LOS ANGELES — Southern California is nobody's No. 1 team heading into this season, and the Trojans are eager for the chance to surprise everybody.
High expectations shouldn't bother any player who pulls on a USC jersey, coach Lane Kiffin figures. Yet the Trojans' preseason top ranking hung over a program still laboring under NCAA probation and scholarship limitations last fall, making their tumble to a 7-6 season even more embarrassing.
Receiver Marqise Lee can see where last season went wrong, and the Biletnikoff Award winner is determined to prevent it from happening to another talent-laden team with Pac-12 title aspirations.
"The national championship, that's where we wanted to go last year," Lee said. "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."
With Matt Barkley, Robert Woods and T.J. McDonald gone to the NFL, the Trojans have lost much of the star power that led to last season's lofty ranking. But Lee is back along with tailback Silas Redd and five starters on the offensive line, and a revamped defense appears ready to rebound from last season's historically bad performances.
If USC's undersized list of scholarship players can stay healthy during the Pac-12 grind, Kiffin believes the Trojans have more than enough talent to make a run with UCLA and Arizona State for the Pac-12 South title.
Four things to watch for as USC rebuilds from last season's disappointment:
1. WHO TAKES THE SNAPS?: USC's quarterback competition is down to Max Wittek and Cody Kessler, but Kiffin has acknowledged no favorite in the derby to replace Barkley. Wittek started the Trojans' final two games of last season and has a powerful arm, but the USC coaches also love Kessler's smarts and mobility. Whoever gets picked to make the season-opening start at Hawaii will know he's always a few bad plays away from losing the job, but both passers say they thrive on the competition.
2. LEE'S NEW WINGMAN: Woods is gone to the Buffalo Bills, so Lee will get even more attention from the Pac-12's defenses as a junior. But Lee is confident the Trojans have a capable replacement for the prolific Woods: Nelson Agholor, the sophomore from Tampa with speed and skill to rival the league's best. Lee says he already has a tight bond with Agholor, who caught 19 passes as a freshman.
3. COOL SEAT: Kiffin is not in imminent danger of losing his job heading into his fourth season, according to athletic director Pat Haden, who praises the outspoken coach's work while handling the Trojans' NCAA sanctions. In fact, Kiffin might be putting more pressure on himself than he's getting from Haden or President Max Nikias. Kiffin, 25-13 in his three seasons back in Los Angeles, realizes last season was a disaster for recruiting, because it allowed rival coaches to whisper into high schoolers' ears about the USC coaching staff's stability. With one more year of scholarship restrictions still to endure, Kiffin knows the Trojans need a return to top form to keep their place of West Coast pre-eminence in recruiting.
4. REBUILDING THE D: Monte Kiffin left his son's staff for an NFL job after watching the USC defense's humiliating degeneration last season, with many of USC's teenagers unable to grasp the intricacies of the defensive guru's sophisticated schemes. Lane Kiffin essentially replaced his father with Clancy Pendergast, the former Cal defensive coordinator and veteran coach who ran a 3-4 scheme for the Golden Bears, but is implementing a 5-2 setup for the Trojans. The move puts pass-rushing virtuoso Leonard Williams back at defensive end while moving gritty Morgan Breslin to outside linebacker. Junior linebacker Hayes Pullard already has established himself as the group's leader.
Predicted conference finish: Third in Pac-12 South.