NEW YORK, NY -- After a season of chasing, Southern California is again the team being chased. And that's just the way coach Pete Carroll and the Trojans like it. For the third time in the past four years, USC begins the college football season No. 1 in The Associated Press Top 25.
"It's exactly where we hope and expect to be," Carroll said. "It's a symbol of what we're all about."
Southern California received 62 of 65 first-place votes and 1,622 points from a panel of media members. USC easily outdistanced No. 2 LSU in the poll released Saturday. The Tigers received two first-place votes and 1,511 points. They haven't started a season ranked this high since 1959, when they were preseason No. 1.
No. 3 West Virginia received the other first-place vote. The Mountaineers have never been ranked higher in the preseason. No. 4 Texas and Michigan round out the top five, and defending champion Florida is sixth.
USC has been the country's top program since 2002, going 59-6 with two national championships and a near-miss. This season, the Trojans expect to walk away from the BCS national championship game in New Orleans with the crystal football.
"That's what we're here for. We're here to do it better than anybody has ever done it before," Carroll said. "That's the single thought. That's what drives us. If that's the case, you want to be No. 1 forever."
For the Trojans, this is the 82nd time they've been No. 1 in the poll. Only Notre Dame (95), Oklahoma (95) and Ohio State (88) have more.
Much of the Trojans' time at No. 1 has been since late in 2003, when they took the top spot at the end of the regular season and finished No. 1 the AP poll — despite being left out of the national title game. LSU finished No. 1 in the coaches' poll.
The next season USC became the second team, joining Florida State in 1999, to be No. 1 all the way and was the undisputed national champ.
The next season, USC nearly pulled the wire-to-wire trick again, but Vince Young and Texas relegated the Trojans to No. 2 in the end by winning a 41-38 thriller in the Rose Bowl.
Last season, USC was in the top 10 all season, but never did get to No. 1. The Trojans were No. 2 going into the final week of the regular season, but with a chance to play for another national title they lost 13-9 to UCLA.
USC bounced back with a resounding 32-18 victory over Michigan in the Rose Bowl and that set the stage for the Trojans to start this season as an overwhelming No. 1.
The rest of the top 10 has Wisconsin at No. 7, followed by Oklahoma, Virginia Tech and Louisville.
Ohio State, last year's preseason No. 1 and the loser of the national title game to Florida, is No. 11 to start the 2007 season. No. 12 is California, followed by Georgia, UCLA and Tennessee.
No. 16 Rutgers is ranked in the preseason for the first time, as is No. 23 Hawaii.
Penn State is No. 17 and Auburn, Florida State and Nebraska round out the top 20. Arkansas, TCU, Hawaii, Boise State and Texas A&M are the final five.
The Southeastern Conference has six ranked teams, most of any league. The Big Ten and Big 12 are next with four and the Pac-10 and Big East have three each.
The Trojans are preseason No. 1 for the sixth time overall, tying Nebraska for third most. Only Oklahoma (nine) and Ohio State (seven) have been top-ranked in the preseason by AP more often.
These Trojans have another star quarterback in John David Booty, who could become the third USC passer to win the Heisman Trophy in the past six seasons, joining predecessors Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart.
"He's a natural-born quarterback," Carroll said. "He's got five years of experience. He's been through everything you need to be good."
Booty should have plenty of options, with about a half-dozen high school all-American running backs on the roster and a slew fast and talented receivers. But it's the defense that makes this USC team special.
The Trojans have potential All-Americans all over the field, and perhaps the nation's best linebackers in Brian Cushing, Keith Rivers and Rey Maualuga.
"They're big and fast and smart and they know what they're doing and they love to play the game," Carroll said.
Up front, defensive end Lawrence Jackson and tackle Sedrick Ellis are the stars. In the secondary, Terrell Thomas is a lock-down cornerback and sophomore Taylor Mays has drawn comparisons to such great USC safeties of the past as Dennis Smith and Troy Polamalu.
How good can this defense be? Just ask Michigan, which had its vaunted offense smothered in Pasadena, Calif., on Jan. 1.
"We have a lot of experience and tremendous speed," Carroll said. "We'll find out how good they are when we start playing."
If USC is as good as most believe, chasing down the Trojans could be too much to ask.