The No. 1-ranked USC Trojans begin their 2012 season on Saturday against Hawaii (4:30 p.m. PT) at the L.A. Memorial Coliseum. Here are five things to watch:
1. Who's playing? Because of Lane Kiffin's new injury-reporting restrictions that began this week, we don't know which of the Trojans' injured players will be playing on Saturday. It certainly creates some mystique around this opener, as there's really no telling who was practicing this week and who wasn't. Among the players who missed all or most of USC's Saturday scrimmage, the last day injuries were allowed to be reported, were receiver George Farmer, tight ends Randall Telfer and Christian Thomas, defensive tackle Leonard Williams, defensive ends Wes Horton and Greg Townsend Jr., linebacker Lamar Dawson, cornerback Torin Harris and safety Demetrius Wright.
2. Silas Redd and Curtis McNeal. The expectation is that McNeal will start, because he's been at USC longer and been successful with all of his opportunities. But Redd's first three-plus weeks in a USC uniform have gone about as well as the Trojans could have expected. The early-season competition between the two to decide who the primary back will be might be more interesting than the battle between Marqise Lee and Robert Woods, because we don't yet have any idea of how Kiffin plans to use Redd in games. Here's guessing both guys will get about 15 touches on Saturday, with another 5-10 for D.J. Morgan.
3. How much will Max Wittek play? This question can also be written as, "How much will USC win by?" That's basically what it means, with one other contributing factor: Is Kiffin going to take Matt Barkley out of the game when the Trojans open up a big lead, or is he going to leave him in to accumulate Heisman-worthy statistics? The expectation on this end is that Barkley will play until about the beginning of the fourth quarter, which would probably allow USC to get Wittek one or two series and Cody Kessler one too. And it went a little under the radar, but Kiffin basically said this week that USC needs to run up the score on its early-season opponents because of the city of Los Angeles and how fans here expect the Trojans to play. Expect USC to post a big number.
4. USC's young defensive line. This will be a perfect first test. A Trojans' D-line with only one returning starter will be going against a Hawaii O-line with only one, too. USC is expected to start one freshman, nose tackle Antwaun Woods, and Hawaii is expected to start two. So if the Trojans can't produce pressure against these guys, it won't bode well for the Stanford game two weeks from Saturday or any of the other big battles that are approaching. A lot of it will depend on tackle George Uko, who's the only one of the four starting linemen with a proven ability to get to the quarterback in creative ways. Much like defensive end Nick Perry did last year, Uko will need to set the tone for the rest of the linemen and eat up some double-teams.
5. The start of a Heisman campaign for Barkley? It's going to be talked about all year, so why not discuss it here? USC's Barkley is the favorite for college football's most prestigious trophy this season, and a lot of the buzz for that award comes from the early parts of a season. The fact is, at the end of the year, a lot of voters cast their ballots based on statistics, and five or six throwing touchdowns in the season opener can go a long way toward nice-looking end-of-season stats. Remember how Kiffin called a bunch of pass plays when USC was already up by several scores against Colorado last November so Barkley could get the single-game TD record? Expect to see that sort of play-calling more often this year, starting Saturday.