There’s an energy forming in Southern California that has been lacking since Pete Carroll migrated north five years ago, and for good reason.
Now entering Year 2 with head coach Steve Sarkisian, the USC Trojans are back on the national radar as an early contender for the 2015-16 College Football Playoff.
No. 4 on my (premature) preseason Top 25 rankings released in January, the expectations are still growing as we head into spring practice – and Sarkisian has already began to embrace the role as the potential Pac-12 South Division favorite.
“I think we’ve got an exciting football team, Rich. We’re really good up front on both sides of the ball and on any football level that’s the key,” Sarkisian said on the Rich Eisen Show last Monday. “…For me, what I like is the athleticism of the team, too. We have some dynamic young players that can really go make plays and create big plays, whether it’s on offense or defense.
“The key for us is, how do we take all this youthful energy and excitement and talent we have and develop a football team in a short amount of time, so we can play really good football week in and week out,” Sarkisian added. “That’s our challenge.”
Sarkisian will have plenty to work with this season. Returning to the field is the entire starting offensive line from an offense that averaged 457.5 yards per game in 2014 (No. 31 overall), an always-explosive group of wide receivers, a stout defensive front seven, and possibly one of the best secondary units in the FBS, not to mention the No. 2-ranked recruiting class in the nation.
Oh, and he also has Cody Kessler back under center, who passed for 3,826 yards, 39 touchdowns and five interceptions during his junior season, finishing first among all Power Five quarterbacks in completion percentage (69.7 percent). He was arguably the second-best quarterback in the Pac-12 Conference behind Marcus Mariota and is undoubtedly in the early running as a Heisman Trophy contender this fall.
“Any time you have a fifth-year senior starting quarterback – like we have in Cody Kessler to engineer this thing – and you have the talent surrounding him, it’s exciting,” said Sarkisian. “Trojan fans should be excited. Our challenge over the next few months is bringing that talent together, the influx of these incoming freshmen, incorporating them into the schemes come August, and putting our best foot forward every Saturday we take the field.”
While Kessler and company definitely possess the overall talent and skill to make a run at the playoffs, it will take a little more grit and grind to overcome some deficiencies that held them back one year ago. That starts by winning the games they’re supposed to win, which proved to be difficult for the 9-4 Trojans in 2014; they lost to Boston College, Arizona State and Utah — albeit by a combined 13 points — with a disastrous performance against rival UCLA.
“I know we’re going to have an exciting team. I know we’re going to play good football. I just don’t want to stub our toe anymore,” Sarkisian said. “We stubbed our toe a couple times last year. We didn’t play our best football. Most notably, against UCLA. We didn’t play a very good football game. We didn’t play to our capability. That’s the challenge for us.”
One week away from the start of spring ball, Sarkisian is inching closer and closer to what could be a banner year for USC – one that could inevitably get the Trojans back to being the Trojans we’re used to seeing as a perennial power.