LOS ANGELES >> Only 10 college football teams in history started the season ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press media poll and finished in the same spot.
Of them, only USC’s 2004 team and Florida State’s 1999 team have gone wire to wire, maintaining their ranking week to week throughout the season.
Could the 2012 Trojans do the same?
After emerging from a two-year bowl ban, top-ranked USC enters Saturday’s opener against Hawaii at the sold-out Coliseum amid huge expectations.
The Trojans are ranked No. 1 in the AP preseason poll for the first time since 2007.
“Wire-to-wire is not necessarily a phrase that we’ll use,” quarterback Matt Barkley said, “but at the end of the season, hopefully we can look back and say that.”
Coach Lane Kiffin wasted no time warning his team about the dangers of looking ahead. An early training-camp address to players included references to the 2010-11 Miami Heat, 2011 Philadelphia Eagles and 2011 Oklahoma Sooners.
All were much hyped, and all fell short of a championship.
“I just wanted to make sure we made the point that it doesn’t matter where you are in the preseason or what people are saying about you,” Kiffin said. “It doesn’t mean anything.”
During Kiffin’s tenure as a USC assistant under Pete Carroll, the Trojans twice opened the season ranked No. 1 in the AP poll, which originated in 1936 and began issuing preseason rankings in 1950.
In 2004 – after topping the AP rankings the previous season – the Trojans started at the top and didn’t lose, capping a 13-0 season with a rout of Oklahoma in the Bowl Championship Series title game in South Florida.
USC nearly duplicated the feat in 2005 before losing to Texas in the BCS title game in Pasadena.
By 2007, Kiffin was coaching the Oakland Raiders. The Trojans started 4-0, but fell to No. 2 after an unimpressive victory at Washington. They lost to 41-point underdog Stanford the next week, then lost three weeks later at Oregon.
Now, after finishing 8-5 in 2010 and 10-2 last season, the Trojans are back on top. At least to start the season.
Several members of USC’s 2004 team said the Trojans’ evolution under Kiffin resembles their own under Carroll.
USC re-emerged from years of mediocrity or worse in 2002 with an 11-2 season, capped by an Orange Bowl victory over Iowa less than a month after quarterback Carson Palmer won the Heisman Trophy.
In 2003, the Trojans started the season ranked No. 8 and fell to 10th after a triple-overtime loss at California. But they climbed to No. 1 by the end of the regular season and finished there after defeating Michigan in the Rose Bowl.
USC opened the 2004 season with a Heisman Trophy front-runner at quarterback and an eye on playing in the BCS title game outside Miami. Sound familiar?
Most remember USC’s rout of Oklahoma, but the Trojans nearly tripped several times en route to their wire-to-wire title run.
It began with a hard-fought 24-13 victory over Virginia Tech at FedEx Field in Landover, Md. The Trojans trailed Stanford by 11 points late in the third quarter at Palo Alto before coming back to win, 31-28.
Two weeks later, they withstood a record-setting passing performance by Cal quarterback Aaron Rodgers and waged a late defensive stand to hold off the Golden Bears, 23-17.
In November, they traveled to cold, fog-shrouded Oregon State and needed a late punt return from Reggie Bush to emerge with a 28-20 victory. The Trojans held off UCLA to win the regular-season finale, 29-24.
Ryan Kalil of the Carolina Panthers, a sophomore center at USC in 2004, remembers the hype but not getting caught up in it.
“That was my first year starting,” he recalled, laughing. “I was just trying to make sure I didn’t screw that up.”
Defensive end Lawrence Jackson of the Detroit Lions was a redshirt freshman in 2004, starting 11 games for the Trojans.
Jackson said current Trojans such as Barkley, receivers Robert Woods and Marqise Lee and safety T.J. McDonald need to adopt roles similar to those played by former Trojans Matt Leinart, Bush, Matt Grootegoed, Lofa Tatupu, Mike Patterson and Shaun Cody.
“You have different leaders that could reach different levels of the team,” Jackson said.
Like his teammates, former kicker Ryan Killeen said players rarely discussed rankings, if ever. But Killeen was aware of where the Trojans stood going into the UCLA game.
“I knew it was going to come down to the end or my leg,” said Killeen, who kicked five field goals against the Bruins. “If we lost that game, we lost the national championship.”
Former tight end Alex Holmes, brother of USC center Khaled Holmes, said the Trojans were largely able to insulate themselves from scrutiny by focusing on the task at hand. In the Twitter age, that will be more difficult for this season’s team.
“When I was in school cell phones were really just getting popular,” he said. “Now people can send instant comments to Matt Barkley, Khaled Holmes and Robert Woods. It’s a totally different dynamic.”
USC appears to have a schedule built for a title run.
The Trojans open at home against overmatched Hawaii and then play Syracuse at a neutral site in New Jersey before a tough Pac-12 Conference opener at Stanford.
Road games at Utah and Washington also loom after that, but USC won’t leave Southern California after October, playing home games against Oregon and Arizona State, and then traveling only to Pasadena to play UCLA before the season finale at the Coliseum against Notre Dame.
If enough goes right, the Trojans could return to South Florida for the BCS title game at Sun Life Stadium.
Kiffin says he is not overly concerned about how the Trojans’ older core players might deal with potential distractions. But the younger players must learn to ignore the hype.
“I’m sure there are still some freshmen we still haven’t reached that hear people say they’re the greatest team – and they haven’t played a game,” Kiffin said. “They think because they get on X-Box and beat everyone by 60 points that that’s going to happen.”
The veterans say they know what to expect. Their No. 1 priority is to keep the team on point.
“We’re still grinding and working hard,” Woods said, “like we have something to prove.”