Team countdown: No. 1 USC

Mike Huguenin
Yahoo Sports

Get ready to see a lot of "The Smirk" this season.

USC coach Lane Kiffin's usual facial expression can be infuriating to some and entertaining to others. Given how much talent there is on the Trojans' roster, there will be a lot of infuriated and entertained onlookers this fall.

USC's run of seven consecutive 11-win seasons ended in 2009 with a 9-4 mark, and an 8-5 record followed in 2010. But the Trojans again won double-figure games last season (10-2), and this season is setting up as a potential title-winning campaign.

Kiffin has 15 full-time starters returning, and the Trojans will have one of the most potent offenses in the nation thanks to the return of QB Matt Barkley and the nation's best receiving duo (sophomore Marqise Lee and junior Robert Woods) as well as the addition of 1,000-yard rusher Silas Redd from Penn State. Four starting offensive linemen are back, as is TB Curtis McNeal, who ran for 1,005 yards last season but will be a backup this season.

The defense isn't as loaded, but a defensive staff headed by Lane's dad, Monte, knows that any mistakes made by the unit can be erased quickly by the potent offense. Besides, the back seven looks good.

USC also returns its kicker and its punter.

Man, it must be nice to be Lane Kiffin, huh?

The particulars

Last season: 10-2 overall, 7-2 in Pac-12 (1st in Pac-12 South, ineligible for postseason)
Coach: Lane Kiffin (18-7, 3rd season at USC; 25-13, 4th season overall)
Returning starters (minimum 7 starts last season): Offense (9) – QB Matt Barkley, T Kevin Graf, TE Xavier Grimble, C Khaled Holmes, WR Marqise Lee, G Marcus Martin, G John Martinez, TB Curtis McNeal, WR Robert Woods. Defense (6) – LB Dion Bailey, E Wes Horton, FS T.J. McDonald, LB Hayes Pullard, CB Nickell Robey, SS Jawanza Starling. Special teams (2) – K Andre Heidari, P Kyle Negrete.
Fast fact: USC has lost 11 games in the past three season; the Trojans had lost nine times total in the previous seven seasons.

[Related: Top 10 receiving units: Big 12 solid, but the best is out west]

Offense

Barkley's decision to stay in school for his senior season has shaped both the national title race and the hunt for the Heisman. He is the main reason the Trojans have a legitimate shot at the championship and also is the frontrunner for the Heisman.

Barkley will be at the controls of what should be one of the nation's most prolific offenses, one that should

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Barkley is the Heisman frontrunner and will set numerous USC career passing records. (Getty Images)

average more than 300 passing yards and more than 175 rushing yards.

He will be a four-year starter for the Trojans and the school's first-ever three-time captain. Barkley completed 69.1 percent of his passes and threw for 3,528 yards, 39 touchdowns and seven interceptions in 2011. He should graduate with school career records in completions, TDs, passing yards and total offense.

Redd's arrival gives the Trojans two backs who rushed for 1,000 yards last season. At Penn State, which had a mediocre passing attack, Redd ran for 1,241 yards and seven touchdowns, and had six 100-yard games. He isn't likely to be as productive this season because of all the surrounding talent. At Penn State, he would've been the focal point of the offense; that won't be the case at USC. McNeal's role will be lessened, but both tailbacks are proven performers, which gives Lane Kiffin a lot of flexibility.

Redshirt freshman FB Soma Vainuku is a solid all-around player who gives the Trojans even more backfield firepower. Vainuku is a 250-pounder with good speed and good hands.

The receiving corps is excellent. In Woods and Lee, USC has the best 1-2 punch at receiver in the nation. They combined for 184 receptions for 2,435 yards and 26 touchdowns last season. Woods already has 176 receptions for 2,084 yards and 21 touchdowns in his career, and should set USC career records in receptions and receiving yards this season. Lee exceeded expectations as a true freshman last season; he had 73 receptions, averaged 15.7 yards per catch and scored 11 times. The No. 3 receiver could be sophomore George Farmer, who, like Lee and Woods, attended Gardena (Calif.) Junipero Serra. Junior De'Von Flournoy and redshirt freshman Victor Blackwell also should see time.

The top two tight ends are sophomores Randall Telfer and Xavier Grimble; they combined for 41 receptions and nine TDs. Both are athletic enough to take advantage of the mismatches they get because of the presence of Lee and Woods on the outside.

Every explosive offense needs a big-time line, and USC has that, too. Four starters return; unfortunately for the Trojans, the guy who isn't back is T Matt Kalil, who might have been the nation's best offensive lineman last season. USC will be fine without him. The line is headed by senior C Khaled Holmes. He will be a three-year starter and should contend for All-America honors. Sophomore G Marcus Martin started as a true freshman last season and has the look of a future All-American. Junior John Martinez, his running mate at guard, also returns. T Kevin Graf, who played well last season after recovering from shoulder surgery, is the fourth returning starter. The new guy up front is expected to be sophomore T Aundrey Walker, who might be the Trojans' most physical lineman. Walker has been hurt during camp, and true freshman Max Tuerk has looked good in his stead. Depth is iffy.

[Related: Team countdown: No. 2 LSU still has something to prove after 13-win season]

Defense

The defense should be good, but it won't be near as good as the offense. USC surrendered 374.8 yards per game last season, with was 55th nationally, and that number probably needs to drop by at least 40 if USC wants to hoist the crystal football in January.

One area to watch is pass defense; the Trojans gave up 263.3 passing yards per game last season, one season after allowing 259.5 per game. Those are two of the four worst single-season marks in USC history.

