USC Trojans Still Have Work to Do to Truly Return to Elite Level
For years, the USC Trojans were a dynasty, running college football on the West Coast with an iron fist.
Few teams in the Pac-12 (then the Pac-10) could challenge them and they rolled off seven straight conference titles from 2002 to 2008 under Pete Carroll, with back-to-back AP National Championships (though two conference titles and one national title were later vacated) and a 6-1 record in BCS bowls during this span. During this run, the Trojans never ranked lower than No. 4 in the end-of-season polls and were the standard by which all other West Coast college football programs were measured.
But then Carroll bolted for the NFL and the NCAA came down on the university hard (probably much more so than was warranted) and the USC football program went into a lull. Under new head coach Lane Kiffin, the Trojans never finished better than third in the conference standings, burdened by the heavy sanctions that limited their scholarships and prevented them from participating in the postseason for a number of years. The program bottomed out with a 7-6 record in 2012 and an embarrassing performance in a Sun Bowl loss to the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets that carried over into a slow start to the 2013 season and an unceremonious exit for Kiffin after a disastrous showing against the Arizona Wildcats in Tucson.
This offseason, the Trojans brought in Steve Sarkisian, former OC at USC under Carroll and head coach of the Washington Huskies, to try and re-ignite the program to return it to its former glory (minus the run-ins with the NCAA, of course). He promised to bring an up-tempo style of offense and a physical brand of defense (thanks to his defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox) to break through the crowded Pac-12 South landscape and return USC to the top of the college football mountain. With the school heading into the home stretch of their NCAA-imposed sanctions, there was plenty of reason for optimism.
Despite all of his shortcomings as a head coach, Kiffin knew how to recruit. Despite having fewer scholarships to work with than everyone else, the Trojans remained one of the best recruiting programs in the country, bringing in a wealth of four and five-star talents. The Trojans ended up boasting the No. 1 defense in the conference in 2013 and had playmakers returning on both sides of the ball. Their biggest problems of the last few seasons have been depth, as any injury has tended to completely derail them, and play calling. Sarkisian brought hope that fixing the latter would help keep the former (which will still be an issue until 2015) from taking the Trojans down this fall with a cupboard that was far from bare.
Through the first two games, it looked like Sarkisian was living up to the lofty promises. In the season opener against the Fresno State Bulldogs, USC set a Pac-12 record for plays run (105) as they racked up over 700 yards of offense in a 52-13 rout, proving that the Trojans could play with pace. The next week, USC went on the road and traded blows with the Stanford Cardinal, pulling out a 13-10 win on The Farm to prove they could play physical, grind-it-out football with the best of the Pac-12. While it was just two games, the Trojans had shown the athleticism and the strength necessary to emerge as a legitimate contender for the Pac-12 title and a spot in the College Football Playoff.
But then the Trojans went to Chestnut Hill to take on the unranked Boston College Eagles in Week 3 and everything fell apart. At first, it looked like the superior talent of USC would dominate this game as they jumped out to a 17-6 lead in the first minute of the second quarter. At that point, according to quarterback Cody Kessler, the team relaxed and let up, expecting to coast to victory. Instead, Boston College ran roughshod over the Trojan defense (the No. 1 defense in the Pac-12 in 2013, mind you) with 452 rushing yards (while the Trojan rushing attack managed 20 yards), scored 24 unanswered points and held on to upset the then-No. 9 team in the country 37-31.
Afterwards, the Trojans were left answering many of the same types of questions that had haunted them during the Kiffin era. How could one of their elite playmakers, Javorius Allen, manage just 31 yards on the night and average 2.1 yards per carry after back-to-back 100-yard games to start the year, including 154 yards against Stanford the week prior? How could a defense with talents like Leonard Williams on the defensive line, Hayes Pullard at linebacker, and Su’a Cravens in the secondary get gashed for over 450 yards rushing? Boston College had not shown anything close to this kind of explosive rushing attack, starting the season 1-1 and were fresh off surrendering 214 yards rushing to Pitt Panthers running back James Conner in Week 2.
This was a game where USC had the advantage of momentum and overwhelming talent and should have dominated this contest from start to finish. The USC that won seven straight conference titles would have rolled through this game with near-surgical efficiency in preparation for the heart of their conference slate coming up. While Sarkisian still has the benefit of the doubt thanks to it being his first year at the helm and still lacking the bodies that everyone else has, the expectation was for this Trojan team to have a quick turnaround in 2014 and compete for the Pac-12 title. An expectant fan base has little patience left for upset losses like they saw against Boston College in Week 3.
There is more than enough talent at USC to win games in 2014. They have the athleticism to run with teams like the Oregon Ducks and the strength to trade blows with heavyweights like Stanford. They are a perfect mix of the best traits of elite college football teams and could be the Pac-12’s best bet to win another national title. But as they showed against Boston College, this team is still a work in progress. They need to get tougher mentally and develop a killer instinct to maximize on their immense potential.
Can Sark right the ship quickly or will the Trojan faithful have to continue waiting for their team to make a return to the ranks of the college football elite?