USC is one of the premier jobs in college football. With a fertile recruiting area in its backyard, combined with a strong tradition, it’s easy to see why most coaches would consider the Trojans one of the nation’s top-five jobs.
Despite all of its advantages, success isn’t guaranteed at USC. The Trojans failed to win at least 10 games in a season from 1989-2001. And the program has struggled to regain its place among the Pac-12’s elite recently, as the Lane Kiffin era ended after a 28-15 mark in just over three years. Of course, NCAA sanctions have played a role in the Trojans’ record in recent seasons.
After Kiffin was fired, Ed Orgeron was promoted to interim coach and helped to lead the Trojans to a 10-4 record. But Orgeron wasn’t hired as the full-time coach, and former USC assistant Steve Sarkisian was hired from Washington to guide the program back to national prominence.
Sarkisian certainly knows his way around USC, as the California native spent seven years as an assistant with the Trojans. Although Sarkisian’s overall record at Washington was just 34-29, there was noticeable improvement from a program that went 0-12 in the year prior to his arrival. Sarkisian won at least seven games in three out of the last four years and left after an 8-4 mark in 2013.
Is Sarkisian the right fit at USC? Let’s take a look at the former Washington coach and his outlook for 2014 and beyond.
Sarkisian’s Job History:
2009-13: Washington – Head Coach
2005-08: USC – Assistant Coach/Offensive Coordinator
2004: Oakland Raiders – Quarterbacks
2001-03: USC – Offensive Assistant/Quarterbacks
2000: El Camino JC – Quarterbacks
Obstacles to Overcome:
Depth: Scholarship sanctions have significantly reduced USC’s depth. At Pac-12 media days, Sarkisian indicated the Trojans would have around 65 scholarship players in 2014. Needless to say, an injury could be a huge setback to this team, as the depth on the team is razor thin. One area of particular concern is the offensive line, where a couple of freshmen could see time.
Playmakers at Receiver: File this as a minor concern for Sarkisian. Top receiver Marqise Lee must be replaced, but junior Nelson Agholor should be a candidate for All-American honors. But who will emerge as a No. 2 and No. 3 target behind Agholor? Is it sophomore Darreus Rogers? Junior George Farmer or freshman Steven Rogers?
Team Strengths for 2014:
Cody Kessler’s Emergence: Kessler had his share of ups and downs under center early in 2013 but settled into the starting role late in the year. Kessler threw only one interception over the final five games and completed over 60 percent in each contest during that span. Coordinator Clay Helton returns in 2014, and Sarkisian is regarded for his work with quarterbacks and offenses. Kessler should continue to improve this year, especially with standouts at the skill positions in running back Buck Allen and receiver Nelson Agholor.
No. 1 Defense in the Pac-12?: It’s a close call for the No. 1 defense in the Pac-12 this year. Stanford, Oregon, UCLA, USC or Washington each could claim that honor. The Trojans figure to have a strong case for the No. 1 spot, as eight starters are back in 2014. End Leonard Williams, linebacker Hayes Pullard and safety Su’a Cravens could all push for All-America honors. USC held opponents to just 21.2 points per game last year and 4.9 yards per play. Depth is an issue, but the Trojans are strong in the starting 11.
Roster Talent/Recruiting Trends
Despite the late start on building a class for 2014, Sarkisian didn’t miss a beat on the recruiting trail. The Trojans signed the No. 11 class, putting USC’s five-year average at 7.6. USC has plenty of elite talent, inking 12 five-star recruits since 2010. And each class since 2010 has signed at least eight four-star prospects.
With scholarship sanctions coming to an end, USC can sign 25 players in 2015, which will help with the shortage of depth. As of late July, the Trojans rank No. 10 nationally in the 247Sports team rankings and have five-star recruits committed.
Over the last five years, USC’s five-year recruiting average ranks as the best in the Pac-12. The overall numbers aren’t there due to scholarship restrictions, but the Trojans have the best talent in the league.
Sarkisian inherits a roster capable of winning the Pac-12 in 2014. However, this team is just 23-13 in conference play since 2010. Getting elite talent to play up to its recruiting rank and maximizing the roster will be a challenge for this staff.
USC’s schedule is more favorable than its crosstown rival UCLA. The Trojans catch Stanford, Oregon State, California and Washington State in crossover play, while the Bruins play Oregon, California, Washington and Stanford. However, UCLA has won the last two matchups against USC, and the Nov. 22 contest could decide which team wins the South. In non-conference play, the Trojans have a favorable path to a 3-0 record. If USC stays healthy, this team could be a darkhorse contender for a playoff spot in 2014.
Sarkisian’s 34-29 record from his tenure at Washington isn’t particularly overwhelming. However, he inherited a program coming off an 0-12 season and quickly turned the Huskies into a consistent bowl team. Was it fair to expect more of Sarkisian at Washington? Yes. But let’s also not dismiss the difficulty of the Pac-12 North, which featured two national title contenders in Oregon and Stanford.
Sarkisian’s expectations at USC are much higher. Consistently contending for Pac-12 titles and earning a spot in the playoff aren’t unreasonable goals with the talent available in California for the Trojans.
While Sarkisian didn’t elevate Washington into conference title contention, he has a chance to make a splash in 2014. The Trojans return 14 starters and play a favorable schedule. If Cody Kessler continues to improve at quarterback, the offense should take a step forward on the stat sheet. The defense is one of the best in the Pac-12 and should thrive under coordinator Justin Wilcox.
Sarkisian is working with a better roster and is at one of the best jobs in college football. Barring major injuries, finishing 8-5 or 7-6 in 2014 would be a disappointment.
Considering Sarkisian’s experience at the program and all of the resources available, his task is to elevate USC back into national title contention.
While he wasn’t the home-run hire some may have expected for USC, Sarkisian inherits a team capable of winning a Pac-12 title in 2014. And if Sarkisian can take the Trojans to the Pac-12 Championship and an elite bowl, it will be a huge step forward in answering this overriding question: Is Sarkisian is the right hire?
Vegas Expectations: 8.5 over/under (5Dimes)
Athlon 2014 Magazine Projection: 9-3 (6-3)