USC begins its quest to return to the top of the BCS standings, as the top-ranked Trojans open up their 2012 schedule this weekend at home against the Hawaii Warriors.
Lane Kiffin has had to sit idle, as the sins of USC's past caused the Trojans to miss out on the postseason the last two years. In 2011, the Trojans were one of the nation's best, finishing at 10-2 overall. They completely blew out UCLA in the regular-season finale (50-0) to finish atop the South Division at 7-2, but it was the Bruins that went on to the inaugural Pac-12 Championship Game due to USC's postseason ban.
The Warriors finished up their stint in the WAC with a 6-7 overall record in 2011, including a mere 3-4 mark in league play, prompting Greg McMackin to retire.
There is a new sheriff in town to lead Hawaii into its debut season in the Mountain West Conference in former USC assistant Norm Chow. The veteran coach is making his debut as a head coach in 2012 and will need to get used to the view from a different perspective.
"I hope I don't trip walking out on the field. I've never been on the field. It's another game, once the game gets started...I have coached a game from the field. And it sounds coach-speak but, it's not about me. I'm anxious to watch our guys perform, I really am. We'll manage, we have great coaches. We've gone over the scenarios of the game time and time again. Will we make mistakes? I'm not sure. Will we make sure we use our time outs right, that kind of thing? We will just have to see. I don't even think about that. I'm more worried about how our players are gonna react and about how I'm gonna do."
USC has won all seven previous meetings with Hawaii, although one of those was vacated due to NCAA sanctions.
Chow will institute his pro-set offense, but to do so, he needs a savvy quarterback following the departure of three-year starter Bryant Moniz. He thinks he has found that guy in Duke transfer Sean Schroeder, who graduated from Duke in the summer and took advantage of the NCAA's graduate transfer rule to be eligible immediately. Schroeder is certainly well rested, after redshirting in his first season in Durham and not seeing the field in both 2010 and 2011. David Graves and Jeremy Higgins wait in the wings if Schroeder isn't up to the challenge.
Helping him will be a full array of receiving options, headlined by junior Billy Ray Stutzmann, who led the team with 78 receptions last year, for 910 yards and 4 TDs. Depth is found in the form of senior Jeremiah Ostrowski, junior Justin Clapp and sophomore Trevor Davis.
Running the football has not been high on Hawaii's priority list in the past, but things will change under Chow. Joey Iosefa led the team last year (548 yards, 7 TDs), but was used sparingly. The 240-pounder netted 5.0 yards per carry in 2011 and could have a breakout year in 2012. There is also a great deal of optimism surrounding redshirt freshman Will Gregory, who had a strong spring and summer.
Hawaii had some playmakers on the defensive side of the football, with five starters earning All-WAC status. This year, only four starters return to this side of the football, leaving Chow with a relatively clean slate to work with.
The defensive line is still likely to be the strength of the defense, led by Paipai Falemalu, who finished 2011 with 50 tackles, 6.0 TFLs and 4.5 sacks.
The linebacking corps is missing a couple of key contributors as well, but holdover Art Laurel returns to anchor this unit after a huge 2011 where he posted 61 tackles, a team-best 14.5 TFLs and 9 sacks.
A young secondary will have to come together quickly for Hawaii. Junior Mike Edwards had a strong season last year (43 tackles, 12 PBUs) at one corner. Fellow junior John Hardy-Tuliau is a versatile DB who tallied 73 tackles, starting all 13 games at free safety in 2011.
USC is loaded with offensive talent and very well may possess the top two players in the country regardless of position. It all starts with Heisman hopeful Matt Barkley at the quarterback position. Barkley gave up a chance to be a top-10 pick in this year's NFL Draft to return to USC for a run at a national title.
In his record-setting 2011 campaign, Barkley completed almost 70 percent of his passes, for 3,528 yards and 39 TDs, against just 7 INTs. He has the chance to eclipse those numbers with the return of All-American wideout Robert Woods. The 6-foot-1, 190-pounder finished last year with 111 receptions, for 1,292 yards and 15 TDs. The All-American talent pool doesn't end with Barkley and Woods however, as Marqise Lee is coming off a tremendous freshman campaign in which he hauled in 73 balls, for 1,143 yards and 11 TDs.
The backfield already had a star in Curtis McNeal (1,005 yards, 6.9 ypc), but was recently bolstered with Penn State transfer Silas Redd, who rushed for 1,241 yards and 7 TDs for the Nittany Lions a year ago.
Eight starters return on the defensive side of the football for the Trojans, including some serious talent in the back seven. A trio of sophomore start in the linebacking corps, but all three started a year ago. Dion Bailey and Hayes Pullard will flank MLB Lamar Dawson. Bailey and Pullard each posted 81 stops a year ago. The secondary will feature All-American safety T.J. McDonald, who posted 67 tackles and 3 INTs in 2011.
Up front is where USC is a little thin, with only defensive end Wes Horton returning as a starter, after posting 22 tackles and 4 sacks a year ago.
USC is loaded for a national title run and Barkley's return was certainly influenced by that.
"The 2012 team has some serious unfinished business to attend to, " said Barkley.
Chow's debut with the Warriors will be filled with mixed emotions, as he returns to the Coliseum. Still, motivating his team against the top team in the land won't be easy.
"We just hope they're not overwhelmed. We tried to talk to them about it and even thought about going over there before, but I don't think so. You know, they understand, they read the paper, they know. You don't fool kids, I don't think you ever fool the players. We just have to go and convince them once the game starts they have a different color jersey. It's like go face the snakes. We certainly understand and respect who they are. We just have to go out and perform."