USC is riding high as a winner of five straight Pac-12 games, in contention for the conference's South division and a new addition to the BCS rankings at No. 23.
Rewind to Sept. 28, 2013. It's less than two months ago but a veritable lifetime in a college football season. For those doubting how much eight weeks means in the course of a campaign, consider No. 23 USC had just lost to Pac-12 South rival Arizona State, 62-41.
The loss dropped the Trojans to 3-2 overall, but a dismal 0-2 in the conference. The 62 points the Sun Devils hung on the celebrated USC defense tied a dubious program record.
USC's season was on the brink when the decision to remove Lane Kiffin came down. Defensive line coach turned interim head coach Ed Orgeron had a difficult job ahead of him. Contention for the Pac-12 South crown and 10 wins seemed far-fetched eight weeks ago.
Reaching this point didn't happen overnight. USC has gradually pieced together enthusiasm with improved offensive line play, with the addition of new offensive contributors, with gutsy performances on a thin defensive unit to turn around its 2013.
Sept. 29: Athletic Director Pat Haden Fires Kiffin, Introduces Orgeron as Interim Head Coach
Sordid details of Kiffin's firing aside, the coach's ouster after three-plus roller-coaster seasons lifted a cloud lingering over the program since its 2012 season fell apart down the stretch.
The crux of Orgeron's introduction was the change for which many had clamored was coming immediately. Open practices and more transparency weren't changes that would yield on-field results, but they were policies more indicative of the Pete Carroll era than Kiffin's abortive tenure.
Reversing course was also about much more than changing a few media and spectator policies, though. The off-field elements were more exacerbating to on-field struggles, and the Arizona State loss was USC's seventh in 11 games, dating back to Oct. 2012.
"We here as a staff are here to answer the bell," Orgeron said in his introductory press conference.
Of course, that started with practice. And as linebacker Devon Kennard tweeted, practice had an energy that has persisted into USC's current Pac-12 win streak.
First practice with coach O was LIVE!!— Devon Kennard (@DevonKennard42) October 3, 2013
Oct. 3: Orgeron Reintroduces Sweets at Team Meals
"Give a lineman a cookie, and he's happy," Orgeron told reporters in his first week of practice. His reintroduction of desserts at training tables has become symbolic of the team's overall transformation, evident in a New York Times feature by Billy Witz.
Witz's piece includes the below quote from Orgeron that delves into just why giving players some baked goods was such a meaningful gesture:
I said when I lost my job, the next time I do it, I’m going to treat these players like they were my sons. The head coach’s words are very powerful. A defensive line coach screams, and it’s O.K. When the head coach screams at you, it just carries too much weight.
The coaching change wasn't simply a fresh start for the Trojans—it was also one for Orgeron.
Oct. 10: "Happy" Orgeron Beats Arizona in His Debut, 38-31
"I had a blast. I woke up happy for the first time in my life today," Orgeron said in his postgame press conference, per the team's official website, following a 38-31 win over Arizona. "And I am not a happy guy, but I was happy."
The joy with which Orgeron woke carried on throughout the day. The Trojans played with an energy largely absent from their first five games.
There were a few noticeable schematic tweaks, particularly the use of more running backs to supplement the rushing attack. Five backs combined for 42 carries and 219 yards, with quarterback Cody Kessler adding another 34.
It was the right start to what Orgeron has dubbed the "new season."
Oct. 19-26: At A Crossroads in South Bend, Ind.
"I was really proud of them. They gave [Notre Dame] everything they had," Orgeron said to open his postgame press conference, following USC's 14-10 loss at Notre Dame.
The Notre Dame loss was a seminal moment in USC's "new season." Sitting at 4-3 and needing seven wins for bowl eligibility with the more difficult stretch of its schedule looming, USC's season crossroads met in South Bend.
The Trojans had every excuse for packing in the season at that point. Injuries were mounting—"we have a hurting team in [the locker room]," Orgeron said—and that depleted an already thin roster further.
Rather than make excuses, though, USC returned the next week with its best defensive performance of the year. The Trojans manhandled Utah, just two weeks after the Utes upset Stanford in Salt Lake City. Linebacker/safety Dion Bailey personified the team's mindset, playing through a nagging hip injury.
"We knew that at the nickel position we only had one guy to play. He knew that and he told us he wanted to play," Orgeron said in his postgame press conference via the team's website. "It just goes to show the commitment these guys have for each other."
Nov. 1: USC Wins at Oregon State's Reser Stadium for the First Time Since 2004
After two sputtering offensive performances at Notre Dame and against Utah, USC needed to kick-start its offense. Enter Buck Allen.
Allen's breakout powered USC to a 31-14 win, which ended a three-game losing skid at Oregon State's Reser Stadium. Trapped low on the depth chart earlier in the season, Allen erupted for 133 rushing yards and three touchdowns.
Nov. 4-9: Crushing Burgers and Bears
The food theme continued following the Oregon State win. Borrowing a tradition of Beavers head coach and former USC assistant Mike Riley, Orgeron celebrated the Beavers' pelting with In-n-Out hamburgers.
Much like the way to a man's heart is through his stomach, so is the way to the Trojans offense. Just five days after chowing down on Double-Doubles, USC doubled-up on its point production from the previous week. USC traveled to Berkeley and blasted Cal, 62-28.
Allen continued to make the most of his opportunity at running back with 135 yards rushing, two rushing touchdowns and a 57-yard receiving score.
Morning, Nov. 16: Riding With Coach O.
Orgeron's growing support extended to prominent, national outlets. ESPN College Gameday paid a visit to the Coliseum for the showdown with No. 4 Stanford and Lee Corso extended his perfect record when picking USC to 16-0.
OK, so the Gameday picks of Corso aren't necessarily an endorsement of a program's performance, even if he's undefeated with the Trojans. But how about a former national championship-winning defensive lineman and one of Hollywood's biggest action stars?
USC isn't a program that needs media attention to attract recruits. But it certainly doesn't hurt. Success is a self-perpetuating cycle in college football. Wins mean exposure, and recruits are paying attention. When The Rock says playing for Orgeron is a good thing, believe that it resonates with prep prospects.
Winning resonates even more, and the team handled business on that front.
Evening, Nov. 16: Snapping The Streak
Stanford's dominance in its rivalry with USC was perhaps the single most telling stat lingering over the Trojans in recent years: Four straight losses overall, and four consecutive losses at the Coliseum. The last USC team to beat Stanford at home was also the last Trojans team to play for the BCS Championship in the 2005 season.
Fueling the upset of the fifth-ranked Cardinal? Orgeron said it was belief.
For some reason on Monday was a belief that we were going to prepare as well as we could and find a way to win the game. I'm awfully proud of our men, Orgeron said in his postgame press conference, per USCTrojans.com. This is something we've wanted for the past Trojans and coaches that fought hard. This is for the Trojan Family.
While questions persist as to Haden's hire, there's no question that USC's turnaround under Orgeron is remarkable. He can do no more than to continue and take each new day as it comes—much as he already has.
"All I can do is work with [the team] every day," Orgeron said. "I think everything happens for a reason and there's a greater plan. What that plan is I don't know but we'll work together on a daily basis."