.0, USC's best mark since 1967), pass efficiency defense (85.8) and pass defense (134.4, USC's best since 1977) and were second in total defense (221.8, USC's best since 1967) and fifth in rushing defense (87.4).
"Yes, we lost a lot of outstanding defensive players, but I'm confident we'll have another strong defense, led by the secondary. We'll be very fast up front, where we have a chance to field one of our best pass rushing units in years. Obviously, the key area is the new linebacking group, but don't underestimate them."
The secondary is the strong suit of the defense, led by two of the three returning starters-- safties Taylor Mays and Josh Pinkard. Pinkard is moving over from the cornerback position, which will likely be filled by senior Kevin Thomas and junior Shareece Wright. Mays gives the team a strong, physical presence, and Pinkard gives them a lot of versatility.
USC's three standout linebackers from last season-- Rey Maualuga, Brian Cushing, and Kaluka Maiava-- are all gone, so first year coordinator Rocky Seto must start from scratch there. The athletes are there, however.
Three players, including Clay Matthews, are gone on the defensive line as well, and that unit needs to be overhauled. Christian Toupou does return, along with several veterans looking for more playing time and young, athletic players as well.
Said Carroll on his team: "Every season presents new and different challenges, as is certainly the case this year, but we do have the ingredients to have another very good team."
The Trojans open the season September 5 at San Jose State before traveling to Ohio State on September 12.
The Beavers will travel to Los Angeles to play the Trojans on October 24. Last year, when the two teams met at Reser Stadium, Oregon State shocked the Trojans with a 27-21 victory that is now nominated for an ESPY as "Upset of the Year".