USC Begins Season Where It Ended, at No. 1

Sunday, August 15th 2004, 6:09 am
By: News On 6

Southern California will begin defense of its first national title in 31 years as the No. 1 team in the nation. The Trojans earned the top spot in the preseason Associated Press poll released Saturday by receiving 48 of 65 first-place votes and 1,603 points.

It's the first time since 1979 the Trojans are preseason No. 1 and the fourth time overall. They also started No. 1 in 1963 and '73.

Oklahoma, which was No. 1 for most of last season before losing its final two games, was No. 2 with 11 first-place votes and 1,529 points in the media poll. Heisman Trophy winner Jason White leads the Sooners.

Georgia was No. 3, followed by fellow Southeastern Conference member and defending co-national champion LSU at No. 4. The Bulldogs received five first-place votes and the Tigers got the remaining first-place vote.

No. 5 Florida State and No. 6 Miami open the regular season against each for the first time as Atlantic Coast Conference rivals on Sept. 6. They are separated in the poll by just four points (1,291-1,287).

The Trojans enter the 2004 season with a nine-game winning streak.

USC went 12-1 last season and finished top-ranked in the AP poll, despite being left out of the Bowl Championship Series title game. LSU beat Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl and was voted No. 1 in the final coaches poll, as required by the BCS.

The Trojans return only nine starters from last year's team that set Pac-10 records for touchdowns (68) and points (534). But don't be fooled. USC has no shortage of speed, talent and depth.

Matt Leinart, who threw for 3,556 yards and 38 touchdowns in his first season as a starter, directs an offense that is lacking only in experience.

Tailbacks Hershel Dennis, LenDale White and Reggie Bush would be featured runners on most teams. For the Trojans, they share the job and form one of the deepest backfields in college football. They combined for 1,936 yards rushing and 20 touchdowns last season.

The Trojans have only one returning starter on the line and Leinart will have to break in a group of neophyte receivers with star potential.

Help could be on the way at receiver. The Trojans are waiting for a ruling from the NCAA on the eligibility of star receiver Mike Williams. The All-American planned to enter the NFL draft but a court ruling kept him out. He has been practicing with the team.

Defensive linemen Shaun Cody, a third-team All-American, and Mike Patterson lead a defense that ranked No. 1 in the nation in run defense (60.2 ypg).

USC will try to join Florida State in 1999 as the only wire-to-wire No. 1.

Texas was No. 7 with Big Ten rivals Michigan and Ohio State eighth and ninth, respectively. No. 10 West Virginia, the heavy favorite in the reconfigured Big East, has never been ranked higher in the preseason.

No. 11 Florida is coming off a second straight 8-5 season under Ron Zook. The Gators are followed by Kansas State, California, Tennessee and Clemson.

Virginia, Auburn, Missouri, Iowa and Utah are the next five. Wisconsin, Maryland, Oregon, Purdue and Minnesota round out the Top 25.

The Big Ten leads all conferences with six teams in the preseason poll. The SEC and ACC each have five.

As notable as which teams made the rankings is a group of teams that didn't.

Notre Dame and Penn State, both coming off losing seasons, and Nebraska will all be unranked to start the season. The Cornhuskers went 10-3 last season and finished 19th in the final rankings but changed coaches _ and offenses _ replacing Frank Solich and the option with Bill Callahan and the West Coast offense.

The last time the Fighting Irish, Nittany Lions and Cornhuskers all failed to make the preseason poll was 1964, when only the top 10 teams were ranked.