Dec 3, 2013; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Steve Sarkisian waves to the crowd at a press conference to announce his hiring as Southern California Trojans football coach at John McKay Center. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Analyzing The Pac-12 Football Teams: USC Trojans

In this edition of Go Joe Bruin’s Pac-12 team previews, we will take a look at UCLA’s crosstown rival, the USC Trojans. USC’s 2013 season was a topsy-turvy, drama-filled circus. It started out with dead-man-walking Head Coach Lane Kiffin leading the team to a thoroughly unimpressive 3-2 start that was marked by embarrassing losses at home to Washington State, in which USC lost despite not conceding an offensive touchdown, and at Arizona State, in which the Trojans gave up 62 points to the Sun Devils and after which Kiffin was issued a thoroughly deserved pink slip on the tarmac at LAX.

Interim Head Coach Ed Orgeron reclaimed some respectability for USC’s season by going 5-2, including an upset win over top-5 ranked Stanford, in his seven games running the team. But those losses were to rivals Notre Dame and UCLA, with the latter loss being a 21-point shellacking at home and the death knell of Orgeron’s USC coaching career.

After a long coaching search prompted by the firing of Kiffin, USC eventually tabbed longtime former USC offensive assistant Steve Sarkisian to take over as head coach, prying him away from Washington in a move that excited many Trojan fans longing for a return to the Pete Carroll glory years and infuriated many others who questioned the logic in hiring a coach whose achievements in his time in Seattle were mediocre at best and who was rumored to be on the hot seat going into the 2013 Apple Cup game against Washington State. However, even in its most turbulent season in ages, USC still won 10 games, so Sarkisian is taking over a program with a fairly well-stocked cupboard of talent (at least among the starting 22), despite the NCAA sanctions it has had to deal with for the last three years.

With a manageable schedule in 2014 and a solid group of returning starters, all eyes are on Sarkisian to see whether USC Athletic Director Pat Haden made the right call in betting everything on Sarkisian being the long-term answer at the helm of USC football.

Key Losses

WR Marqise Lee

  • 2012 Biletnikoff Award winner for best receiver in college football
  • 2012 1st-Team All-American
  • 57 receptions, 791 yards, and 4 TDs in 2013
  • Picked by the Jacksonville Jaguars in the 2nd round of the 2014 NFL Draft

C Marcus Martin

  • 2013 All-Pac-12 1st-Team Offense
  • Picked by the San Francisco 49ers in the 3rd round of the 2014 NFL Draft

LB Devon Kennard

  • 2013 All-Pac-12 2nd-Team Defense
  • 60 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss, and 9 sacks in 2013
  • 2013 Lott Trophy Finalist

Key Returners

QB Cody Kessler

  • 2013 All-Pac-12 Honorable Mention
  • Completed 65.4% of his passes for 2,964 yards and 20 TDs in 2013
  • Named to 2014 Maxwell Award Watch List

WR Nelson Agholor

  • 2013 All-Pac-12 2nd-Team Special Teams
  • 56 receptions, 918 receiving yards, and 6 receiving TDs in 2013
  • 2 punt-return TDs in 2013

DE Leonard Williams

  • 2013 All-Pac-12 1st-Team Defense
  • 73 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss in 2013
  • 5 sacks in 2013

Coach Review: Steve Sarkisian

There are two ways to ultimately spin Steve Sarkisian’s time at Washington. The first, more positive outlook regards Sark as a dynamite recruiter who resuscitated a Washington program that had gone winless the year before his arrival, brought it back to the middle of the pack of the Pac-12 North, and helped Washington reach its ceiling in the modern-era considering the substantial roadblocks presented by divisional behemoths Oregon and Stanford.

The less positive outlook on Sark posits that he didn’t win more than seven games as Washington head coach until last season (when he won only eight) and that his teams vastly underperformed on the road and relative to the talent level that Sark brought in, considering that the Huskies generally recruited on par with Oregon and Stanford in the time Sark led Washington.

