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July 24, 2008

Great expectations nothing new for Trojans

MORE PAC-10 MEDIA DAY: Notebook: Locker more than just legs | Photo Gallery

LOS ANGELES Maybe USC coach Pete Carroll and Trojans linebacker Brian Cushing should join a presidential campaign.

At Pac-10 Media Day on Thursday, the two presented a consistent message. Their talking points were the following: We're getting ready for the opener at Virginia, our ultimate goal is to win the Pac-10 and play in the Rose Bowl, and preseason expectations mean nothing.

If it sounds rehearsed, it is.

Those talking points have become routine for the Trojans. In three of the past four seasons, the Trojans were The Associated Press' preseason No. 1 team. In four consecutive seasons, they've been the highest-ranked Pac-10 team in the preseason polls.

When the polls come out this season, USC almost certainly will be the highest-ranked team in the league, and it doesn't take an expert political analyst to know that this USC team can be up there with every other one Carroll has had in Los Angeles since 2002.

There's a changing of the guard, but Carroll doesn't need a long memory to find parallels with this season's team and those from the recent past.

Naming junior Mark Sanchez the starting quarterback after spring ball recalled the Trojans' decision to go with Matt Leinart ahead of Matt Cassel in 2003. Like Leinart, Sanchez didn't fully embrace his leadership role until he received the endorsement from the coaching staff. After that happened, the energetic leader in Sanchez moved to the forefront.

"Part of the reason of naming him was to see if he would come out," Carroll said. "He wasn't able to (lead). He wasn't anointed yet. Quarterbacks need to be put in the position so they can best express themselves."

USC's current stable of tailbacks recalls the Reggie Bush-LenDale White combination, perhaps not in clout or production - yet - but in the way USC mixes and matches.

Joe McKnight is the big-play tailback, and he may be a better route-runner out of the slot than Bush. But he's not C.J. Gable, the most well-rounded back, or Stafon Johnson, the best back at finding creases in the defense.

The tailback rotation will continue, much as it did during the Bush-White days.

"It has never a problem for us," Carroll said. "It's a problem for everybody else who can't figure out how we do it or why we do it that way. We're always going to go with whatever feels right."

Pete Carroll arrived at USC in 2001. The run of six consecutive Pac-10 titles and top-four finishes followed a year later. Since then, Associated Press voters have reserved a spot in the top 10 for the Trojans in the preseason poll.
Season Preseason rank Final rank
2007 1st 3rd
2006 6th 4th
2005 1st 2nd
2004 1st 1st
2003 8th 1st
2002 20th 4th
Once again, draftable players turned down the NFL to return to the program. Defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis, defensive end Lawrence Jackson and offensive tackle Sam Baker played their senior seasons and became first-round picks.

Next up are linebackers Rey Maualuga and Brian Cushing, who will be All-America candidates and possible first-round picks. Maualuga and Cushing are two of 11 players remaining at USC who played in the 2006 Rose Bowl loss to Texas. They are the de facto caretakers of the USC defense.

"It's been that common role we've had since we've been here," Cushing said. "One guy steps up and the next guy does just as well or even better. You can't replace Sedrick Ellis or Lawrence or (linebacker) Keith (Rivers), but you've got other guys who can do the job also. There's no letdowns or drop-offs."

Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh didn't come to Pac-10 Media Day calling USC the best team in the history of the sport this year, but it's still clear the rest of the league is lining up behind the Trojans. The names are different at USC, but the Trojans have the same target they always have in the Pac-10.

"The bull's-eye doesn't mean anything," Carroll said. "It's cool. It's a good thing.

"That's exactly what you hope for."

MORE PAC-10 MEDIA DAY: Notebook: Locker more than just legs | Photo Gallery

David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com.

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