For the first time since 2008, the USC Trojans enter into a season with real national championship aspirations. The university and program has dealt with similar expectations on numerous occasions in the past, but it undeniably feels a little different this time around.
Maybe it's because it all happened sooner than expected after many predicted a significantly longer downturn during a period of NCAA sanctions. Maybe it's because the digital age has increased player-fan interaction exponentially and many current Trojans are far better known by the general public than most 2000's-era players.
Or maybe it's a collision of several factors, including the last-minute recruitment of Penn State's top player, running back Silas Redd, after the Nittany Lions were sanctioned by the NCAA. But there's certainly a lot of interest in USC's 2012 season.
For all intents and purposes, that season starts today, Aug. 6, with the opening of the Trojans' training camp and the season now just 26 days away. In previewing the upcoming season, we've touched all the bases, looking at potential stumbling blocks and examining each position's current depth chart. We're looking at previous opponents now.
Here, we take one last look at the five biggest questions the Trojans hope to have resolved by their Sept. 1 season opener.
1. How will Matt Barkley and USC deal with those increased expectations?
If there's a player to have in place when facing a season like this, Matt Barkley is a pretty good choice. The seasoned senior acts like an adult off field and plays like one on it, with limited mistakes and impressive overall poise.
He'll be the emotional leader of the team, as he has been for two-plus years now. But one guy can't control collective sentiment. We'll get a better sense in the next two to three weeks of how USC's other contributors are handling the increased pressure that's coming their way starting tonight.
2. How will the running backs rotation work?
Redd's recruitment was key, obviously, but it does throw into a question a bit how the Trojans' run game is going to work. Senior Curtis McNeal was all set to be the No. 1 guy until Redd came along.
Luckily, ego isn't an issue with either player, but there are still some issues to be worked out. For the many good things that Lane Kiffin has done in his 29 months as the USC head coach, he has not shown an ability to successfully manage a consistent running back rotation.
That would really help this year.
3. Who will replace Devon Kennard at defensive end?
Senior end Devon Kennard tore his pectoral muscle during bench-press workouts late last month and stands to miss most, if not all, of the 2012 season while recovering.
The Trojans already graduated three 2011 starters from their defensive line, so Kennard's presence was going to be key to form some kind of continuity. USC now returns nine total starts from last season on its line and will likely be starting a player in the opener who has never played in a collegiate game.
A four-way battle between Greg Townsend Jr., Leonard Williams, Morgan Breslin and Kevin Greene will take up a lot of camp conversation.
4. How will the third and fourth receiver slots be worked out?
Kiffin would love if sophomore George Farmer put injuries behind him and finally emerged as the clear-cut No. 3 receiver this camp.
But it seems mildly unlikely. So incoming freshman Nelson Agholor will get a serious crack at it, as will fourth-year player De'Von Flournoy. The top-four pass-catchers should all get serious opportunities, because USC has a lot of talent at the position but not a ton of depth.
5. Which freshmen will prove ready for prime time?
Of the 28 scholarship freshmen currently on the roster, counting Darreus Rogers, there are about seven who stand to play an important role on the 2012 squad, including either Cody Kessler or Max Wittek at quarterback, fullback Soma Vainuku, defensive tackle Antwaun Woods and Townsend, who are all redshirt freshmen, and Agholor, Williams and linebacker Scott Starr, who are all true freshmen.
Other candidates include tight end Junior Pomee, defensive tackle Christian Heyward and snapper Peter McBride, all redshirt freshmen.
Our guess for impact freshman of the year is Agholor, who will surely get on the field in some manner.
2012 fall camp begins Monday at 7:30 p.m. PT. We'll have late-night coverage afterward.