Trojans hope to remain among nation's elite

Updated: August 22, 2003, 9:56 PM ET

LOS ANGELES -- Welcome back, Trojans!

Southern California returned to its accustomed spot among college football's elite teams last season after six years of mediocrity -- the main cause for two coaching changes.

The Trojans appear to have what it takes to remain in the national picture.

"We have a lot of guys coming back. We know what they can do," third-year coach Pete Carroll said. "We've got a lot of developing to do and a lot to accomplish with the young guys."

The Trojans entered last season with a 37-35 record since the beginning of the 1996 season. But with Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Carson Palmer leading the way, USC went 11-2 and won its last eight games, including a 38-17 triumph over Iowa in the Orange Bowl.

Now it's a new year.

"It feels like we're starting over," Carroll said.

Not really.

Ranked eighth in The Associated Press preseason poll, the Trojans have 14 returning starters. That doesn't include Mike Williams, who caught 81 passes for 1,265 yards and 14 touchdowns last year, and defensive lineman Shaun Cody, who started the first six games last season before tearing knee ligaments.

Williams will team with Keary Colbert to give the Trojans one of the best wide receiver tandems in the country; Colbert had 71 catches for 1,029 yards and five TDs.

All those passes were thrown by Palmer, who's playing for the Cincinnati Bengals after being the No. 1 pick in last April's NFL draft.

That leaves third-year sophomore Matt Leinart as the starting quarterback, at least to begin the season.

The first pass Leinart throws Aug. 30 at No. 6 Auburn in the season-opener will be the first of his college career.

"The team isn't worried about it," Colbert said. "Life without Carson shouldn't be that big a deal, but we've got to do it on the field. It's football, there's always something new. That's just part of football."

Leinart won the starting job in the spring and looked good in the early part of training camp.

"He's sat on the bench and been at every quarterback meeting for two years," offensive coordinator Norm Chow said. "You hope that something has sunk in.

"He's surrounded with good enough people. He doesn't have to be Carson Palmer. He doesn't have to be spectacular."

Leinart, a 6-foot-5, 225-pound left-hander, is aware of the talent surrounding him.

"We're loaded at receiver, the offensive line is one of the most experienced in the country, and then you go to our defense -- the best defense in the country," he said.

The rest of the offensive backfield is also inexperienced, but the coaching staff is high on tailbacks Hershel Dennis, a sophomore, and Reggie Bush, a freshman. Dennis gained 198 yards on 49 carries last season.

Sophomore Brandon Hancock and junior Lee Webb are competing for the starting job at fullback.

As Leinart pointed out, the defense should be very good. A healthy Cody will team with Omar Nazel, Kenechi Udeze and Mike Patterson to give the Trojans an exceptional front four.

Linebackers Matt Grootegoed and Melvin Simmons are solid if not spectacular, and Marcell Allmond, Kevin Arbet and Jason Leach lead a strong secondary.

"We are so much deeper than we've been before," Carroll said.

USC was very successful last season despite one of the nation's most difficult schedules. It doesn't appear to be quite as tough this year, with the nonconference schedule including Brigham Young and Hawaii instead of Colorado and Kansas State.

The Trojans will be challenged in October with road games at Arizona State, Notre Dame and Washington. ASU and Washington are considered the top two challengers to USC in the Pac-10, and Notre Dame is Notre Dame.

"Since I've been here, this conference has been extremely difficult and evenly matched," Carroll said. "That's what I expect this year."

USC has played in 28 Rose Bowl games, but none since beating Northwestern 41-32 following the 1995 season.

Recent history says that won't happen, since the Pac-10 champion has had a senior quarterback for five straight years and no team has won the title without at least a fourth-year quarterback since 1991.

"The guys are ready to go. Everyone else on our offense is working harder to relieve any pressure on our quarterbacks," Williams said.

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index