Is the stage set for USC to make a run for a conference title?
Dec 27, 2014; San Diego, CA, USA; USC Trojans head coach Steve Sarkisian (R) congratulates cornerback Adoree’ Jackson (2) after scoring a touchdown during the first quarter against the Nebraska Cornhuskers in the 2014 Holiday Bowl at Qualcomm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports
(C+P) — Not since 1976 did a first-year USC head coach win as many games as Steve Sarkisian did in 2014. The Trojans went 9-4 and tied for second place in the Pac-12 South Division with a 6-3 mark. With 16 returning starters including All-American and Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback Cody Kessler, look for improvement from the Men of Troy in year two of Sarkisian’s reign.
Feeling the effects of lingering NCAA sanctions, the Trojans lacked the depth necessary to thrive in Sarkisian’s up-tempo offense. Playing at a frenetic pace requires quality depth and USC just did not have it a year ago. With only 57 scholarship players in the program in 2014, the Trojans found themselves struggling late in games. Two of the four losses came on the opponent’s final play of the game.
Sarkisian and his staff have worked to remedy that bringing in what many believe is the No. 1 recruiting class in the nation. USC signed 24 recruits in the offseason, and five of them enrolled early and participated in spring football.
Add that recruiting class to a cast of returners and USC has the makings for something special in 2015. Kessler returns after a season where he set or tied six school records. His 69.7 percent completion percentage is tops in school history, and the senior-to-be threw for 39 touchdowns against just five interceptions.
The offense also returns JuJu Smith, a freshman All-American at wide receiver, Soma Vainuku, and Jahleel Pinner, whom both started at fullback, and the entire offensive line. Sarkisian’s offense averaged 35.8 points per game (23rd in the nation) a year ago and with the added depth should be one of the nation’s most explosive units.
Playing fast on offense means that your opponent will get the opportunity to run a lot of plays. That means you have got to be solid on defense. USC returns seven starters from a defense that ranked in the Top 20 in the country in turnover margin and red zone defense. Su’a Cravens, a hybrid safety-outside linebacker, leads the Trojans defense and is a candidate for both the Bednarik and Nagurski Awards.
Sarkisian and company recorded big wins over Arizona and Stanford in 2014, and they will need to capture a few more signature wins in 2015. The schedule includes nine opponents that played in a bowl game last year. There are seven home games (USC wins 75 percent of games at home) including Arizona, which won the South Division last year. The Trojans will face both Notre Dame and Oregon on the road this season.
Sarkisian, his staff, players, and the USC fan base believe the Trojans will contend for the Pac-12 South title. Winning the division gives USC a shot at a conference championship and a conference title gives one of the nation’s most storied programs a shot at the national playoff. Don’t be surprised if the Trojans find themselves in the nation’s top four come December.