USC last entered the national championship race in 2008, which also was the last season the Trojans won the conference title. To call seven years a drought might be somewhat disingenuous — just ask Cal or Oregon State, neither of which have been to a Rose Bowl in more than a half-century — but expectations are such that this time has given those around the USC football something of a seven-year itch.
Head coach Steve Sarkisian said after USC’s 45-42 Holiday Bowl defeat of Nebraska last December, “We’re going to compete for championships. That’s why you come to USC.”
Expectations are indeed high heading into 2015, due in no small part to the return of record-setting quarterback Cody Kessler. His 39 touchdown passes matched the program’s single-season high, and the fifth-year senior from Bakersfield, California, threw just five interceptions.
Versatile playmakers Adoree’ Jackson, who played equally effectively in all three phases as a freshman, and Su’a Cravens, a standout at both linebacker and nickel back, give the Trojan defense star power.
Three Reasons USC Will Reach the College Football Playoff in 2015
It’s pretty simple: USC’s wins on the recruiting trail should give the Trojans an edge in certain key matchups. Each of the first two recruiting classes Sarkisian and Co. signed ranked No. 1 in the conference, and the 2015 class was Rivals.com’s best in the nation.
And, it’s not as if the new regime had to restock the cupboard. The previous staff included Ed Orgeron, one of the most celebrated recruiters in college football, and Tee Martin, still at USC and a key figure in the Trojan recruiting effort.
2. Offensive Line
Kessler’s record-setting season was thanks in large part to an offensive line that exceeded its collective experience level. USC started two true freshmen on the front five in Week 1, something that had previously not happened in USC history dating back to World War II.
Those two freshmen — Damien Mama and Toa Lobendahn — grew into hardened veterans as the season progressed. Along with a veteran in the more traditional sense of the word, preseason All-American center Max Tuerk, USC enters 2015 with arguably the best interior line in college football.
Tackle was a bit of a concern midway through last season, with Aundrey Walker playing sparingly after a slow recovery from injury, and starting left tackle Chad Wheeler lost to a torn ACL at Utah. However, Zach Banner stepped up nicely at right tackle, and Wheeler is working his way back.
Khaliel Rodgers and Viane Talamaivao saw significant playing time last season and provide depth in 2015, while 5-star recruit Chuma Edoga could push for playing time. All told, this is one of the best units in the nation.
3. End-of-Game Experience
USC was on the losing end of heartbreakers against Arizona State and Utah, both of which were decided on the final drive. Together, the defeats effectively kept the Trojans out of the Pac-12 Championship Game.
Only Arizona — which, coincidentally, USC beat thanks to a missed field goal in the final seconds — had more nail-biters last year.
The sting of those narrow defeats paid dividends in the bowl, as USC held off a Nebraska rally.
Last season’s Pac-12 South race proved the importance of closing in single-score games. Division champion Arizona won four of them. USC’s experience with close calls has already proven beneficial, and should carry over into the new campaign.
USC's 2015 Schedule
Athlon Projected Rank for 2015
at Notre Dame
Three Reasons USC Will Not Make the College Football Playoff in 2015
1. Depth and Youth
While technically these are two elements of USC’s identity that could prevent the Trojans from reaching the Playoff, they combine to form one, key problem.
USC is still roughly a dozen players shy of the 85 on scholarship most teams carries. Injuries can pile up over the course of a season and render even full-sized rosters thin. USC experienced that last season, when it took fewer than 50 scholarship players on Pac-12 road trips.
The Trojan depth chart isn’t nearly as shallow this year, but Sarkisian will have to rely heavily on true freshmen and unproven reserves to fill out certain positions.
2. Run Game Sputters
The loss of Tre Madden to a season-ending injury just before Week 1 and Ty Isaac’s transfer to Michigan left Javorius "Buck" Allen and Justin Davis as USC’s only scholarship running backs last season. The lack of depth didn’t have too much of a noticeable impact, as Allen grinded 276 carries for 1,489 yards.
The Trojans have more scholarship backs on roster heading into 2015, but face more questions than a year ago. Can anyone shoulder the load quite as reliably as Allen?
Madden did so through the first half of the 2013 season, but he’s been on the shelf since. He’ll have considerable rust to shake off upon his return.
Davis showed explosiveness in his 2013 freshman campaign before sustaining a midseason injury, but his performance as the No. 2 ball carrier last season was decidedly up-and-down. Freshman Ronald Jones could find a prominent role in the rotation, but much like the entire running back situation, it’s uncertain.
3. No Replacement for Leonard Williams
The first-round NFL pick and All-American defensive lineman was both USC’s best pass rusher and arguably its top run-stopper, as Williams set the table for entire USC defense last season.
Defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox will have to use multiple players to replicate Williams’ production, in part because Williams could effectively play both on the edge and interior. Should someone step up in one of those roles, the Trojans should be fine. But if would-be replacements for the All-American fall short, USC will lose its advantage on the line.
“Our future is ridiculously bright,” Sarkisian said after the Holiday Bowl.
He’s not wrong. The recruiting of Sarkisian and his staff are positioning USC for a run back to the top of the Pac-12 and the national college football landscape.
That run could come in 2015, but it may be early for the Trojans. The Pac-12 South is no easier than it was a season ago. Any one of five teams — Arizona, Arizona State, UCLA and Utah, as well as USC — could emerge as champion.
However, the Trojans have the misfortune of drawing each of the North’s two best teams in cross-divisional competition, including Oregon in late November. The defending conference champion Ducks are one of at least three opponents with considerable Playoff buzz heading into the fall, along with Trojan rivals UCLA and Notre Dame.
USC is a leading contender for the Pac-12 South’s spot in the conference championship game, but a Playoff appearance may be a year or two away.