USC Coach Steve Sarkisian Inherits an Immediate Pac-12 Contender

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USC Coach Steve Sarkisian Inherits an Immediate Pac-12 Contender
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

There is no adjustment period for Steve Sarkisian, and the new USC head coach knows it.

"We will not shy away from the expectations. We will embrace them. I came here to win championships and so did all these players," he said in his introductory press conference Tuesday. "We don't rebuild here."

Fortunately for Sarkisian, he inherits a roster stocked for an immediate run at the top of the Pac-12. In its upcoming bowl game, USC will play for its 10th win, which would match the program's single-season high since Sarkisian left the program following the 2008 campaign.

The Trojans were in the hunt for the Pac-12 South in the regular season's penultimate weekend despite opening conference play 0-2 and undergoing a midseason coaching change. 

For all its tumult, USC's 2013 season was actually quite impressive. And with a variety of young contributors playing key roles, the 2014 team is a prime contender to compete for the program's first league title in more than five years. 

Sarkisian led some impressive offenses in his time as a USC assistant, and the process of implementing his scheme there will be one of the more intriguing offseason storylines in the Pac-12.

He said his new coaching staff has a dynamic offense "that these guys should be excited to play in." He said it will be "predicated on speed and a power running game.” 

USC has long been known for its use of a pro-style offense, but at Washington, Sarkisian introduced a twist. The Huskies embraced the hurry-up, no-huddle style, and the result was a 38.5-point-per-game average.   

"The up tempo will really benefit us because we'll be able to play all four quarters and defenses will have to substitute, so it will be exciting," quarterback Cody Kessler said at Tuesday's press conference. 

In his time at USC, Sarkisian was especially celebrated for his work with quarterbacks, which included Heisman Trophy winners and NFL first-round draft picks. Kessler is the next beneficiary of Sarkisian's quarterback insight, and the coach obviously sees potential in the redshirt sophomore—he recruited Kessler to Washington

Kessler's progression over the course of this season was one of the primary reasons for the Trojans' reversal of fortune. And growing right along with him was one of the conference's youngest offensive lines. All-Conference selection Marcus Martin heads a unit that also includes Max Tuerk, Chad Wheeler and Aundrey Walker, all of whom have eligibility remaining. 

Sophomore Nelson Agholor began the process of becoming the program's next great wide receiver. During USC's second-half run through the conference, Agholor averaged 79 receiving yards per game and more than capably filled in as the No. 1 target with Marqise Lee injured. 

Combine Agholor's breakaway speed with big tight end targets—a facet of his offense Sarkisian specifically cited Tuesday—and the Trojans should have a diverse look in the passing game. 

However, the 2014 Trojans should make their mark on the ground. 

Sarkisian's last four teams at Washington featured a rusher who ranked top three in the Pac-12 and top 20 national: Chris Polk, at 1,415 yards in 2010 and 1,488 in 2011, and Bishop Sankey, with 1,439 in 2012 and 1,775 this season. Sankey is also a finalist for the 2013 Doak Walker Award.

The question isn't if USC has a running back capable of such individual success, but rather: Who will take up the mantle? Sophomore Tre Madden was on a similar pace as Sankey through the first month of 2013, but a hamstring injury limited his production in the second half of the season. Reserve Buck Allen emerged and was an absolute revelation. 

Allen surpassed 100 yards rushing in four of the Trojans' final five games and scored 10 touchdowns in that same stretch. With speedy freshman Justin Davis returning from injury, USC will have one of the most loaded backfields in college football next season. 

Even when the Trojans struggled initially, defense was of no concern. That shouldn't change in Year 1 of the new regime. The NFL may await defensive end Leonard Williams' arrival with bated breath, but he has one more season causing havoc in Pac-12 backfields. 

As Sarkisian's coaching staff comes together, the defensive coordinator position should be of particular interest. Adam Gorney of Rivals.com tweeted Monday that Washington assistant Justin Wilcox could join Sarkisian at USC.  

Wilcox was architect of one of the most impressive single-season turnarounds in recent Pac-12 memory, transforming the Huskies' defense from one of the nation's most porous to one of the most aggressive in just one season. Turning over one of the conference's most talented defenses to a top coordinator spells sky-high potential for the Trojans. 

Sarkisian was spot-on in his assessment—USC is not rebuilding. The new head coach's pursuit of a championship starts immediately.  

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