After losing Heisman Trophy winner Carson Palmer, Southern California had its share of doubters going into 2003—and the Trojans went on the win the national championship.
This year, despite another loaded roster and the top ranking in the AP Preseason Top 25, an eventful offseason has some questioning coach Pete Carroll’s team again.
The Trojans look to start dispelling those doubts when they open their season against Virginia Tech on Saturday night in the Black Coaches Association Football Classic at FedEx Field in Landover, Md.
USC will be looking to extend a nine-game win streak that propelled it to last year’s national title, capping the run with a 28-14 victory over Michigan in the Rose Bowl to finish 12-1. USC was first in The Associated Press voting and LSU won the Bowl Championship Series title.
While a number of key players, including star quarterback Matt Leinart, return for the Trojans and their recruiting class was widely considered to be the best in the country, several off-the-field situations have deprived USC of some of its core personnel.
The biggest loss is star receiver Mike Williams, who had his request to be reinstated denied Thursday by the NCAA after a failed attempt to join the NFL. Williams’ ineligibility leaves the Trojans without a player that had 95 catches, 1,516 receiving yards and 16 touchdowns last season.
In addition, All-American defensive end Kenechi Udeze passed up his senior season to enter the NFL draft, and wide receiver Whitney Lewis and tailback Chauncey Washington, who were expected to add depth, aren’t eligible because of academics.
Tight end Gregg Guenther is concentrating on basketball, and backup Dominique Byrd is out with a leg injury.
Winston Justice, a two-year starter at offensive tackle, won’t play because he was suspended from school for two quarters for allegedly pulling a pellet gun last February on a fellow student.
“You began to wonder what was going to happen next,” Leinart said.
Most recently, police confirmed that at least one USC player is under investigation for sexual assault.
“Whatever this (the assault investigation) becomes, Mike Williams, the No. 1 rankings, issues that have happened to us, there’s always stuff you have to deal with,” said Carroll, 29-9 as USC’s coach. “We just have to take things as they come and make sure that we’re very well informed and know to do the very right thing for the situation, and we’ll do that.”
Despite the key losses, Carroll’s team should still be well-equipped to continue its dominance. Leinart threw for 3,556 yards and 38 touchdowns as a sophomore, though improving upon those numbers may be tough without Williams.
Sophomore running backs LenDale White and Reggie Bush combined to rush for nearly 1,300 yards in 2003. Leadership of the speedy USC defense will fall to All-American senior defensive end Shaun Cody, a key member of the unit that finished first in the country in rushing defense last season at 60.2 yards per game.
USC’s ability to stop the run should be tested immediately by Virginia Tech, which is known for its bruising rushing attack. The Hokies, though, are facing a rebuilding season, with tailback Kevin Jones, the No. 2 rusher in program history, and electrifying cornerback-punt returner DeAngelo Hall having left early for the NFL.
Coach Frank Beamer also saw school career receiving leader Ernest Wilford and All-American center Jake Grove graduate, and backup quarterback Marcus Vick get suspended for the season after his conviction for contributing to the delinquency of a minor and other offenses.
The Hokies will have to rely on talented but inexperienced senior quarterback Bryan Randall and eight other returning starters as they attempt to return to the level of Nov. 2, when they pounded then-No. 2 Miami 31-7 in Blacksburg in the high point of their season.
The young Hokies will also be adjusting to life in the ACC, which they joined along with Miami after leaving the Big East following last season.
“I think this is a year when we’ve got more question marks and unknowns than I can remember in a long time,” Beamer said. “But it’s exciting, too.”
Virginia Tech and USC will be meeting for the first time. Tech has won its last eight season openers, but the Hokies face a daunting task in continuing that streak against the Trojans, who are 8-0-1 in openers following their national championship seasons.