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Classics are like the first day of school
By Todd Harris
Special to

When the USC Trojans take the field against Penn State in the Kickoff Classic on Sunday (ABC, 2:30 p.m. ET), they might as well be in Atlantic City instead of East Rutherford, N.J. at the Meadowlands. Why? Because for this squad -- as well as the entire Pac-10 Conference -- this game is a huge gamble.

Just ask the Arizoan Wildcats what an opening game loss can do to your season. The Cats limped back to Tucson after a 41-7 drubbing at the hands of the Nittany Lions in the Pigskin Classic last year and it took them several games to get their season back on track.

Zeke Moreno
Butkus Award Candidate Zeke Moreno will be counted on to lead USC's defense.
Playing in one of the Classic games is kind of like the first day of school -- you don't know how you'll do. For the Trojans faithful, the first exam of the year will come on offense. That first question: Is quarterback Carson Palmer healed?

Two other huge questions:

1. Is the much-hyped defense ready to shut opponents down in the high-scoring, wild, wild west?

2. Can the Pac-10 put to rest the notion that it is not the powerhouse conference of old?

Here's what we do know: USC returns nine starters on defense led by Zeke Moreno and Markus Steele at linebacker. That, coupled with the return of Palmer from a season-ending broken collarbone in the third game against Oregon last year, should give the Trojans balance on both sides of the ball.

USC has plenty of talent, but if there is a question mark, it is the running game. If the trio of Malaefou MacKenzie, Sultan McCullough and Petros Papadakis can give Palmer's strong arm an occasional spell, the Men of Troy are going to contend for a Rose Bowl berth.

As for Penn State, forget Joe Paterno's usual mantra of underrating his team. If his squads are always such underdogs, then how come he is only seven wins away from becoming the all-time winningest coach in Division I-A?

Not much changes in Happy Valley from year to year. Joe Pa's back, so are the same unis, the tough schedule and plenty of talent. However, how do you replace Courtney Brown, LaVar Arrington and Brandon Short on defense? That's Paterno's only real dilemma. Defensive end Justin Kurpeikas should shore up his end of the line, and if Rashard Casey is in fact cleared of his legal woes, the offense should be a force to contain with for opposing defenses.

The bottom line is that USC has the talent and personnel to win the Kickoff Classic, the Pac-10 and the Rose Bowl. Now the hard part - the Trojans have to go out and just do it. If they can pull off the win on Sunday, their season may just come up snake eyes.

However, if USC shows up without it's A-game, it'll hear the jeers not only from Happy Valley fans and the L.A. Basin, but the adage that "the Pac-10 is weak" will no doubt be resurrected at least for another week.

So Coach Paul Hackett will roll the dice on Sunday hoping that the result will have people talking about resurgent USC's 1-0 start and not about Joe Paterno being one win closer to overtaking Bear Bryant's record.

Todd Harris is a sideline reporter for ABC's Pac-10 games. He will be checking in throughout the season on Fridays.

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Players to Watch - USC vs. Penn State

Player Q&A - Penn State DE Justin Kurpeikis

Player Q&A - USC linebacker Markus Steele

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