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NCAA Football Preview - USC Trojans

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Updated: 8/20/2013 10:58 am

After scorching Hawaii (49-10) and Syracuse (42-29) in the first two weeks of the season, it looked like the Trojans were well on their way.

To quote one of the sport's best know commentators; "Not so fast my friend."

USC ran into a wall in losing a 21-14 decision at Stanford. USC recovered to win four straight games against four conference foes (California, Washington, Utah and Colorado). However, those four teams went a combined 26-33 during the season. Once USC started to face the top teams in the league the season spiraled out of control. In fact, USC lost five of its last six games, including a 21-7 setback in the Sun Bowl against Georgia Tech when star quarterback Matt Barkley was sidelined due to injury.

When the dust settled, USC was sitting with a 7-6 overall record and 5-4 mark in league play. Perhaps they were not the worst team in the conference but the Trojans were certainly the most disappointing.

2013 ANALYSIS:

OFFENSE: Barkley and Robert Woods were two of a slew of pre-season All- American candidates a year ago. Now the quarterback, who holds several records at USC, and wide receiver are gone to the greener pastures of the NFL.

Trojans' fans shouldn't lose faith yet though as arguably the most important piece of the offense returns. In a year filled with underachievement in Southern California, Marqise Lee far exceeded the expectations placed on him. Lee was definitely considered a potential star, but after leading the nation in receptions (118) while totaling 1,721 yards and 14 touchdowns, Lee was named an All-American, winning the Biletnikoff Award.

There isn't much returning production around Lee in the passing game. Tight end Xavier Grimble (29 receptions, 316 yards, 5 TDs) will be back as will Nelson Agholor although he had just 18 catches last season. The rest of the receivers didn't have 18 receptions combined.

Even worse is the uncertainty at quarterback. Barkley may not have lived up to the Heisman hype surrounding him last summer but he was still one of the nation's best.

Now there is a three-man race for the job. The top candidates are Max Wittek and Cody Kessler. Wittek threw for 388 yards on 52.2 percent passing with three touchdowns and five interceptions last season as Barkley's backup. Kessler hasn't seen a ton of time but a change of pace might be what head coach Lane Kiffin wants. True freshman Max Browne could also see time.

"All three guys will have a shot," Kiffin said of his signal callers while adding that a starter won't be named until the fall. "All three are different in the style that they play and also all three are very good quarterbacks and it's going to be the player that's going to help us win the most."

USC has not been a team known for running the ball since Reggie Bush was on the roster. However, the Trojans do have a solid option at running back. Penn State transfer Silas Redd rushed for 905 yards and nine touchdowns, while splitting carries with Curtis McNeal last season. The job is all Redd's now which should lead to even more production for the senior.

Even better for the Trojans is that the offensive line returns four starters other than center Khaled Holmes. He will be tough to replace, but Marcus Martin, who is slotted to take over at the pivot, has starting experience.

DEFENSE: There had been two Kiffins at USC over the last few seasons as Lane's father Monte was the defensive coordinator. That will not be the case any longer as Monte resigned in the offseason after leading a team that ranked seventh in the Pac-12 in total defense (394.0 ypg).

Taking over will be Clancy Pendergast, who favors a 5-2 scheme. Pendergast is switching allegiances within the conference by taking on the job at USC as he was the defensive coordinator at California from 2010-12.

Pendergast is fortunate enough to inherit a number of talented defenders up front. The top player in that regard is Morgan Breslin. The senior hybrid linebacker/defensive end finished with 13 sacks a year ago as well as 19.5 tackles for loss. Breslin should be an all-conference pick at the end of the year.

Breslin won't be alone in pressuring opposing quarterbacks though. Linebacker Hayes Pullard racked up 107 tackles, 8.0 for loss, and is the team's leading returning tackler. Leonard Williams fits right in the middle of the defensive line after having 8.0 sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss last season. George Uko added five sacks as another stout player in the defensive trenches.

The secondary is where there are real question marks. T.J. McDonald was one of the best safeties in the country last season. That's why the St. Louis Rams took him in the NFL Draft.

Now the unit needs to find a leader and some players to contribute immediately. Dion Bailey led the team with four interceptions and also had 80 tackles and should be just fine, while Josh Shaw (30 tackles) needs to improve in coverage as a cornerback.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Lee wasn't just dangerous in the passing game last season. He averaged 28.5 yards on punt returns, while racking up 856 return yards and a touchdown. Lee's ability in that regard makes him too valuable not to keep the job, even if it presents some injury risks.

Andre Heidari has the place kicking job locked down though he made just 62.5 percent of his field goal attempts last season (10-of-16). Sophomore Kris Albarado is a senior that will be the full-time punter.

OUTLOOK: The often defiant Kiffin has been a bit more open about the shortcomings of his program last season.

"I think we didn't play very well and we didn't coach very well. When you do that, that's what happens," Kiffin said in commenting on the tough 2012 campaign. "As we look at where we need to improve it's not some things that maybe (the media) think, it's things that we believe within our program are very easy to look at what happened last year."

USC should get off to another quick start in 2013 as the first four games on the schedule are winnable. First is a trip to Hawaii to face the Warriors followed by home contests against Washington State, Boston College and Utah State. The Trojans will then get a real test of how prepared they are to compete for a Pac-12 South title when they travel to face Arizona State. USC then plays only three games in October, but the trio includes a showdown in South Bend against Notre Dame. In the last month of the season, USC plays three road and two home games. Luckily the two home games are against Stanford and UCLA and Oregon is not on the schedule at all.

Kiffin's seat is certainly beginning to warm and after the letdown of last year it is only going to get hotter. Kiffin has been able to recruit well but to remain locked in at USC the solution is simple; just win and win often. That's a tough task for a team with a question mark at quarterback, but with Lee and a talented defense, the Trojans might have enough. At least enough to keep Kiffin employed another year.

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