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(3) U-S-C (0-0) at Virginia (0-0)

Saturday, August 30th, 3:30 p.m. (et)

The Sports Network

By Scott Haynes, Senior College Football Editor

GAME NOTES: The third-ranked USC Trojans begin their quest for yet another national title this weekend, as they open the 2008 season in Charlottesville, where they will take on the Virginia Cavaliers.

Pete Carroll's Trojans are once again the favorite to win the Pac-10 and are one of the early contenders for the national title after going 11-2 overall in 2007, capturing their sixth straight conference crown and appearing in their third consecutive Rose Bowl, where they destroyed the Illinois Fightin' Illini, 49-17.

The Cavaliers also had a highly successful 2007 campaign, winning nine games overall and placing second in the ACC's Coastal Division with a 6-2 mark. The nine wins earned the team a spot in last year's Gator Bowl, but Al Groh's troops couldn't get past Texas Tech, falling to the Red Raiders, 31-28.

This marks the first-ever meeting between these two teams on the gridiron.

As usual the Trojans were an offensive juggernaut last season and although there are holes to fill in 2008, there is a revolving door of talent at USC and the cupboard is always full. Taking over under center should be Mark Sanchez. However, Sanchez dislocated his left kneecap during warmups on August 8th and although he is listed as the starter for this game, it remains to be seen how the injury will affect him.

The Trojans are very deep in the backfield and any one of a number of players in the stable could step up and take over. Junior Stafon Johnson rushed for over 600 yards last season, but the ground game will also feature talented sophomores Joe McKnight and C.J. Gable.

Patrick Turner is a huge target at 6-5, 220 pounds and could emerge as a top receiving threat. Big things are also expected from junior Videl Hazelton (6-2, 210) and sophomore Damian Williams (6-1, 190).

The Trojans had a devastating defensive unit last season, and although the squad lost standouts Sedrick Ellis, Lawrence Jackson and Keith Rivers, big things are expected from USC's defense in 2008.

At linebacker the Trojans are looking for big seasons from Rey Maualuga (team- high 79 tackles, six sacks in 2007) and Brian Cushing (25 tackles), both of whom are entering their senior campaigns, and poised to take over more of a leadership role for a hungry defensive unit.

"I think overall coming into this program and knowing that one day I wanted to be a leader on this team was very important to me." Cushing stated, "I learned from the older guys, understanding what the program is about and the philosophy of coach Carroll. Hopefully I can give the same competitive leadership to the younger guys and lead this team through the season."

The front line took the biggest hit of all with Ellis and Jackson moving on to the NFL, but DT Fili Moala (6-5, 295) is back to build off his junior season, and sophomore Everson Griffen (6-3, 265) could explode in 2008. Last season, Griffen became the first true freshmen to start on the defensive line at USC since 1986 and paid immediate dividends with 5.5 sacks.

In the secondary the Trojans possess a dangerous safety tandem in Taylor Mays and Kevin Ellison. Mays (65 tackles) is a hard hitter that puts fear in receivers in the middle of the field. Ellison (57 tackles, two INTs) is versatile and can help the defense in a number of ways.

The Cavaliers were merely average in terms of offensive production in 2007, but with six starters back on this side of the football, the hope is the offense can make some strides in the right direction.

Gone is QB Jameel Sewell, but true freshman Peter Lalich got a taste of action in 2007 and is the only returning signal-caller who got snaps last season. He will battle senior Scott Deke and sophomore Marc Verica for the starting nod.

With the tight end position being vital to what Al Groh likes to do offensively, it will be imperative for senior John Phillips to elevate his game, after catching 17 balls a year ago. Phillips will be replacing Tom Santi, who led the Cavaliers in receiving yards (418) last year. Tailback Mikell Simpson actually led the team in receptions out of the backfield (43) and could take on a vital role in that capacity again. Wideout Kevin Ogletree missed 2007 due to injury and his return on the outside is highly anticipated, giving the Cavs a legitimate deep threat. Maurice Covington (6-4, 225) and Staton Jobe (6-0, 182) bring depth to the receiving corps as well.

The ground game should be a strength with the return of senior Cedric Peerman. The talented tailback lost half of 2007 due to injury. Peerman was leading the ACC in rushing before going down to injury. His replacement was Simpson, who played well down the stretch and finished the year averaging 5.0 yards per carry.

Virginia ranked third in the ACC in scoring defense (19.7 ppg) a year ago. Gone is All-American Chris Long up front and he will be impossible to replace. Long was unblockable last year and finished 2007 with 79 tackles, 21 TFLs and 14 sacks.

The strength of this year's defense is in the linebacking corps, where three of the four starters return, comprised of seniors Jon Copper (team-high 109 tackles, three sacks, two INTs), Antonio Appleby (60 tackles, 2.5 sacks) and Clint Sintim (77 tackles), who led all LBs in the country with nine sacks. Sintim knows what kind of leader Long was but believes his teammates can get the job done without him in 2008.

"Obviously, it's not going to be easy replacing Chris, but I think we have enough young talent that can step up and help this team win some games."

Half of the secondary returns, including junior cover corner Vic Hall (58 tackles, one INT). This is a unit that must stand up tall, especially until the defensive front is able to establish a pass rush without Long.

Last year, the Cavaliers seemed to do all the little things right, winning a national record five games by two points or less. That doesn't seem likely this time around, as Coach Groh will have his hands full just being competitive week in and week out. The Trojans are simply too good in every facet of the game and will likely outplay the hometown Cavs on both sides of the ball.

Sports Network Predicted Outcome: USC 38, Virginia 14

08/27 10:57:12 ET