Talent is never an issue for the Trojans, who have produced 77 first-round draft picks. Even after last season's meltdown and the graduation of quarterback Matt Barkley, USC has plenty of top-level prospects to match any team in the Pac-12 and perhaps the nation -- save Alabama -- but depth issues from NCAA-imposed scholarship reductions, staff overhaul, a new defense and the largely self-inflicted black cloud that seems to follow embattled coach Lane Kiffin could create a dramatic imbalance between success on the field this season and in the draft next May.
Top senior prospects
DE Morgan Breslin: The junior-college transfer hardly said a word to the press, but did plenty of talking with 13 sacks and 19.5 tackles for loss, both team-highs, in his first year at USC. Breslin will now play outside linebacker in the 5-2 alignment being installed by former Arizona Cardinals defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast. He always plays with great energy and effort, but doesn't show elite athleticism and might well be labeled a 'tweener without an NFL position by scouts.
RB Silas Redd: The most prominent player to leave Penn State after major NCAA sanctions were handed down last summer, Redd is a solid runner who keeps the chains moving but rarely creates explosive plays (eight runs of 20-plus yards in 167 carries last season). He hasn't been asked to do much as a receiver (22 career catches). Redd needs to find that extra gear and put it on film.
LB Devon Kennard: Is a little consistency too much to ask for? Kennard will have played for three different coordinators and four different position coaches in his five years at USC, working at defensive end, then strong-side linebacker and middle linebacker in a 4-3 alignment before moving back to defensive end. Now, he serves as what amounts to a 3-4 outside linebacker. The skills of a five-star recruit are still there, but have not yet been harnessed.
WR Marqise Lee: One of the top players in the nation regardless of position, Lee has rare physical tools that manifest as he can out-run and out-leap any defender. He is electric after the catch and on kick returns with preternatural acceleration and change of direction. He is still very raw as a route runner, though, after playing safety for most of his high school career (until Lee's senior season, Gardena (Calif.) Serra had a receiving corps of Buffalo Bills second-round pick Robert Woods, USC teammate and five-star recruit George Farmer, and Colorado standout junior Paul Richardson).
DT Leonard Williams: Williams posted 64 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss and eight sacks as a true freshman, quickly positioning himself as the next great find for long-time defensive line coach Ed Orgeron. He needs to get stronger and more explosive, which should come with time in a college weight room. Williams has a good understanding of the game and plays with unbridled exuberance, but can't let it get the best of him -- he was tossed from the Colorado game for throwing a punch.
WR Nelson Agholor: As a true freshman, Agholor caught 19 passes for 340 yards and two touchdowns, including six receptions for 162 yards and a score in a wild shootout versus Oregon. Listed at 185 pounds, Agholor must continue to put in time in the weight room. With defenses set to do everything possible to contain Lee, Agholor could easily triple his production as the beneficiary.
OL Max Tuerk: Tuerk started five games at left tackle and another at left guard as a true freshman in 2012. Extremely versatile, he can be deployed anywhere along the offensive line. Continuing to refine his technique will be key for Tuerk, who should emerge as one of the top linemen in the Pac-12 by season's end.
S Su'a Cravens: Ranked as the top safety recruit in the nation by Scout and Rivals, Cravens has drawn comparisons to USC great Troy Polamalu for his aggression and instincts. With gaping holes in the secondary, it wouldn't be a shock if Cravens were to join the list of true freshmen starters under Kiffin that has included Woods, Nickell Robey, Lee and Williams.
TE Xavier Grimble: Grimble and senior Randall Telfer haven't seen many balls go their way, not with Woods and Lee commanding the quarterback's attention for obvious reasons. With Woods now with the Bills and injuries decimating the ranks at wide receiver, the two talented tight ends could emerge as major weapons for the Trojans. Grimble is especially effective in the red zone.
Three must-see games of 2013
Oct. 19 at Notre Dame: Pomp, circumstance and an overflow of prospects will make the 85th installment of college football's greatest intersectional rivalry appointment viewing. Silas Redd had 77 yards on 12 attempts in his first meeting with the Irish, but couldn't deliver in the red zone and short-yardage situations against elite defensive linemen Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix III. Redd and the USC offensive line must perform much better in those critical moments.
Nov. 1 at Oregon State: The Beavers love to play man-to-man defense, meaning cornerback Rashaad Reynolds will be dueling with Marqise Lee all night. Lee has struggled with press coverage, but looks to be much stronger entering his junior season and better equipped to get off the line.
Nov. 16 vs. Stanford: The reconfigured Trojan defensive front faces its biggest test against another physical Cardinal offensive line, led by standout guard David Yankey. Stanford rushed for 202 yards (5.5 yards per carry) en route to the 21-14 upset last season in Palo Alto.