Are USC Trojans a national sleeper in 2013?

USC, in terms of national championships, Heisman Trophy winners, All-Americans, great traditions and NFL success, might be the nation's preeminent program, apologies to Alabama and Notre Dame.

So calling the Trojans "sleepers" seems, well, odd. But after last season's disaster, which included USC becoming the first preseason AP No. 1 to finish unranked and with six losses, a run at the nation's top-10 isn't being widely projected.

Most folks believe coach Lane Kiffin is simply fighting to keep his job.

But Phil Steele is going against the media grain. He's calling USC one of 10 "surprise" team of 2013Insider. Surprise, as in a good way, not a 2012 way:

This year, they lose quarterback Matt Barkley, and I only project them as No. 25 in the preseason AP poll. USC actually ranks No. 1 in the Pac-12 in my ratings in six out of nine categories, which says a lot about the Trojans' talent when the conference features perennial top 10 teams in Oregon and Stanford. USC does have to play both Arizona State and Notre Dame on the road, but it gets Stanford and UCLA at home while avoiding Oregon. Only one of my nine sets of power ratings calls for the Trojans to go unbeaten, but I think this year's squad is more talented and deeper than the 2012 preseason No. 1 squad. The Trojans are way under the radar heading into the 2013 season.

Steele also includes Arizona State on the list, by the way.

But Steele doesn't only see the Trojans as better-than-expected. And not only is he projecting USC to win the Pac-12's South Division. He's ranking the Trojans sixth in the nation.

Here's his USC preview page and his ultimate thoughts (we've replaced some of Steele's abbreviations; he's mainstream enough that losing some of his outstanding publications quirks would be a positive):

[This year] things are pointing upward as they are +2.0 in my Stock Market Indicator, had 2 net close losses and -4 net upsets plus have 15 [returning starters]. For the first time [since]/'04, USC avoids Oregon although they do play Stanford. They are actually deeper at almost every position, making them better equipped to absorb [injuries] (unlike [last year]). Despite their 5-4 [Pac-12] record they were +69.7ypg [in conference play] (4thbest).USC goes from a disappointing team to a Surprise Team (pg 19).

This shouldn't be shocking, by any stretch. Last year's 7-6 finish was a massive underachievement not representative of the talent on hand. Much of that talent is back, and probably a little motivated after last year's embarrassment. There also is a nice influx of talent, not to mention a couple of key players returning from injuries, including outside linebacker Devon Kennard.

Further, the returning talent on defense, particularly the front seven, combined with the arrival of defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast bodes well. I suspect the Trojans' defense will be among the top-four in the conference.

Better defense will take pressure off an offense breaking in a new quarterback. That is the big question, though: Quarterback play.

While Barkley didn't have a great 2012 season, at least compared to stratospheric expectations, his skills and experience brought a lot to the huddle.

Still, young QBs have been thriving in the Pac-12 of late -- to name four first-year starters from last year: Oregon's Marcus Mariota, UCLA's Brett Hundley, Stanford's Kevin Hogan and Arizona State's Taylor Kelly.

Why can't Cody Kessler, Max Wittek or Max Browne do the same?

We should get a pretty good idea of the Trojans' trajectory early on. They visit Arizona State on Sept. 28, a critical game in the South Division pecking order.

By the way, Steele ranked Oregon fifth, Stanford 11thInsider and projects Alabama to play Ohio State for the national title.