It's nearly impossible to find a preseason poll that doesn't project USC as the team to beat this season in college football. That's not bad, considering that the Trojans lost more than half of both their full-time football staff and their starting defense.
At the Pac-10 Media Day in Los Angeles, USC coach Pete Carroll fully acknowledged the challenges that his program will face in the coming season before he had accepted the first question from the media. But Carroll stressed that his squad had found answers to difficult questions on the gridiron in the past.
"I don't see the challenges we face as overwhelming, but I see them as different from a couple of years ago and last year," said Carroll. "We have some coaching changes that we're dealing with. We lost some terrific experience on the defensive side of the ball. And those are the issues we'll have to deal with this season."
In the same breath, Carroll also addressed the pressure of being picked to win a third straight AP national title.
"We'll also have to handle the buildup and the hype of the media following. But we've been in this situation before, and I'm hoping that we'll feel comfortable with the spotlight and deal with the challenges out there," Carroll said.
Offensive coordinator Norm Chow's departure to the big league Tennessee Titans was the biggest offseason loss for the Trojans. Often given the credit for USC's recent offensive explosion, Chow was one of college football's most respected coaches. Under his watch, Trojans have won two of the last three Heisman Trophies.
Once again, though, with Carroll's mantra that no one man is bigger than the team, Carroll isn't worried about the departure. Instead, he has split Chow's duties between two men – Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian – and is quite confident in his coaches.
"(Offensive coordinator) Lane Kiffin, who has been up there in the booth for four years and been an integral part of the play-calling, will call the plays from the booth exactly the way we have always done it," said Carroll. "The people have changed, but we have changed nothing about the format."
Kiffin served under Chow as tight ends coach in 2001 and receivers coach from 2002-2004.
Carroll added that Sarkisian, who coached under Carroll in the recent past, will assume more of a hands-on role with the players.
"Sarkisian is in charge of the offense. He's the guy that runs the meetings, he's the guy that speaks to the team, He carries the brunt of the leadership position that Norm Chow held," said Carroll.
One area in which the Trojans haven't experienced any losses in quite some time is on the football field. USC has won 22 consecutive games and 33 of the last 34. But Carroll was quick to point out that he doesn't place much emphasis on records and statistics.
"Our focus and our attention isn't about any kind of number that you can put up or any kind of wins or championship, or any of that stuff," Carroll said. "It's about practicing really well right now, and competing and dominating every day. If we do that kind of stuff, then we'll be a pretty good football team, and we'll see how far we can take it."
Carroll brought along his senior Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Matt Leinart to the media day. The two were relaxed and comfortable in the spotlight, pausing occasionally to joke with each other and the media.
"Mr. Big Time over here has handled the pressure well," said Carroll in referral to Leinart. "He's been Mr. Heisman for over a year, and he's done it beautifully. We've had a lot of fun with it and not taken ourselves too seriously."
Should the coaching issues truly be non-issues, as Carroll suggests, the only thing that may stand in the way of USC winning the Rose Bowl next January is their defense. Only five starters return from a unit which led the Pac-10 last season in total defense.
First and foremost, the Trojans will have to find replacements at both starting tackle positions and at the middle linebacker position. All three of those positions were filled by All-Americans last year.
Carroll, who also serves the Trojans as defensive coordinator, didn't have an immediate answer for the holes he must fill in his defense.
"I understand that's a real challenge for us – we've just lost so many years of starting experience," said Carroll. "It's obviously the focal point challenge.
"Last year we talked about how the offensive linemen hadn't played a lick, and now it's this issue," Carroll continued. "Each year just brings its separate issues. This happens to hit home with my defense, and I've got to take of business."
Carroll was encouraged by his young defensive unit's improvement since the 2004 season ended.
"We made some big strides in spring practice that we're really excited about, and scheme-wise we'll do things to help build confidence and get them going at a high level," said Carroll.
USC's secondary is strong, though, and if any school in the nation has the depth to replace three All-Americans, then it's the USC Trojans. Still, Carroll knows it won't be an easy road.
"You've just got to face your challenges and deal with them, and hope for the best."