Although the USC Trojans football program has had one heck of an offseason, it’s important to keep expectations for the 2014 season at a respectable level.
Fortunately, winning the Pac-12 title just so happens to meet that qualification.
In hindsight, there was little not to like about USC’s offseason. The team brought in former Washington renaissance worker Steve Sarkisian to replace the misguided Lane Kiffin as head coach, 5-star cornerback Adoree' Jackson headlines a stellar incoming recruiting class and several key playmakers on both sides of the ball are set to return next season.
Then again, what else did you expect from the same Trojans squad that managed to win 10 games—including the Las Vegas Bowl—while playing under three different head coaches in 2013?
Still, there’s a fine line between being a feel-good story and being a conference title contender. One that Sarkisian should have no problem helping USC step across.
Prior to Sarkisian’s arrival in 2009, the Huskies had only managed to win 12 games in the last five seasons combined. It took the Torrance, Calif., native just two years to match that total.
In five seasons, he finished with a respectable 34-29 record—the most wins by a Washington coach since Jim Lambright (1993-98).
But more importantly, Sarkisian has experience winning in Los Angeles.
In a seven-year span from 2002 to 2008, the Trojans were an impressive 82-9. That stretch included winning 11 games each season, seven Pac-10 titles, a 6-1 BCS bowl record and two BCS national championships.
Sarkisian served as quarterbacks coach in six of those seasons, mentoring former USC signal-callers such as Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart, John David Booty and Mark Sanchez. Two won the Heisman Trophy—Palmer and Leinart—while all earned First Team All-Pac-10 honors.
Coincidently, that just so happens to be an area where Sarkisian’s expertise could come in handy.
Last year’s starter, Cody Kessler, is coming off a surprisingly solid season. In 14 games, he threw for 2,968 yards, 20 touchdowns and seven interceptions on 65.4 percent passing.
However, USC still only ranked No. 72 in passing offense.
Entering his junior season, Kessler’s best football is still ahead of him. It’s a growth that Sarkisian’s presence will help further along.
And if all else fails, the Trojans also have redshirt freshman—and former 5-star prospect—Max Browne waiting in the wings.
But while quarterback is a work in progress, the team’s rushing attack should once again be its strength.
Five of USC’s six leading rushers return next season. That includes the tandem of rising juniors Javorius Allen (134 CAR, 774 YDS, 14 TD) and Tre Madden (138 CAR, 703 YDS, 3 TD).
Also look for spark plug Justin Davis (53 CAR, 361 YDS, 6 TD) to see his playing time go up as he enters his sophomore season.
Then there’s the Trojans defense, which is set to return seven players from 2013. Only UCLA and Colorado bring back more:
Although the defense had its ups and downs, the unit still ranked among the nation’s best. USC finished No. 16 in scoring defense (21.2 PPG), No. 13 in total defense (334.9 YPG), No. 14 against the run (120.3 YPG) and No. 32 against the pass (214.6 YPG).
A player to keep an eye on is rising sophomore safety Su’a Cravens, who will be entrusted to be the leader of the secondary, after Dion Bailey left early for the NFL draft.
How will USC finish in the Pac-12 in '14?
Cravens certainly proved he was capable of a leadership role last season. In 13 games, the Los Angeles, Calif., native recorded 53 tackles (2.5 for loss), two fumbles forced and four interceptions.
He’s also expected to receive some help in the secondary from the aforementioned Jackson.
Spring practices haven’t even started, yet the dawning of the Sarkisian era already has USC fans dreaming of a return to glory.
First, the team will look to capture its first conference title since 2008. Then, it’s onto chasing national championship No. 12.
Look out, college football, the Trojans are here to stay.