By Steve Bisheff
The Orange County Register
LOS ANGELES - They love the smell of vulnerability in the morning. The nine coaches who compete against USC gathered early on Pac-10 Media Day, not only to talk about their own football teams but to gleefully discuss a Trojans team missing two Heisman Trophy winners, the Pac-10 scoring leader and enough top draft picks to stock an NFL all-rookie team.
From across town in Westwood to 1,500 miles north in Washington and all points in between, the sense is that this is the year Pete Carroll's Trojans will come back to the pack.
The word everyone uses is v-u-l-n-e-r-a-b-l-e.
"You know where that talk comes from," said Cal's Jeff Tedford, the last Pac-10 coach to defeat USC, way back in 2003. "They're facing a big turnover at key positions, at quarterback and running back. "When you do that, a transition has to be made. There is a learning curve involved. The last time we beat SC, they had freshman tailbacks. And in overtime, one of those guys (Hershel Dennis) put the ball on the ground."
Arizona's Mike Stoops, looking to make a move up the conference standings, sounded hopeful about the Trojans, who won two national titles and came within inches of a third in the past three years. Hopeful that they might not be as dominant.
"When you lose (Matt) Leinart, (Reggie) Bush and the other monster back there (LenDale White), you have to search for a little while," Stoops said. "When their (new) quarterback comes in, the score is going to be 0-0, instead of them being up by 50."
Dirk Koetter, Arizona State's coach, tried to hide the semblance of a smile when he said: "I don't think many teams in history have lost two Heisman winners in the same backfield and not taken a step back."
Karl Dorrell, his fat, new contract extension making him appear more loose and relaxed, noted some similarity to USC's situation and his.
"They've had some changes in their program, too," he said. "They had a lot more people drafted than we did."
To be fair, all of these same coaches were about as quick as Cal's Marshawn Lynch in the open field when it came to slipping in a qualifier or two.
"The thing about USC is it has such broad talent that maybe it doesn't have to depend on replacing those guys," Tedford said.
"What people don't realize," said Stoops, "is that they are going to be much improved defensively."
Koetter said: "But until someone tells you otherwise, they're still the team to beat."
Dorrell noted the Trojans "still have some depth, some quality."
None of the nine coaches is willing to say it on the record, but you get the feeling they know this is the year they'd better get Carroll and USC.
The Trojans are sitting on three consecutive recruiting classes ranked, by most assessments, as No.1 in the country.
They don't just have good athletes at most positions. They have them stacked in long lines, as if they were waiting at an airport security gate.
Ryan Kalil, the senior All-America candidate at center from Servite High, was amused by the day's earlier discussion of how grave USC's losses are.
"A couple of years ago, we lost Carson (Palmer) and (Troy) Polamalu, and here comes this lanky kid out of Orange County and he wins the Heisman Trophy," he said.
"Let them say we're vulnerable. I kind of like that. I think we'll change some people's minds."
Carroll listened to everyone's opinion, then settled in for a quick lunch and some comments of his own.
"Two years ago, no one thought we could win another national championship," he said. "Last year, no one thought we could overcome our coaching losses. We take these things as a personal challenge. We wanted to overcome the problems in the past, and we did."
That doesn't mean this latest USC group doesn't have some question marks. Many of the skill players are unproven at this level, and, defensively, there remains the gaping hole no one was able to fill a year ago after tackle Shaun Cody left for the NFL.
"There is more curiosity this year," Carroll said. "It's more exciting than ever, in a way. It's kind of like having Christmas presents waiting downstairs, and you can't wait to open them to see what you get."
Let's not forget it was also the wildest offseason of the Carroll era with incidents involving Bush's parents and the apartment Leinart shared with wide receiver Dwayne Jarrett. Then there was the arrest of freshman quarterback Mark Sanchez on sexual assault charges that were never filed.
"It was a difficult time for everybody," Carroll said.
In the Pac-10, many opposing coaches are hoping USC experiences similar difficulties on the field. Others tend to be a bit more pragmatic.
"Are they in transition?" said Washington State's droll Bill Doba. "I don't know. They look pretty good to me."