USC's Steve Sarkisian and Washington's Chris Petersen face challenges not typical for first-year head coaches. The two embark on their new challenges with teams that finished the previous season ranked in the Top 25, with the necessary foundations to achieve even more in the next campaign.
USC and Washington are not the prototypical rebuilding jobs, and neither Sarkisian nor Petersen face typical year one expectations.
Sarkisian summarized it best in his introductory press conference per USCTrojans: "We will not shy away from expectations, we will embrace them. I came here to win championships and so did all these players."
That’s a bold proclamation, but the new Trojans head coach does not have any option but to embrace the lofty expectations inherit with one of the most storied programs and recently successful in college football.
The Trojans are accustomed to residing at the pinnacle of the game, but are also on a five-year conference championship drought. That may not seem like much for most teams—but then, most programs did not have a seven-year monopoly on titles, either.
USC is accustomed to being the best, and anything less from Sarkisian will be judged as failure. Sarkisian's resume is impressive: He was a positions coach to Heisman Trophy winners, coordinated high-powered offenses and resurrected a suffering program.
But he has yet to prove he can reach the zenith, the one milestone of merit at USC. Doing so in his first year may not be realistic for Sarkisian, even if he inherits a team fresh off of a 10-win campaign. The third and final year of scholarship restrictions mandated by the NCAA promise to leave USC's roster thin.
The landscape Pac-12 is also a much more top-heavy conference now than in 2001 when Pete Carroll and a staff that included Sarkisian arrived and began the process of turning USC into one of the most dominant programs in college football history.
New coaching hires and unprecedented television revenue ushered in a football renaissance, which culminated in 2013 with six of the conference's 12 members finishing in the final Associated Press Top 25 Poll.
Washington's place among those six ranked teams is a tangible measure of the program's progress, but far from a desired final destination.
Washington is one of those Pac-12 programs unlikely to have much sympathy for USC’s five-year championship-less plight. The conference’s benchmark for greatness in the 1990s, Washington has been on a gradual climb back from the lowest of lows—an 0-12 finish in 2008—back to contention under Sarkisian.
If Sarkisian laid the foundation, Petersen was hired to rebuild what the late Don James established over his 18 seasons at Washington, which included six conference championships and one national title.
Like Sarkisian at USC, Petersen explicitly welcomed the challenge in his introductory press conference per Pac-12.com.
"I grew up in the Don James era," he said. "I admired this place for so long and what it's all about."
What it's all about in the context of James is dominating the conference and competing for national championships. Petersen's accomplished one of those feats, but been denied the opportunity at the other. The Washington job is his opportunity to prove that he can capitalize when given the chance.
His track record is undeniably impressive. Petersen is 92-12 in his eight-year head coaching career for an .885 win percentage, which is better than Nick Saban, Urban Meyer, Gus Malzahn, Bob Stoops and new conference counterpart David Shaw.
In fact, Petersen is the most winning active head coach with at least one full season of experience.
A cynic may point to Petersen's competition in the Western Athletic and Mountain West Conferences, though his Boise State teams made a habit of beating opponents from the ACC, Big 12, SEC and, most importantly, the Pac-12. Doing so on a weekly basis is another proposition, particularly given the conference's overall strength.
"[The Pac-12]'s as good, tough as any conference as there is out there," Petersen said.
Utah's Kyle Whittingham experienced the challenges of facing top-tier talent every week firsthand in the Utes' transition to the Pac-12, which includes back-to-back 5-7 seasons.
Every starter from the offensive and defensive lines is back from Washington's 9-4 2013 team, its most successful since winning the conference title in 2000.
A run at the Pac-12 North and the Huskies' first Pac-12 championship in 14 years is not out of the question. Doing so, or at least competing with conference forerunners Oregon and Stanford for that spot, may be necessary for Petersen's long-term outlook.
Petersen is faced with reestablishing Washington's national brand name, which extends to the recruiting trail. And as B/R's Michael Felder detailed, that might be the most lingering question the coach must prove he can answer.
Washington has just one 4-star recruit committed to the 2014 recruiting class, quarterback K.J. Carta-Samuels. Petersen's career to date is about doing more with less, but the definition of more has changed.
Nothing feeds winning quite like winning—there's a reason many of 247Sports.com's most highly rated recruiting classes are committed to teams coming off winning seasons. In the Pac-12, there's a demonstrable correlation between recruiting and on-field success. Proving he can hang in the Pac-12 in 2014 will prove the direction of Washington football to recruits.
Neither Petersen nor Sarkisian is easing into his job. What they prove in their first seasons will set the course for their programs' futures.
Kyle Kensing is the Pac-12 Lead Writer. Recruiting rankings obtained via 247Sports.com.