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For USC, it's Rose Bowl . . . or bust?

USC FOOTBALL

The No. 4 Trojans harbor their usual ambition to reach the BCS title game, which this season is in Pasadena. But getting there with a freshman quarterback is a tall order.

September 03, 2009|Gary Klein

Go ahead, say it.

Matt Barkley won't care.

Text it, tweet it or post it on a message board:

A team with a true freshman starting at quarterback can't win a Bowl Championship Series title.

College football fans and pundits began arguing the point the moment USC Coach Pete Carroll announced that Barkley would start at quarterback this season.

Those who say the Trojans will falter?

"Haters and motivators," Barkley says, grinning. "That's what drives us."

As USC prepares for Saturday's opener against San Jose State at the Coliseum, neither Carroll nor Barkley is worrying at this point about playing for a national championship.

The BCS title game is "a million miles away right now," Carroll says.

Figuratively, perhaps.

This season's championship will be played at the Rose Bowl, where the Trojans have bussed to so often in recent seasons they could get there on autopilot.

But it's been nearly four years since USC made a postseason journey to Pasadena with anything other than a consolation prize waiting in the Arroyo Seco.

With the title game rotating to the Rose Bowl for the first time since the 2005 season, the Trojans are fine with another journey up the 110 Freeway -- as long as it's to play in the Jan. 7 title game and not the traditional game on New Year's Day.

"We're most likely going to go to the Rose Bowl anyway," junior receiver Damian Williams says of the seven-time defending Pacific 10 Conference champions. "So you want to be in the second game, not the first."

USC reached the last title game played in Pasadena with an offense of stars.

Those two-time national champion Trojans opened the 2005 season ranked No. 1 and rode a 34-game winning streak to the title game before Texas stopped tailback LenDale White on fourth-and-two and Vince Young ran his way into college football lore.

This season's team lacks similar star power.

"We're two Heismans down now," Carroll says, referring to former Trojans Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush.

Like Leinart, who was a fifth-year senior in 2005, Barkley is a product of Santa Ana Mater Dei High.

And like Leinart, Barkley is surrounded by experience everywhere he looks.

Except when he looks in the mirror.

As the opener approaches, the Trojans seem to be trying to convince themselves that an 18-year-old can lead them to the title game.

"It's the same thing it was [in 2005]," says safety Will Harris, a fifth-year senior. "It's just that we have a freshman quarterback, which is going to be difficult, I guess you could say."

Says Williams: "We definitely have the components on offense, even though we have a freshman quarterback."

USC's offensive line, led by sixth-year senior Jeff Byers, is considered among the best in college football. The tailback corps, featuring junior Joe McKnight and senior Stafon Johnson, is envied for its depth. And Williams is a highly productive receiver ready for a star turn.

"With the cast we have I don't have to do everything," Barkley says. "But when it comes time, I believe I can make plays when I have to."

New quarterbacks coach Jeremy Bates will be calling the plays while nurturing Barkley, third-year sophomore Aaron Corp and junior Mitch Mustain.

Rocky Seto is the new defensive coordinator, overseeing a unit that is transitioning through the departures of several mainstays from last season's dominating group.

Junior end Everson Griffen appears poised for a breakout season. Because of depth issues, middle linebacker Chris Galippo, a third-year sophomore, is perhaps the most irreplaceable player on the team.

The secondary, led by All-American safety Taylor Mays, is regarded as among the best in college football.

New special teams coach Brian Schneider is expected to bolster the return and coverage units.

The Trojans, ranked fourth in the Associated Press media and USA Today/ESPN coaches' polls, must navigate a schedule that includes four of their first six games on the road, among them nonconference matchups at Ohio State and Notre Dame.

The Trojans also play at California and Oregon, regarded as USC's main challengers in the Pac-10.

"When we play those teams we usually play them harder," sophomore running back Marc Tyler says. "I think it's the less-strong teams in the Pac-10 that we have trouble with -- that we overlook sometimes."

Three times in the last three years, Pac-10 stumbles helped keep the Trojans from playing for the BCS title.

In 2006, it was Oregon State and UCLA. The next year, Stanford and Oregon. Last season, it was Oregon State.

Ask Carroll about the schedule and he sighs.

"I'm worried about winning the first game," he says. "The rest we'll figure out as we go."

Carroll and his players are keenly aware of the opportunity that awaits in Columbus, Ohio, on Sept. 12. The Trojans have a chance to kick-start a possible run to the BCS championship game.

"This year, people aren't picking us to be in the title game," Williams says. "And that's probably better for us. It makes it easier to just go out and play."

That's what Barkley plans to do.

"All the naysayers can say what they want, but we know what we're capable of," he says. "And I know what I'm capable of."

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gary.klein@latimes.com

twitter.com/latimesklein

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BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX

Top of the Pac

Pacific 10 champions since Pete Carroll took over as USC coach in 2001:

*--* 2001 Oregon 7-1 2002 USC, Washington State 7-1 2003 USC 7-1 2004 USC 8-0 2005 USC 8-0 2006 USC, California 7-2 2007 USC, Arizona State 7-2 2008 USC 8-1 *--*

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