For a Southern California team that has set an NCAA record with six straight 11-win seasons with a top four finish in the final AP poll, it might be easy to look past the season opener to its next game - against the second-ranked team in the country.
In his seven years at the helm, coach Pete Carroll has managed to help the team avoid such oversights.
The third-ranked Trojans look to take their first step toward extending their dominance Saturday when they open the 2008 season by visiting Virginia.
The date that most stands out on USC’s non-conference schedule is Sept. 13, when the Trojans return from a bye week to host No. 2 Ohio State in a matchup between teams that have combined to play in each of the last four national championship games.
While that game could easily have national title implications, Carroll knows that for his team to be in the running Sept. 13, it must first survive against Virginia.
“Every game is a championship game for us,” Carroll said, repeating his mantra of previous years.
Though they’re in a familiar position near the top of the poll, USC will look much different on offense with only four starters returning. The Trojans are replacing 10 players drafted into the NFL overall, including seven taken in the first two rounds. But that doesn’t bother Carroll, who’s seen plenty of new faces while going 70-8 with two national titles over the last six years.
“We’ve had a terrific run with the kids that have been in the program, that have won national championships, but they’ve all left us,” Carroll said. “To see the change in leadership and the emergence of the leadership, we sense a whole new excitement.”
Quarterback Mark Sanchez is one of the projected new starters. He was carted off the practice field Aug. 8 after dislocating his left kneecap, but went through his first full practice Monday, and appears on track to start against Virginia.
“Oh, I think so, absolutely. Especially mentally,” Sanchez said when asked if he believes he’s ready to play. “I feel good about it. If it were up to me, I’m in.”
Sanchez, a fourth-year junior, started three games last season in place of injured John David Booty. He completed 69 of 114 passes for 695 yards with seven touchdowns and five interceptions in six games overall.
Sanchez will be charged with helping USC return to the national title game after a two-year drought. The Trojans entered last season as the top-ranked team in the country, but a shocking loss to Stanford on Oct. 6 and a defeat at Oregon later that month forced them to settle for an 11-2 finish and the No. 3 spot in the final poll.
While a lack of experience on offense could be a concern, the Trojans appear to be as loaded as ever defensively. Linebackers Rey Maualuga and Brian Cushing - the Rose Bowl defensive MVPs from the last two seasons - opted against the NFL draft to return for their senior seasons, prompting linebackers coach Ken Norton Jr. to call his current group “no doubt the best I’ve had.”
“I’m sure everybody’s confident on the defensive side that we’re going to be somebody,” Maualuga said.
Cushing sprained his left wrist a couple of weeks ago, and was wearing a wrap Monday, but doesn’t expect to miss the opener.
“I’m playing. I’m practicing every day,” he said. “I’m ready to go.”
The Trojans could certainly use him against a Virginia team coming off its first nine-win season since 2002. The Cavaliers were ranked 21st before a 31-28 loss to Texas Tech in the Gator Bowl knocked them out of the Top 25, but enter this year unranked with only 10 starters returning - their fewest since 1986.
That doesn’t bode well for a meeting with USC, but coach Al Groh looks at the matchup as an opportunity.
“We like to have some challenging games on an on-going basis,” he said. “It’s good for our team. It brings out the best in your team. Competition is not about always scheduling to win. Competition is about stepping out there and putting yourself out there a little bit and seeing what you can do with it.”
While Groh acknowledges his team is an underdog, Carroll isn’t taking anything for granted.
“That means nothing to me,” he said. “It’s a big-time football game. We expect it’s going to be a very difficult game. We’re holding nothing back, we’re not resting anybody and we’re not going to get somebody ready for a couple weeks from now. We’re going for it and that’s the only way we know how to do it.”