Southern California's high hopes for this season began Jan. 1, when the Trojans were putting the wraps on a 28-14 victory over Michigan in the Rose Bowl to ensure at least a share of the national title.

With six starters returning from a defense that gave a dominant performance and with quarterback Matt Leinart and receiver Mike Williams looking like they were just warming up for NFL careers, the Trojans figured to be just getting started.

And they still could be, but the offseason has not been without drama. First, Williams appeared to be leaving, headed for the NFL following the Maurice Clarett court decision to overturn the NFL's eligibility requirements. But then the NFL scored a victory in the courts, leaving Williams ineligible to be drafted but also ineligible to return to USC. He has since applied to the NCAA for reinstatement but as of the weekend was still being held out of practice as he awaited an answer.

Other USC players face more serious issues.

Running back Hershel Dennis is the focus of a Los Angeles police sexual assault investigation and remains suspended indefinitely. Wide receiver Whitney Lewis and tailback Chauncey Washington are academically ineligible. Offensive lineman Winston Justice has been suspended for a semester after being arrested for brandishing a replica firearm last spring.

And on top of that, tight end Gregg Guenther will be playing basketball, rather than football.

Of course, none of that stopped media members and coaches from ranking USC the No. 1 team in the country in preseason polls. Nor did it prevent Leinart from being considered one of the favorites to win the Heisman Trophy as the nation's top individual player.

"This presents a fantastic challenge for our coaches and our players and for highlight players such as Matt to come back and answer [the national championship] with a strong season," Coach Pete Carroll said, during the conference's media day. "Matt surprised us last year a little, that he could come on so fast and so strong. But he, like our program, has to come back now and do it again."

Leinart, who has excelled in taking over the top quarterback role from 2002 Heisman winner Carson Palmer, racked up the statistics at the helm of the Trojans last year. Leinart threw for 3,556 yards and 38 touchdowns and led the team to a 12-1 record with nine straight wins to end the season.

Part of the optimism might be due to the same factor that hurt them in last season's computer rankings: weak competition. At No. 23, Oregon is the only other conference team in the Associated Press top 25.

"When your conference produces a national champion or a Heisman Trophy winner, it elevates the respect level of your conference around the nation. . . . We're all in this together," Oregon Coach Mike Bellotti said, perhaps searching for a positive spin at media day.

Oregon, which will be tested early against Oklahoma, finished tied for third in the Pacific-10 last season with this year's No. 2 preseason pick California at 5-3 in the conference.

The Golden Bears, who were not ranked in the preseason AP poll, had not been picked higher than fourth in the preseason poll since 1978, but under third-year coach Jeff Tedford, some perceptions might be changing. After running Tedford's high-octane offense for a full season, quarterback Aaron Rodgers might be poised to break through individually as the Golden Bears do the same as a team.

"We're very grateful that we have everyone watching us and giving us respect in the preseason," California senior wide receiver Geoff McArthur said. "At the same time, we are focused on our everyday goals. We don't pay attention to the hype. We just go out and work very hard. It's definitely a lot different."

After being denied entry in the NFL draft, the Trojans' Mike Williams has applied to the NCAA for reinstatement but as of the weekend was still awaiting an answer.