USC has reason to be hopeful next year


With just two practices and the spring game left before USC football hits pause until fall camp, there’s a new hype surrounding the team. It’s not the pressure and hype of 2012, nor is it the skepticism of 2013. It’s a feeling that, partly due to consistent dominance and partly due to constantly inflated expectations, is rare in the land of Troy. The feeling is genuine, true-blue hope. No caveats, no “but ifs,” — a legitimate, unadultered sense of excitement for what’s to come this fall.

Part of the reason for this outlook is USC being in the honeymoon period under new head coach Steve Sarkisian. Every new head coach is undefeated for about nine months after he or she is hired, and Sarkisian is emerging as a Pete Carroll Lite early on. He’s outgoing — schmoozing with former Trojan greats after practices and cracking jokes in his post-practice scrums. He’s also shaking up the offensive playbook, adding in sideline signs à la Oregon and boosting the pace to the point where every defensive lineman looks like they just a ran a marathon following practice.

More of this feeling, however, should come from stability up and down the Trojan starting 11s on each side of the ball. This is USC, so of course there’s enviable raw talent on the two-deep. The bigger factor to focus on is that USC has vocal leaders at every position group. There’s Josh Shaw and Su’a Cravens in the secondary, Hayes Pullard at linebacker and a once-shy, but now boisterous Leonard Williams on the defensive line. Max Tuerk looks like he’s moving to center to be the next rock of the offensive line, Nelson Agholor has the swagger of the top wideout he’s grown into and Buck Allen has come out of his shell to spearhead the Trojans’ best running back stable arguably since 2007. There’s hope at every spot, and every position leader has past performance to show us why the positive outlook is merited.

And then there’s the guy throwing the ball. As cliché as it might be, teams still live and die by their quarterback play, especially in Sarkisian’s pass-heavy, improvise-heavy offense. Last year, USC died by their QB play in the Washington State game, as the “having two quarterbacks means you have none” mantra rung painfully true. But when Cody Kessler was named starter for good, USC once again looked the title contender they were under Carroll. There was an ugly stretch (Notre Dame and Utah), but the team rallied as Kessler found his confidence.

There is a supposed quarterback competition between Kessler and former super-recruit Max Browne right now, but Sarkisian said last week that he’s naming a starter by the end of spring. Browne is no slouch, but all indications point to Kessler going into the summer knowing he’ll continue to take first-team reps in August. He loses to Browne in raw arm strength, but Kessler has deftly run Sarkisian’s offense in scrimmages and already has the locker room under control.

But the promising QB situation is still isn’t the prime reason fans should be hopeful for an unexpected run this fall. The real reason came to light on Jan. 8, when the 2014 schedule was released. USC once again does not play perennial power Oregon and also avoids Sarkisian’s former team in Washington, which has a similar upbeat outlook under new head coach Chris Petersen.

Instead, the Trojans’ most difficult road trip comes Week 2 against Stanford. The Cardinal, who lost the heart of their defense in graduating Shayne Skov and Trent Murphy, have to replace defensive coordinator Derek Mason after he left for Vanderbilt and need to find a new running back as well as consistency from QB Kevin Hogan. It’ll still be a tough sell, but if the Trojans find their early-season groove before the Cardinal, a season-changing win is very possible. Cody Kessler has beaten The Farm before, after all.

Apart from that, the schedule sets up nicely for the Trojans to head into late November with a full head of momentum. The Arizona schools are never pushovers, but the Trojans should be favored in all of their matchups heading into their Rose Bowl trip against UCLA in the second-to-last week of the season. Take my speculation as you will, but just as in 2013, the battle against the Bruins will have Pac-12 Championship implications.

It’s still early, and the annual injury bug hasn’t left its mark on the Trojans yet. But rather than the dread of 2013 and title expectations of 2012, USC goes into 2014 with a mix of upbeat anticipation and newfound confidence under the new Sarkisian regime. And as the Trojans showed us in 2011, memorable seasons can come when you least expect them.

 

Jacob Freedman is a junior majoring in print and digital journalism. His column, “Four-Point Shot,” runs every other Monday.  To comment on this story, visit dailytrojan.com or email Jacob at  jefreedm@usc.edu.