USC's competition between quarterback Cody Kessler and Max Browne for the starting job is likely to be the most discussed this offseason—and indeed, murmurings have already started. However, first-year Trojans head coach Steve Sarkisian has a more difficult choice in the spring with two proven running backs vying to be No. 1.
The running back competition between Buck Allen and Tre Madden seems to be flying under the radar, and understandably so. After all, football is a quarterback's game in the present climate, and USC has established itself as "Quarterback U." Sarkisian was mentor to some of the players who solidified that legacy in the 2000s.
Neither Allen nor Madden came to USC with the same fanfare as Browne. Conversely, their respective rise to prominence in the Trojans offense was surprising, with Allen stepping in as a midseason replacement and Madden moving over from linebacker.
There isn't a gamble inherent with Allen or Madden winning the No. 1 job, as there is at quarterback. Sarkisian has two proven options at running back: Madden rushed for at least 102 yards in the first five games of 2013 before suffering a thigh injury, only failing to hit the century mark in a 93-yard effort. Allen rushed for 123 yards or more in four of the Trojans' last five regular season outings.
Both also proved to be capable receivers out of the backfield, a dimension necessary for any No. 1 back in the Trojans offense. Their similarities mean there is no clear advantage heading into the spring—particularly not with a new coaching staff implementing its philosophies.
But it's for that reason the running back competition is so intriguing. Either Allen or Madden could be a major star for the Trojans next season, and both have proven it, though only in a part-time capacity. Given the reins full-time, either is capable of being the elite back eluding USC since Reggie Bush won the Heisman Trophy in 2005.
Rarely is a coach afforded such a luxury, and especially not a first-year coach such as Sarkisian. Having options is a luxury, yes. But it's also a challenge. Tabbing one the feature back means the other losing carries—a particularly difficult proposition with Allen, whose late-season rise placed him on the NFL draft radar.
Allen held off from entering the draft for a year, presumably not to stand on the sidelines.
Sarkisian rolling with both backs is a possibility—at least more of a possibility than a two-quarterback offense, which USC learned firsthand isn't ideal in the first few weeks of last season.
Based on Sarkisian's offenses at Washington, however, a two-back approach seems unlikely. The Huskies were balanced between the run and pass, but a clear No. 1 back shouldered the vast majority of the rushing workload.
First was All-Conference selection Chris Polk, who garnered 260 carries in 2010 and 293 in 2011. Bishop Sankey picked up the slack in 2012 and 2013 with 289 and 327 carries. Over that four-year stretch, no other Huskies ball-carrier had more than 77 touches; from 2011 through 2013, the second heaviest workload was just 47 rushes.
Sarkisian was an assistant on USC's 2005 team, which featured one of the most famous two-back sets in college football history. Bush won the Heisman, but powerful LenDale White flourished in his own right, rushing for 24 touchdowns that season.
Another multifaceted backfield might be a key piece to USC recapturing its glory of that era. And certainly, Sarkisian is working with a deeper and more diverse corps than he had at Washington, which suggests more variety in the ground game.
However, Bush and White complemented each other so well because they provided contrasting skill sets. Justin Davis offers an explosive change-of-pace to Madden or Allen, and Ty Isaac is a big-bodied power back more in the vein of White. Because Madden and Allen are so similar both in size and style, one doesn't provide the diverse look to the other typical of a No. 2 back.
It's presumably No. 1 or bust for two of the best running backs in Pac-12, which should make for an exciting offseason competition.
Kyle Kensing is the Pac-12 Lead Writer.