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Pac-12 preview: Southern Cal

The SportsXchange

LOS ANGELES -- The last news USC coach Lane Kiffin wants to hear this season is that of an injury, especially to star receiver Marqise Lee. This is a make-or-break season for Kiffin and he needs all of his resources to win games and create trust from the Trojans' faithful.

Lee bruised his right shoulder upon landing after catching a long pass from Cody Kessler during practice Aug. 9. He remained on the field until USC's medical staff took him away and was in a sling for a while before returning to limited practice Aug. 14.

Lee's absence would be huge because he had 118 catches for 1,721 yards (14.6 yards per catch) and 14 touchdowns last season.

The positive news of Lee's return to practice was somewhat offset by a hip injury that same day to safety Dion Bailey, who started the previous two years at linebacker and is a key in the team's switch to a new 5-2 defense under former Arizona Cardinals and California defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast.

Bailey moved to safety to strengthen a secondary that is trying to replace T. J. McDonald and Nickell Robey. Bailey was listed as day-to-day by the end of the week, when the Trojans injury list bloated to 23 players in various stages of disrepair and unable to take part in full contact.

These injuries are an inauspicious way for Kiffin to start the 2013 season after the problems he faced in 2012. At least the Trojans do not have the burden of being the preseason No. 1-ranked team in the nation this time around. They were ranked NO. 24 in the preseason poll by the Associated Press.

However, this is still USC and Kiffin will be scrutinized after what transpired last year. Other than failing to meet preseason expectations with senior quarterback Matt Barkley, Kiffin bolted away after a reporter inquired about an injury to a player.

After USC's embarrassing 21-7 loss against Georgia Tech in the Sun Bowl, Kiffin held on to popular offensive coordinator Kennedy Polamalu, a former Trojan and uncle of USC legendary safety Troy Polamalu, until after the national letter-of-intent signing date in February before firing him. He fired Polamalu to gain more control over the play calls, and that did not sit well with former players and fans.

USC has the talent to turnaround last season's fortunes. The most significant question mark is at quarterback, where Kiffin and his staff must decide among juniors Max Wittek and Cody Kessler or freshman phenom Max Browne as the starter.

Wittek and Kessler appear to be the leaders for the No. 1 spot because of their experience. Wittek has a stronger arm and can throw downfield. Kessler is more fluid with the offense and has shown the ability with his running ability to make something out of nothing.

Whoever gets the quarterback job will have the luxury of throwing to Lee, whom many consider the best receiver in college football and a potential Heisman Trophy candidate.

When healthy, Lee draws multiple defenders, which will open opportunities for others and make USC's use of the play-action with running back Silas Redd more effective.

However, the Trojans lost another outstanding receiver to the NFL in Robert Woods and are hoping Nelson Agholor, a sophomore, will step up. He showed flashes of big-play ability during the spring and in fall camp.

Kiffin told reporters Lee and Agholor arguably would be the team's best cornerbacks if they played on defense, which at once indicates their high level of athleticism and, perhaps, some concern about the secondary.

The Trojans believe they have an outstanding freshman safety in Su'a Cravens, a five-star recruit from Vista Murrieta, Calif..

SPOTLIGHT ON SEPTEMBER: The Trojans' non-conference schedule in September is tailor-made for an adequate preparation of an important Pac-12 South showdown at ASU on Sept. 28. After USC travels to Honolulu to face a struggling Hawaii program, the Trojans play three consecutive winnable home games against Washington State, Boston College and Utah State. The Aggies appeared to be the most dangerous of these three teams but head coach Gary Andersen moved to Wisconsin at the conclusion of last season. Utah State will still be formidable with prolific passer Chuckie Keeton returning for his junior season with the Aggies.

KEYS TO SUCCESS: USC's quarterback situation is getting the most publicity with juniors Max Wittek and Cody Kessler vying for the starting role. The Trojans' defense, which showed inadequacies last season, is also important to coach Lane Kiffin recapturing some confidence with the Trojans. USC's linebackers are critical to its 5-2 scheme under Pendergast. Bailey, USC's top linebacker from last season when he led the Trojans with four interceptions, has had both shoulder and hip problems n the last weeks. Hayes Pullard should hold down one of the linebacker spots. Anthony Sarao and Lamar Dawson are competing for the other linebacker spot.

AREAS OF CONCERN: The Trojans' cornerback positions appear to be a weakness for USC because of a lack of consistency. Kiffin will likely use Kevon Seymour and Tolin Harris -- both of whom struggled at times last season -- at one cornerback spot and converted safety Josh Shaw at the other. Kiffin shuffled around his secondary to improve upon USC's pass defense a year ago, which often got burned last season and allowed 227 yards a game.

--Team correspondents for The Sports Xchange contributed material for this story.
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