LOS ANGELES — Southern California is eligible to win championships again, and the Pac-12 media expect the Trojans to reclaim their spot atop the league.
USC has been picked to win the Pac-12 in the annual preseason poll, the league announced Tuesday.
The Trojans were picked to win the South Division on 117 of the 123 ballots, while Oregon was picked to win the North Division by the same overwhelming margin. Still mired in scholarship restrictions and NCAA probation, USC has been picked to win the league championship game by 102 of the voters.
USC coach Lane Kiffin wasn't about to get cocky or say anything incendiary at the first preseason gathering of the league's coaches and top talent in the Gibson Amphitheatre at Universal Studios.
"The preseason rankings and all the questions we have gotten today about that, that has nothing to do with how well we will play next year and whether we will win games," said Kiffin, who has thrived under harsh NCAA sanctions over the past two years.
"But I think it's exciting for our university and for our fans to be in those discussions," he added. "We're two years removed from what was handed down as people saying, 'SC is over,' and being a preseason No. 1 team two years later is extremely exciting for our university and for our fans."
USC has enjoyed an undeniably outstanding offseason after finishing 10-2 and No. 6 in the final AP poll last season despite bowl ineligibility and a smaller roster. After quarterback Matt Barkley and safety T.J. McDonald decided in December to return for their senior years, the Trojans landed a spectacular recruiting class led by elite quarterback prospect Max Browne.
They're moving into their new training complex this summer, the spacious John McKay Center, finally bringing the Trojans' facilities up to the exorbitant standards of college football's biggest programs. Yet the Trojans insist they're maintaining the same hunger and determination that drove them through their two-year bowl ban.
"When T.J. and I decided to come back, we knew that we had a great time at USC, and we have had a lot of fun playing football, but we hadn't maximized our potential here at USC," Barkley said. "I think that phrase 'unfinished business' has to do with finishing at a top level and finishing at what we're capable of as a team."
Kiffin noted the Trojans are still at a competitive disadvantage, with 10 fewer scholarships than their opponents. The probation limits cut into USC's depth, particularly this season at tailback, where starter Curtis McNeal returns with a short, inexperienced list of backups. USC reportedly is trying to land star Penn State running back Silas Redd, a prospect Kiffin couldn't discuss Tuesday.
The Trojans return a roster loaded with elite talent, including receivers Robert Woods and Marqise Lee, yet USC doesn't expect to run away with the league crown.
Oregon is the defending Rose Bowl champion for the first time in 95 years, and the Ducks have their own elite group of returning talent, including running backs De'Anthony Thomas and Kenjon Barner. The Ducks will go through a transition with the departures of star ball-carrier LaMichael James and quarterback Darron Thomas, who went undrafted after leaving early.