LOS ANGELES -- Inevitably, it's going to happen. It always does in a college football season.
At some point this fall, the USC Trojans are going to face adversity. There is going to be a time when things just aren't clicking, or when an opponent rises up to pose a serious challenge to the Trojans' national championship hopes.
As USC gets ready to kick off next Saturday against Hawaii, the good feelings surrounding the program couldn't be much higher.
There are many legitimate reasons for that optimism, as the roster is loaded with talent and is coached by a veteran staff. The team finished the 2011 season on a roll, with an offense that was as potent as any in college football, and most of the starters from that squad return, including the Heisman Trophy favorite, an All-American safety, the Pac-12 single-season receptions leader and plenty more.
The fans certainly have jumped on board, and more than have a few already have made travel plans to be in Miami next January. For USC fans -- who have gone the past two seasons without seeing their team in a bowl -- it would be sweet justice in this first year back to bowl eligibility if the Trojans can win it all. After what the program has been through with the NCAA sanctions, it's safe to say the Trojans family wants this one bad.
The media also have jumped on board. USC sits atop the ESPN and AP preseason polls, and most every discussion of college football these days invariably will involve the Trojans, including the thought that USC could offer the best shot of ending the six-year SEC reign of national titles.
Even with all those positive expectations for the Trojans, there are always going to be potential issues over the course of a season.
The schedule certainly offers plenty of challenges. Every team they face will relish the opportunity to knock the Trojans from their high ranking.
There are also depth concerns. USC head coach Lane Kiffin has made it clear that the biggest issue facing the team right now is the lack of experienced reserves on the depth chart. They already have lost two defensive starters in the last month and -- with a roster limit of 75 scholarship players due to the NCAA sanctions -- the ability to withstand any further injuries will be critical.
So what happens along the way if the Trojans stub their toe, if the offense doesn't put up huge numbers or if they just squeak by an opponent in a game that was supposed to be a blowout? Will the Coliseum still be a sellout, as it is for the opener against Hawaii? Will the Trojans still be a media darling? How will a team that is riding so high respond if the going gets tough?
That last question is the important one, because for all the things the Trojans are, the one thing they aren't is a championship-tested team. This current group simply hasn't played for conference titles or BCS bowl berths, and there is no substitute for those conditions.
What this team does have, however, is tremendous leadership. The kind of leadership they will be able to rely on in those tough situations. At the Salute to Troy banquet Saturday night, USC athletic director Pat Haden said it was the best leadership he has ever seen on a football team. Think about that one for a second. Haden was a national champion quarterback, played in the NFL and was a college football announcer for many years. He has seen some football, and when he says this is the best group of leaders he's seen, it
would be wise to pay attention.
It starts with the team captains; Matt Barkley, T.J. McDonald, Khaled Holmes
and Nickell Robey. It continues with respected veterans like Robert Woods, Curtis McNeal and Wes Horton. It's a unique group and one that is being presented with a unique opportunity, one that Barkley referred to an "unfinished business."
Don't expect them to get too caught up in the highs and lows of outside influences. They will be too busy working hard at making the most out of the journey. If you want to talk about adversity, talk about being an elite athlete who is forced to sit on the sideline for two bowl seasons for something you had nothing to do with. For this group, this season is the reward, the chance to compete and be back in the chase, wherever it may lead
The perfect example of the mindset of the team can be found in its adopted
phrase: "It's about the prep, not the hype." That kind of attitude won't
prevent them from encountering obstacles along the way. It just means they
will be well prepared for those obstacles when they arrive.