If you thought Lane Kiffin getting fired at an airport in 2013 was a sign that things were going to improve for USC, 2015 was one of those years that made you second guess everything you knew.
The year saw former head coach Steve Sarkisian first suspended and then fired for drinking excessively on the job. And earlier this week he filed a lawsuit against USC for the school's handling of his termination. Oh, and none of that even factors in the "Salute to Troy" debacle, Christian McCaffrey’s "Heisman moment" game, interim head coach Clay Helton being hired full time, or the firing of half the USC coaching staff following the Pac-12 Championship Game. Let us also not forget that the courts affirmed the ruling against the NCAA’s motion to seal evidence in the Todd McNair case, evidence that now looks worse for the NCAA than it ever could have looked for McNair, Reggie Bush, Pete Carroll or the USC Trojan football program. Whew!
In spite of all of this, however, the team has remained a united front and played for one another. The fact that USC even made a Pac-12 title game appearance after this year says more about the integrity of the players than any words ever could. There are a lot of rough scenarios in college football, but asking seniors on this team to sit through 18 full-time coaching changes and five head coaches has to be up near the top of the list.
Perhaps even more stunning is the fact that this group of seniors has never had a losing season. In fact, this graduating class won 44 of 65 games over the last five years and can still win a 45th before 2015 is over. It is a truly remarkable feat. To accomplish all of that in the face of the adversity this team faced is worthy of its own award. Never mind the fact that USC seem to have added serious talent to the program through recruiting during all of that.
Much of that talent is going to be celebrated here today. When you’re hit with sanctions as hard as the Trojans were hit, getting it right in recruiting becomes more important than ever. The Trojans seem to be churning out far more booms than busts out of their recruiting classes and many of them had to emerge as stars early. If Helton can bring in the right coaches and have a great offseason, then next season's opener against Alabama should be one for the ages, perhaps even a “game of the century.”
Offensive MVP: JuJu Smith-Schuster, WR
This is a pretty easy call. Smith-Schuster (above, right) has 1,389 yards receiving and 10 TDs on the season, averaging 16.3 yards per catch. Smith-Schuster had six games with more than 100 yards and twice went over 150. Smith-Schuster finished seventh in the nation in receiving yards per game (106.8). He was No. 3 in the nation in total receiving yards too. He wasn’t a Biletnikoff finalist, but he’s certainly USC’s offensive MVP.
Defensive MVP: Su’a Cravens, SOLB
Freshman linebacker Cameron Smith could have taken this honor, but a knee injury claimed the back half of his season and Cravens was going to be tough to beat out as it was. They both finished the year with 78 total tackles, but Cravens also added 14.5 tackles for a loss, 5.5 sacks, two interceptions, six pass breakups, and two forced fumbles. Cravens was a one-man wrecking crew.
Best Freshman: Cameron Smith, MLB
Smith was a revelation for the Trojans. Not only did he start at middle linebacker for the Trojans as a true freshman, he did so in style. Smith’s performance against Utah will be mentioned later in this article, but the overall impact he had before going down with an injury was nothing short of impressive. Even though he got injured on Nov. 13, Smith still led the team in tackles for two more weeks until the Pac-12 Championship Game when Cravens finally tied him. Smith's three interceptions on the season beat out Cravens’ two and he also was a force in stopping the run. Smith actually led the entire team in interception returns with 122 yards. He’s a true freshman playing middle linebacker.
Best Newcomer: Ronald Jones II, RB
Whenever you break Charles White’s freshman rushing record, you’re bound to end up with some praise at the end of the season. Jones wasn’t just USC’s leading rusher with 940 yards, he may have been in contention for conference freshman of the year if USC had given him the ball a little more. Jones averaged 6.5 yards per carry and added eight rushing touchdowns and one TD catch. If he improves those hands in the offseason, he’s going to be a dangerous weapon for USC moving forward.