Fresno State at No. 15 Southern Cal
KICKOFF: Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET
SITE: LA Coliseum, Los Angeles, Calif.
SERIES: USC is 2-1 against Fresno State, although the 2005 victory was later vacated because of NCAA sanctions. This is a rematch of last year's Las Vegas Bowl, won 45-20 by the Trojans.
KEYS TO THE GAME
Too soon for damage control at USC?
Perhaps, but that's the position first-year Trojans head coach Steve Sarkisian found himself in this week, doing his best to deflect the negative attention brought by the national hero-turned-villain angle involving starting cornerback Josh Shaw.
The team captain confessed Wednesday that the story he told of rescuing his distressed 7-year-old nephew from drowning was a tall tale, admitting his multiple ankle sprains resulted instead from jumping from a third-floor apartment balcony.
The hot news turned hoax sent Shaw to indefinite suspension, though it's likely his injured ankles will keep him out for months, not weeks.
Sarkisian, who said in a statement Wednesday he was extremely disappointed in a player that had become a leader, had only a few days to get the Trojans back focused on the task at hand.
But even USC's rivals noticed the original version of the story.
UCLA coach Jim Mora tweeted: "Best wishes to Josh Shaw for a speedy recovery, what a stud, what a role model. #Hero #RealLifeStuff"
While the offense -- and in particular offensive line -- finds its legs, the Trojans expect to live on defense, even without Shaw.
USC's defensive front, led by All-American Leonard Williams, could be the best in the Pac-12. There are five returning starters among the front seven, which will play in a multiple 3-4 look under first-year coordinator Justin Wilcox. Depth in the front seven is a concern, but with guys like Williams, LB Hayes Pullard, LB Lamar Dawson, DE J.R. Tavai and NT Antaun Woods, USC should be stout again against the run. The Trojans were 15th in this category last season, allowing 120.6 yards per game.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
--FS Derron Smith finds his name on six preseason watch lists for national awards, four preseason All-America teams and for the second year in a row was voted as the Mountain West Preseason Defensive Player of the Year. With 14 career interceptions -- 13 the past two seasons -- he's the one player USC will want to identify before the snap.
--WR Josh Harper was one of three 1,000-yard receivers for Derek Carr last season. Without Carr, it's Harper and the Whos? Harper has 138 career receptions for 1,841 yards and the 22 TDs in 27 games played in. All other Bulldog receivers have combined for 57 catches for 672 yards and two touchdowns.
--QB Cody Kessler had a solid debut season -- 236 of 361 for 2,968 yards, with 20 touchdowns and seven interceptions -- but his numbers should take a big leap forward while running new coach Steve Sarkisian's hurry-up offense. The speed to which Kessler runs the offense is something to watch in the opener against Fresno State, because Sarkisian said during camp the offense was too slow.
--SS Su'a Cravens, one of the superstar recruits from the 2013 class, is looking to go from Freshman All-American to actual All-American in 2014. He was limited in camp because of strep throat and a groin injury, but he should be back to his hard-hitting ways in the opener against Fresno State. Cravens had 52 tackles and four interceptions as a true freshman.
--LB Hayes Pullard, a senior, was selected as one of the team captains by his teammates and was the leading vote-getter among defensive players. He'll lead on and off the field following a season in which he led USC with 94 tackles.
--CB/WR Adoree Jackson, a touted true freshman, was listed as second-string at cornerback and receiver on the Game 1 depth chart, and he could also return kicks and punts. Coach Steve Sarkisian raved about Jackson in camp, although how much he contributes in the opener is in question because of time missed in camp due to ankle and foot injuries. If he gets up to speed in a hurry, though, watch out.