Scott Haynes, College Editor
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
The University of Southern California
has certainly had its stretches of stellar play on the gridiron over the
years, but the last couple under the watchful eye of Pete Carroll have been
simply dominating. After winning a share of the national title following the
2003 season and capturing a second crown (outright) this past year, is there
anyone out there that doubts that a third straight championship is
unattainable, or unavoidable for that matter?
It had been 25 years since USC's last national crown, but the Trojans' 28-14
win over Michigan in the Rose Bowl two years ago, capped off a brilliant
season, earning Carroll's squad the AP National Title. LSU disposed of
Oklahoma in the BCS Title Game, marking the first split national title since
Topping that feat wasn't supposed to be so easy, but USC breezed through most
of its 2004 schedule to set up a showdown with Oklahoma for the nation's top
spot. However, only one team showed up for the "showdown," with the Trojans
destroying the Sooners in the Orange Bowl, 55-19. Heisman Trophy winner Matt
Leinart threw an Orange Bowl record five touchdown passes, a fitting end for a
guy that could have been the top choice in the most recent NFL Draft. However,
in a move that had to put a smile on Carroll's face, Leinart decided to put
off what would have been a multi-million dollar payday from the NFL and return
to school for a run at yet another national title.
The USC Trojans have been simply dominating under the watchful eye of Pete Carroll.
There is little reason to think that anything short of that goal will come to
fruition. USC is once again loaded on both sides of the ball and it all starts
with its gifted signal-caller. Leinart completed 65.3 percent of his passes
last year, for 3,322 yards and 33 TDs, with just six interceptions. While it
is hard to imagine that he could do much better, his supporting cast heading
into 2005 could make it easy for him. Leinart is not the only player that the
opposition has to worry about this year, as USC has arguably more NFL-ready
talent than any team in the country.
While Leinart is certainly the field general, the catalyst for USC's explosive
offense is All-American Reggie Bush. A threat to go the distance every time he
touches the ball, expect Carroll to utilize Bush often in 2005. Perhaps the
nation's most dangerous player, the ultra-talented tailback and 2004 Heisman
finalist rushed for over 900 yards last year and was second on the team in
receptions (43) for another 500+ yards, leading to 13 TDs. Throw in two punt
returns for scores and it is easy to see why Bush is a legitimate Heisman
candidate in 2005. What makes Bush so effective is not only his obvious
talent, but also the fact that there is plenty of other highly skilled players
in the backfield and on the outside.
Joining Bush in the backfield is junior LenDale White, who at 6-2, 235 pounds,
is a workhorse, who has put up huge numbers in his first two seasons. Last
year, White rushed for 1,103 yards and 15 TDs. The season before, he put up
754 yards and 13 scores. The receiving corps is certainly young, but has
plenty of experience in big-game situations. Leinart has the luxury of looking
downfield for not only Bush, but a pair of game-breaking wideouts in sophomore
Dwayne Jarrett and junior Steve Smith. Jarrett emerged as the top pass-catcher
last year as a freshman, leading the way in receptions (55), receiving yards
(849) and TDs (13). Smith fought through an injury-plagued season, but still
put up 42 receptions for 660 yards and six scores in eight games.
Defensively, the Trojans will not be as stocked in 2005, as key losses like
All-American tackles Shaun Cody and Mike Patterson and linebackers Lofa Tatupa
and Matt Grootegoed will be hard to replace. Throw in the loss of DT Manuel
Wright along the defensive line as well (NFL Supplemental Draft due to
academic problems) and the defensive front will not be the dominating unit it
was a year ago. Lawrence Jackson is a talented pass rusher who will need to
step up this season, while nose tackle Sedrick Ellis will have to disrupt
things in the middle. The linebacking corps will go through a transition
period with Tatupa and Grootegoed gone, but the secondary should be in good
shape anchored by one of the nation's premiere defensive backs in strong
safety Darnell Bing.
While the defense may not be as efficient as last year's unit, the loss that
may hurt the most will be Norm Chow's departure to the NFL. Chow was the
mastermind of USC's offensive juggernaut under Carroll the last few years, but
has now taken his talent to the Tennessee Titans. New offensive coordinator
Lane Kiffin and QB coach Steve Sarkisian will try to fill the void. Kiffin is
the son of Tampa Bay Buccaneer defensive guru Monte Kiffin, and was in charge
of USC's passing game under Chow. While it remains to be seen what Chow's
absence will mean in terms of offensive creativity, with talent like Leinart
and company on that side of the line, the task of assuaging the loss may not
be that daunting this season.
The 2005 schedule is challenging to say the least. The team opens in Honolulu
against Hawaii and will also take on Oregon, Arizona State, Notre Dame,
Washington and California on the road. The home slate starts with Arkansas,
followed by Arizona, Washington State, Stanford, Fresno State and UCLA.
Anything short of a national title we be deemed a failure for USC this year.
That is the kind of statement that only dynasties can make.