Ultimately, talent and recruiting have never been issues at USC and never will be, so any particular ability Sark has on the recruiting trail is ultimately mitigated in many respects. The issue at USC that has determined the level of success the program has been the abilities of the coaches to develop players and then, on game day, put them in the best possible positions to succeed. John McKay, John Robinson (the first time around), and Pete Carroll were able to do just that; the likes of Larry Smith, Paul Hackett, and Lane Kiffin were not and failed as Trojan head coaches as a result.

To Sarkisian’s credit, when there were deficiencies at Washington, he made bold decisions to fix them. Mainly, when the Washington defense was a sieve under defensive coordinator Nick Holt, Sarkisian replaced Holt with one of the best defensive coordinators in the country, Justin Wilcox, who raised the level of the Huskies’ defense considerably. Wilcox has also followed Sarkisian to USC to fill the same role. And when Washington’s pro-style offense looked rustic and stagnant following the graduation of uber-talented QB Jake Locker, Sarkisian and former offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier implemented a switch to a hurry-up, no-huddle spread offense that better suited the talents of Locker’s successor Keith Price and saw the Huskies’ offensive output soar as a result.

Despite those improvements and the talent on the roster as a whole though, Washington still couldn’t break the 8-win glass ceiling under Sarkisian, which points to more subtle deficiencies in the squad assembly and the coaching staff that don’t reflect well on Sarkisian’s ability to turn USC in a perennial top-5 program going forward.

2014 Schedule

Sat, Aug. 30 vs. Fresno State (FOX)

Sat, Sep. 6 at Stanford (ABC)

Sat, Sep. 13 at Boston College (ABC)

Sat, Sep. 27 vs. Oregon State

Sat, Oct. 4 vs. Arizona State

Sat, Oct. 11 at Arizona

Sat, Oct. 18 vs Colorado

Sat, Oct. 25 at Utah

Sat, Nov. 1 at Washington State

Thu, Nov. 13 vs. Cal (ESPN)

Sat, Nov. 22 at UCLA

Sat, Nov. 29 vs. Notre Dame

2014 Season Outlook

Against a fairly mediocre 2014 schedule, USC should be optimistic about its chances of challenging for the Pac-12 South title. The Trojans avoid Oregon and Washington for a second consecutive year, face Stanford early while a reloading Cardinal team is unlikely to have fully gelled, and generally have a straightforward path to at least a 9-1 record going into its final two games.

There are three glaring potential roadblocks to a successful USC season: 1) the offensive line; 2) the offensive scheme; and 3) the lack of depth throughout the team.

The first is obvious to anyone who saw the Trojans play UCLA last year: USC’s offensive line, especially in pass-protection, was subpar in 2013.  USC will be hoping that new offensive line coach Tim Drevno, formerly of Stanford and the San Francisco 49ers, will be able to develop returning players like T Chad Wheeler and C  Max Tuerk and combine them with new blood on the offensive line like G Khaliel Rodgers, T Zach Banner (son of former NFL All-Pro T Lincoln Kennedy), and G Toa Lobendahn to create a substantially more solid unit in the trenches in 2014.

The 2nd and 3rd issues are basically intertwined because the lack of depth in USC’s squad due to sanctions raises the question of whether Sarkisian should be implementing his hurry-up, no-huddle spread offensive system at USC. Running a higher tempo and a higher number of plays would, theoretically, not only raise the level of fatigue on the offense, considering the limited number of quality subs available to spell tired players. It would also result in less time of possession and thus more time on the field for the defense, which is equally depth-deficient and could be susceptible to game-costing mistakes toward the end of games due to mental and physical exhaustion. The schematic choices of USC and how they impact the standard of play within the team will be, by far, the most fascinating questions to be answered during the Trojans’ 2014 season.

Ultimately, our prediction for USC’s 2014 season is a 10-2 record and an Alamo Bowl berth. Anything less should be a cause for concern about Sarkisian and his ability to steer USC in the right direction, given the considerable talent advantages he should have on-hand in the vast majority of USC’s 2014 games and the fact that the next two seasons won’t be nearly as forgiving schedule-wise with Oregon and Washington being reincorporated into USC’s schedule (and Alabama looming in the first game of 2016).

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Tags: Football Pac-12 UCLA Bruins

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