If you tried wrapping your head around USC’s football team this season, chances are you’d find yourself wanting to know more.
Because of the ever-vigilant eye of the sports media and its constant barrage of prediction and analysis, it’s become a real challenge for a program of USC’s stature to sneak up on anyone. Still, this year’s squad possesses an enigmatic quality that’s hard to place.
It’s not that the coverage isn’t there, for plenty of outlets continue to scrutinize the Trojan program on a daily basis. It’s not that coaches and players are being exceptionally cryptic or reserved or coy in their interviews. It seems more that there’s just less to know right now.
Here’s what we do know: USC is irrelevantly ranked No. 25 in the preseason Associated Press poll. Junior quarterback Matt Barkley will return and will play well, likely making a splash in the Heisman race. And Tom Brady is jealous of this season’s receiving corps. That’s about it.
If you read the preliminary depth chart aloud, the number of times you heard “or” might lead you to believe you were glancing over the crew team’s inventory.
We don’t know which tailback is going to find a way to distinguish himself from the rest. Will it be sophomore Dillon Baxter? Redshirt freshman D.J. Morgan? Junior Curtis McNeal? Freshman Amir Carlisle? USC coach Lane Kiffin probably couldn’t even guess.
Will redshirt freshman Xavier Grimble or another tight end develop a connection as Barkley’s comfort target, a role Anthony McCoy shaped so well in 2009?
What constitutes Monte Kiffin’s simplified defense? Will USC be able to apply it to any level of success on that side of the ball?
Then, of course, there are the motivation questions. Can USC figure out how to cope in its second year of bowl ineligibility? Can Kiffin start to carve a legacy like his predecessor?
The sheer number of questions left unanswered to this point can be troubling with the opener against Minnesota just two short days away. This obscurity suggests a level of unpreparedness that could render the Trojans sorely regretful Saturday night. A loss to Minnesota seems implausible, but if USC isn’t ready, a 0-1 start is far from out of the question.
“I would be blown away if this team is overconfident: number one, because we’re not very good, and number two, because [Minnesota] is very, very well-coached and has a dynamic playmaker touching the ball every snap,” USC coach Lane Kiffin said after Wednesday’s practice.
That said, it’s premature to necessarily associate indecision with disarray.
With little at stake this season, it’s understandable for Kiffin to wait as long as he can before playing his hand, giving everyone on the depth chart a shot to blow him away. And the last thing he needs is the intricacies of his pop’s defensive modifications getting out to opponents.
Really, staying off the radar and providing critics with so little fodder to craft narratives and sketch out the season is an advantage. Expectations can be a healthy burden on a team. Eschewing them as much as possible allows these guys to go out and play and not concern themselves with how they stack up.
Then there’s the strategic leg up.
You can place your bets now that Minnesota coach Jerry Kill lacks even the faintest idea of who will be lining up at the bottom of USC’s I-formation Saturday afternoon, or at receiver, guard, tackle, center or a handful of other positions.
Minnesota’s already an enormous underdog coming into the Coliseum this weekend, and now it has to gameplan for about seven billion lineups? There’s no relief in facing an opponent that has so many options and so much left to reveal.
One of the great aspects of Oregon’s stellar season last year was that the team crept up on everyone, both on and off the field. The Duck’s 72-0 shellacking of New Mexico in the opener last season was an eye-opening statement of authority that the Ducks were going to, well, make a splash. Yes, they were already ranked No. 11 at the time, but few saw that uptempo game rushing them all the way into the national championship game.
USC’s team this year is no 2010 Oregon — in part because its offense isn’t so hectic but also because the Trojans have no championship to play for. Still, that model of taking teams by surprise is worth emulating. USC has a rare chance this year to evade the microscope that comes as a packaged deal with the program’s prestige, and the team would do right to take advantage of it.
The lack of information about this team is puzzling, especially to fans.
But that indefinable quality? That’s not going to hurt the team one bit.
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