USC Is a Pac-12 South Contender in 2014, but Only If Trojans Can Stay Healthy

Michael FelderNational CFB Lead WriterApril 22, 2014

Apr 19, 2014; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Southern California wide receiver Victor Blackwell (center) runs the ball after a catch defended by Southern California inside linebacker Joel Foy (51) and safety Matt Lopes (37)  during the Southern California Spring Game at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

The University of Southern California wrapped up the spring season with a less-than-impressive offensive showing.

Nevertheless, Steve Sarkisian's first USC team should still have its eyes on the Pac-12 South title—as long as the team can get healthy and remain that way through the 2014 season.

Cody Kessler was named the Trojans' starting signal-caller prior to the spring game, as Rahshaun Haylock of Fox Sports West reported, but the final scrimmage was ultimately a lot less about the quarterback than it was about the defense. As linebacker Hayes Pullard told Durga Ghosh of Neon Tommy, "Ones and twos, every single one of the D-linemen I think had a sack each."

Those ones and twos, of course, did not include Leonard Williams, who watched the action from the sidelines.

Williams, one of the Trojans' best players, was one of many expected contributors who could only watch as their teammates scrimmaged. Joining Williams were offensive linemen Aundrey Walker, Jordan Simms, defensive backs Josh Shaw and Su'a Cravens, and offensive skill players Justin Davis, Randall Telfer and Steven Mitchell.

That's a lot of talent on the sidelines for a team that is trying desperately to rebuild its depth.

It's also a lot of talent that will go a long way toward contending in the Pac-12 South.

A season ago, USC was a 10-win ballclub, and could have made it 11 were it not for a head-scratching three-point loss to Washington State early in the season. Although the Trojans lost some talented pieces in the offseason, the core of last year's team has returned to set the pace.

Again, that starts with the defense. The offense limped through spring, both literally and figuratively. Injuries limited the rushing efforts, with linemen out and running back numbers remarkably low. The unit, outside of Nelson Agholor, struggled to consistently put together quality offensive performances. 

Meanwhile, the defense remains a strength for USC—a strength that new defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox will be pushing to improve upon.

Getting better means finding a solution for the two other Pac-12 South contenders: UCLA and Arizona State. The Bruins and Sun Devils put up 97 total points against USC in 2013 and were two of just three teams to score more than 30 points against the Trojans defense.

Arizona's fast-paced attack also put up 31 in a loss following Lane Kiffin's firing, but UCLA and Arizona State remain the USC's biggest roadblocks. The Trojans will need bodies to overcome the high-powered offenses from Westwood and Tempe. They need offensive linemen to create space in the run game, healthy running backs to keep the ball away from quarterbacks Taylor Kelly (Arizona State) and Brett Hundley (UCLA), and defenders at every level to stop the points that seemed to come so easy for both teams.

If USC wants to be in the Pac-12 South race, health is job No. 1. Job No. 2 will be improving against the other two contenders within the division.

Sarkisian's offense has to continue to get better and Wilcox's defense, which surrendered 94 total points to UCLA and Arizona State while he was at Washington, has to perform for the Trojans to remain in contention.