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.
Best Play: JuJu Smith-Schuster humiliating Utah DB Dominique Hatfield
Utah DB Dominique Hatfield was running his mouth to Smith-Schuster all game long until JuJu invited him to come and get some love. What happened next broke Twitter.
Best Performance: Cameron Smith against Utah
When a middle linebacker has a pick-six to go along with two other interceptions and 122 yards returned off those interceptions, it’s likely to be up for best performance. You could really list several performances here, but Smith’s output against Utah at the time was one of the greatest single-game performances we’ve seen out of a storied and proud position on the Trojans.
Best Game: 40-21 win over UCLA
The Trojans needed this one for themselves and they needed it if they were going to have any hope of landing Clay Helton the permanent job. They won impressively and Helton had the interim tag removed shortly after. Freshman CB Iman Marshall bounced back from a brutal Oregon game to nab two interceptions on fellow freshman phenom Josh Rosen and Justin Davis pounded the Bruins for 130 yards on the ground. The box score on this game does it a disservice, it was the most complete game USC played all year.
Defining Moment: Helton’s Helm
USC loves to rally around an interim head coach, but Helton seemed to command even more love than his predecessor in this capacity, Ed Orgeron. Whether or not that is actually the case is a matter of opinion, but the players’ campaign for him felt like they did. So much could have gone wrong when Helton took over, but the team seemed to rally around him. It may not have ended with the dream trip to the Rose Bowl some had hoped, but it’s hard to deny the fact that this season could have been much, much worse if not for Helton’s guidance.
Biggest Surprise: Steve Sarkisian’s problems
The actual termination of Sarkisian following his indefinite suspension by athletic director Pat Haden wasn’t that hard to see coming, but the way this season unfolded for USC was bizarre to say the least. USC hired Sarkisian in the hopes that he would be everything Lane Kiffin wasn’t, but things didn’t turn out as they would have liked. Sarkisian’s hiring was questionable when it happened, but looked downright baffling following his termination. Add in the fact that he’s now suing USC over the handling of his termination and this situation is probably going to worse before it gets better.
Biggest Disappointment: Bob Connelly & Justin Wilcox (tied)
The simple fact of the matter is that offensive line coach Bob Connelly should have never been hired at USC. While this may seem harsh, a simple look at his resume and what happened with the Trojan offensive line this year should be more than enough to convince anyone there. Experts often overthink these things when they try to project confidence in the hire, but sometimes things just are what they are and Connelly was a vagabond for a reason. USC QB Cody Kessler’s predisposition to hold the ball didn’t help his case, but the lack of any physicality on USC’s offensive line was his real undoing.
Defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox has had a rough fall from grace. Once one of the hottest assistants in the land, Wilcox’s defenses have been scrutinized heavily during his time in the Pac-12. Opponents were basically given free reign of the middle of the field and aggression on defense was thrown out the window. The odd part about Wilcox’s lack of success was the success USC did have when the Trojans blitzed. For many, it was almost stunning how his defenses could flip back and forth between potency and inefficiency at the drop of a hat.
Senior That Will Be Missed the Most: Cody Kessler, QB
This should not come as a shock to anyone. Despite never really reaching the winning level one expects of a USC quarterback, Kessler more than exemplified the five attributes of the ideal Trojan. Kessler was faithful to the program, scholarly in his studies, skillful on the field, courageous in the face of adversity, and ambitious in his attitude. He never settled and he never let his team quit. No quarterback is going to win every game, but few leaders have done as much for USC in a time of need as Kessler. His leadership will be sorely missed next year.
Player to Watch in 2016: Ronald Jones II, RB
One of the only areas that RoJo 2.0 did not excel in 2015 was catching the ball out of the backfield. If Jones can improve his hands, the sky's the limit for this kid. His ability to power through tackles and accelerate is nothing short of impressive. Even his style of running mixes power and speed. Jones’ horse buck before he hits next gear is a visual cue that someone is about to be run over. He was basically a part-time running back and he launched right past Charles White in the USC record books. He’s worth keeping an eye on.
Biggest Offseason Question Mark: Coaching Hires
This offseason is going to be critical for Clay Helton. With Alabama on the horizon (preceded by a Holiday Bowl date with Wisconsin), there really isn’t a lot of time to fix things on the fly. While the Trojans can easily afford a loss to Alabama in the new College Football Playoff system (who couldn’t?), USC is one of the rare programs across the nation that will enter that game with an expectation of victory. Helton’s hires are going to have to hit the ground running when they arrive.
Whichever direction Helton decides to go on offense and defense could have a huge impact not just in recruiting, but also in who returns to the team next year. Su’a Cravens plans to announce his decision next week and all of his hints seem to leave the ball in USC’s court. They have a golden chance to keep him and add someone like Wole Betiku in recruiting, but all of that is going to depend on who Helton decides to hire.
— Written by Josh Webb, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Webb is a recruiting analyst for BarkBoard, Scout’s Fresno State affiliate. A contributor to USCFootball.com, Scout’s USC affiliate. He is also a regular guest and contributor for CFBHuddle’s Hurry-Up, No-Huddle Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @FightOnTwist.