HONOLULU — USC coach Lane Kiffin knows the order in which quarterbacks Max Wittek and Cody Kessler will audition for the Trojans’ starting job during the season opener in Hawaii.
But he’s not telling.
“I’m not going to tell you the end of the movie before you go to the movie, right?” Kiffin said before boarding a plane to Honolulu for today’s season opener. “You’re going to have to watch.”
No. 24 USC is favored by more than three touchdowns against Hawaii, which received the fewest votes in the Mountain West conference preseason poll and was picked to finish last in the West Division.
USC will play without tailback Silas Redd, who didn’t make the trip to Hawaii as he recovers from an injury.
Here are five things to watch for when USC visits Hawaii:
c 1. WITTEK VERSUS KESSLER: Both sophomores are trying to replace Matt Barkley, who set 20 USC records during his 4-year career. Wittek is more experienced — he started the final two games last season after Barkley hurt a shoulder — but didn’t distinguish himself enough this preseason to earn the starting title over Kessler. Kessler spent the bulk of 2012 holding placekicks, completing just 2 of 2 passes for 9 yards.
Kiffin says even though the players will split time, the Trojans won’t have separate game plans for each player.
“We feel good about both quarterbacks that we would not have to call different plays or have a different play chart for both guys,” Kiffin said.
Freshman Max Browne is not expected to play.
c 2. LEE’S START: Nobody will perhaps care more about how USC’s quarterback indecision plays out than Marqise Lee, who could contend for a Heisman Trophy this year if things play out right for the team and his stat line. Lee had 118 catches for 1,721 yards and 14 touchdowns last year, leading to the Biletnikoff Award as college football’s best wide receiver. In the opener against Hawaii, he had 10 catches for 197 yards, including a 75-yard touchdown catch on USC’s first offensive play. This year, Lee will certainly be the biggest target for opposing defenses, starting with the Rainbow Warriors.
c 3. EVERYDAY SHUFFLING: Despite Redd’s injury, Kiffin hasn’t named a starter at tailback for the opener, but brought four to Hawaii: sophomores Tre Madden and Javorius “Buck” Allen, plus freshmen Justin Davis and Ty Isaac.
Kiffin may also start Abe Markowitz at right guard because of injuries to three other players.
In addition, USC will have three new starters in its secondary. Kiffin acknowledges the uncertainty is unusual this close to the season, but Kiffin says he’s still confident in the players who will take the field.
“I feel more like we’re in Week 9 or Week 10 where you’ve really got to figure things out because of injury,” Kiffin said. “I’m sure other people have problems, too. You know, all these injuries have given other people opportunities to step up.”
c 4. REBOUNDING: No matter how well USC plays today, the Trojans won’t shake questions of whether they can bounce back from finishing 7-6 last year after starting as the country’s preseason No. 1. But a bad showing in Honolulu could certainly make things more shaky — and a loss, though unlikely, would crush their season.
c 5. HAWAII’S TOUGH STRETCH: Second-year coach Norm Chow has said he’s looking for his Rainbow Warriors to open things up on offense this year as they try to progress from a 3-9 finish last year. That could be difficult against and opening schedule that includes USC, then games at No. 25 Oregon State and Nevada before hosting Fresno State, a team picked to finish first in its division. Hawaii opens the year with Taylor Graham starting at quarterback, an Ohio State transfer who hasn’t started a game since high school in 2009.