The excitement has been building for quite awhile now.
Ever since quarterback Matt Barkley declared to come back and return for his senior season, USC has been the center of attention in the college football universe. The Trojans find themselves atop The Associated Press poll for the first time in five seasons and are favorites to win the national title.
But with all the hype surrounding the program, USC coach Lane Kiffin insists that all of it is meaningless.
"It doesn't matter where you are in the preseason or what people are saying about you," Kiffin said. "It doesn't mean anything."
The hype, the extra attention and all the predictions can't be ignored, though.
The Trojans are heavily favored in their season opener against the Hawai'i Warriors --- by almost six touchdowns, in fact. Granted, it's only Hawai'i, who finished just 6-7 last year, but USC understands it must play much better compared to the last meeting between the two teams.
With this in mind, here are five burning questions to watch in the season opener at the Coliseum as the Trojans open up their 2012 campaign.
1. How will the defensive line play?
Much has been talked about USC's defensive line, and that was prior to losing senior defensive end Devon Kennard for possibly the entire season. As has been said many times, the Trojans are awfully young up front. Other than senior Wes Horton, the remaining three players projected to start --- redshirt sophomore George Uko, sophomore J.R. Tavai and redshirt freshman Antwaun Woods --- have a combined two starts between them. And those two starts belong to Uko last season. Coach Norm Chow is an offensive mastermind and he'll likely try to keep the defense off balance all game long. So, can this defensive front generate enough pressure on the quarterback? And, can they limit their mistakes? This is the first game these four will be playing together, so trying to establish some continuity is paramount before the real test begins on the road for the next four of five games.
2. Who will fill the void at left tackle?
Arguably the second biggest question mark heading into the season was trying to fill the void at left tackle. This was covered during our fall camp storylines, but even now, the question hasn't been fully answered. During spring practice, Kiffin tabbed sophomore Aundrey Walker as the man to replace Matt Kalil. But Walker had been hampered by injuries during most of fall camp. In his place, freshman Max Tuerk and walk-on Nathan Guertler took repetitions. Obviously the left tackle position will be protecting Barkley's blind side and filling Kalil's shoes won't be easy. If Walker doesn't impress, will USC go by a committee of players? Considering the Trojans only gave up eight sacks all of last year, which tied for first in the nation, it will be interesting to see who can step in and protect the Heisman hopeful.
3. Is Robert Woods 100 percent healthy?
Keep in mind that Woods had offseason ankle surgery and really wasn't 100 percent last year, despite breaking school and conference records with 111 receptions. In early August, though, Woods said he was fully healed from the right ankle injury that has lingered for the last 16 months. It's scary to think the Serra graduate battled injuries all of last season and still put up 1,292 receiving yards and 15 touchdowns. If Woods can stay healthy, and if it is true that the effects of his ankle injury are long gone, then look for an even bigger year from the junior wide receiver.
4. What is the status of Lamar Dawson's health?
The sophomore linebacker missed most of fall camp with a torn calf muscle, but apparently, he will be ready to go in the season opener. Dawson is slated to start at middle linebacker, but if he cannot go for some reason, Hayes Pullard will step in and replace Dawson. And Kiffin has no problem with that.
"There's nothing saying that's not his best spot in the long run," Kiffin said, "and maybe his spot at the next level too."
If Pullard plays the middle, that likely means redshirt freshman Anthony Sarao will step into Pullard's spot on the weakside. A Bailey-Dawson-Pullard combination was projected before the season began as all three started together toward the end of last season. But if Dawson's injury is more serious than being let on, this further weakens a linebacking corps that was supposed to be one of the Trojans' biggest strengths this season.
Right now, McNeal and Redd are listed as co-starters on the depth chart. That certainly came as a surprise, as it was thought all along that McNeal would be the clear starter. It'll be interesting to see if Kiffin splits the carries 50-50 or gives one of the two most of the workload. And another development to watch as the season progresses is how effective the running game will be, which will be key in complementing USC's aerial attack. Remember: many of O'Neal's big runs came off the left side (see 79-yard touchdown run against Washington and 61-yard touchdown run against Stanford) and Kalil played a big role in that.
USC-Hawai'i kicks off at 4:30 p.m. tomorrow and will be televised by Fox.
Follow Trevor on Twitter @Trevor_Wong.