After failing to meet expectations as the top-ranked team in the country last year, USC enters 2013 just inside the Top 25.
That hasn't stopped coach Lane Kiffin's team from thinking big.
Seeking a 16th consecutive season-opening victory, the 24th-ranked Trojans try to stay unbeaten against Hawaii as these teams square off Thursday night at Aloha Stadium.
USC is hoping to have turned a page following last season's forgettable collapse down the stretch. The Trojans, who opened No. 1 in the country, dropped five of their final six games, including an embarrassing 21-7 loss to Georgia Tech in the Sun Bowl to finish 7-6. There were reports of an altercation in the locker room after the bowl game with younger players questioning the leadership of the seniors.
"The national championship, that's where we wanted to go last year," said reigning Biletnikoff Award winner Marqise Lee. "After we got our second loss and we could see we couldn't make it, we kind of bugged out a little. This year, we've just got to stay focused on the games when we play them, and not start thinking about the national championship or anything else.
"It's been a long time. I've been ready since the end of the bowl game. I'm ready to start it just like everybody else. That's why I've been working so hard."
Lee set Pac-12 records for receptions (118) and receiving yards (1,721) to go along with 14 touchdowns in 2012, proving nearly unstoppable with former star quarterback Matt Barkley.
"They've both done so well, made so many plays," said Kiffin, who has yet to name a starter. "It didn't show itself that one guy was above the other guy, so we do it all the time with other positions. We're not going to be stubborn and name a starter just because we're supposed to. ... We've got to do with all of our decisions what's best for our team.
"For us, we look at it as a great thing. We've got two guys that we feel great about. We don't feel like we have to limit our offense with either one of them in there."
Wittek posted a lousy passer rating of 82.0 while starting the final two games in place of the injured Barkley last year, completing 28 of 60 passes for 293 yards. He recorded one touchdown and two interceptions against then-No. 1 Notre Dame in a 22-13 loss Nov. 24 before throwing three picks against the Yellow Jackets.
"We're both ready to go, playing like we're No. 1 and our preparation will be the same either way," Wittek said of his competition with Kessler. "Both our goals are going to be the same - to help the team win."
Kessler's only action came in a 50-6 rout of Colorado on Oct. 20, completing two passes for nine yards with the game out of hand.
While USC also lost receiver Robert Woods and safety T.J. McDonald to the pros, it is counting on returning tailback Silas Redd to take a big step forward. The senior finished eighth in the conference with 75.4 run yards per game to go along with nine rushing touchdowns in 2012.
The Trojans have to like their chances of getting off to a good start against the Rainbow Warriors, whom they easily beat 49-10 in last season's opener. Lee hauled in 10 receptions for 197 yards and a touchdown as USC improved to 8-0 in the all-time series.
Hawaii is looking to bounce back after going 3-9 in its first season under coach Norm Chow. Starting quarterback Sean Schroeder, who threw for 1,878 yards to go along with 11 touchdowns and 12 interceptions in 2012, returns for his senior year.
He will surely be looking for better protection from his offensive line after getting sacked a Mountain West-high 35 times last season.
Chow, the USC offensive coordinator from 2001-04, is expected to run the offense after coordinator Aaron Price was dismissed earlier this month.
Hawaii has dropped 16 of its last 19 against ranked opponents, including all nine matchups against non-conference foes by an average of 25.7 points.
After battling injuries during camp, Trojans safety Dion Bailey (hip) and tight end Randall Telfer (unknown) are both expected to be available.
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