To be fair, USC was stingy against the run, which led to more passes by opponents. In addition, teams threw the ball more to try to catch up. Still, you can be sure Monte Kiffin shakes his head and mutters under his breath when he sees those figures.

USC returns five starters in the back seven but just one up front, E Wes Horton. The line is a big problem. Horton really is on the spot now that E Derek Kennard seems likely to miss the season with a torn pectoral muscle. Horton, a senior, is the only upperclassmen in the front four likely to see any appreciable playing time. There are high hopes for sophomore T George Uko, a former four-star recruit who made two starts last season.

The other two starting spots up front aren't as settled. Sophomore J.R. Tavai was expected to go into fall camp as a starter at tackle, but he moved to end after Kennard's injury and could start there. The other candidates are Kevin Greene and Greg Townsend Jr. Tavai also could end up being a swingman, playing tackle and end. Redshirt freshman Antwaun Woods likely will line up next to Uko at tackle. Redshirt freshman Christian Heyward is going to play, and touted freshman Leonard Williams, who was recruited as an end, was moved inside after Kennard's injury. Depth, again, is an issue.

The linebacker corps is much more settled. The Trojans received stellar play from two redshirt freshmen

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Bailey had a strong season, tying for the team lead in tackles and making two interceptions. (AP)

last season, Dion Bailey and Hayes Pullard. They tied for the team lead with 81 tackles and added a combined six sacks, four pass breakups and two interceptions. The middle linebacker is expected to be sophomore Lamar Dawson, who started four times as a true freshman last season. He is physical and aggressive. Senior Tony Burnett, redshirt freshman Anthony Sarao and true freshman Scott Starr look to be the top reserves.

Three starters return in the secondary, headed by potential All-American FS T.J. McDonald, a senior. He had 67 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, three interceptions and two pass breakups last season. Senior SS Jawanza Starling, a big hitter, is another returning starter. The final returnee is junior CB Nickell Robey, like Starling a Floridian. Robey is just 5-8 and 165 pounds, but he plays with aggression and had nine pass breakups.

The new starter at corner was expected to be senior Isiah Wiley, but he has academic issues and hasn't practiced. Senior Brian Baucham, junior Torin Harris and sophomore Anthony Brown are others who could start.

Special teams

K Andre Heidari and P Kyle Negrete are back. Heidari was 15-of-17 and hit a 50-yarder. Negrete punted only 39 times and averaged 40.1 yards per attempt. Redshirt freshman Kris Albarado could beat out Negrete.

Woods is dangerous on punt and kickoff returns, while Lee (kickoffs) and Robey (punts) also are possibilities as returners.

USC's coverage units were pitiful last season and must improve. The Trojans allowed two kickoffs to be returned for touchdowns, and they also allowed 10.4 yards per punt return.

Schedule

The Trojans open with Hawaii and Syracuse (in East Rutherford, N.J.), then get serious in Game 3: at Stanford. It will be a good test for both teams; for Stanford, it's a shot to prove it still has what it needs to contend for the league title.

There also are intriguing October road trips to Utah and Washington, but the real biggie is Nov. 3 at the Coliseum when Oregon visits. That could be the first of two meetings this season, as those teams are expected to win their respective Pac-12 divisions and thus meet in the league title game.

USC closes out the regular season with archrival UCLA (on the road) and Notre Dame (at home).

[Related: NCAA football countdown: Can No. 3 Alabama repeat as national champs?]

Overview

USC's offense should be a thing of beauty – well, a thing of beauty if you like watching points being scored. Barkley. Woods. Lee. Redd. Holmes. There is talent aplenty on that side of the ball, more than enough to bring home a national title. And whether or not you like Lane Kiffin, you have to admit the guy is a good play-caller, and he certainly has the tools to use this season.

The defense? That unit is a long way from being as good as the defenses at Alabama and LSU – and it doesn't appear to be in the same class as Oregon's, either. It won't be a bad defense; it's just not going to be elite.

For USC to win it all, then, its offense has to be at peak efficiency in the big games. The game(s) with Oregon could be an epic shootout.

The depth factor also is huge. Even with Kennard's injury, a case can be made that USC has the best starting 22 in the nation. But the NCAA-imposed scholarship limits hurt, and there is little experienced depth. Most of the backups are young and inexperienced – talented guys but still inexperienced. Alabama and LSU (and Oregon) can overcome some injuries. USC cannot.

Still, we have USC at No. 1. Why? It's all about the offense.

The recruiting side

Average recruiting ranking for past five years: 5th nationally
The buzz: One of the biggest storylines on National Signing Day was that the Trojans "lost" five-star offensive linemen Kyle Murphy and Andrus Peat to Stanford. USC still landed an outstanding class filled with talent. Five-star OL Zach Banner and Jordan Simmons could be outstanding. Four-star OL Max Tuerk was impressive at the Army All-American Bowl. Five-star WR Nelson Agholor, from Tampa, could be the Trojans' next big-time wide receiver. The Trojans signed only 16 players because of scholarship restrictions, but the coaches did an incredible job landing some of the best talent across the country. – Adam Gorney, Rivals.com

Breakthrough player

FB Soma Vainuku. No one has come farther faster than Vainuku, a redshirt freshman. Vainuku is a 6-foot, 250-pounder whose 4.5 time in the 40, Lane Kiffin says, "is faster than some of our tailbacks." Vainuku has become the multi-skilled player the USC system demands of its fullback. Vainuku always has been able run and catch. But the cousin of former USC All-America LB Rey Maualuga had to learn how to block. Now he has and coaches plan to give him lots of chances to show what he can do. – Dan Weber, USCFootball.com

For more on USC throughout the season, check out USCFootball.com

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