2013 record: 10-4 overall, 6-3 in the Pac-12 conference (tied for 2nd in South division)
2013 postseason: Las Vegas Bowl vs. Fresno State (45-25 win)
2013 final AP/coaches’ ranking: No. 19/No. 19
Head coach: Steve Sarkisian (34-29 overall; 1st year at USC)
Offensive coordinator: Clay Helton (5th year at USC)
2013 offensive rankings: 59th rushing offense (172.8 ypg); 70th passing offense (227.1 ypg); 72nd total offense (399.9 ypg); 60th scoring offense (29.7 ppg)
Returning offensive starters: seven
Defensive coordinator: Justin Wilcox (1st year at USC)
2013 defensive rankings: 15th rushing defense (120.6 ypg); 32nd passing defense (214.6 ypg); 13th total defense (335.2 ypg); 16th scoring defense (21.2 ppg)
Returning defensive starters: seven
Location: Los Angeles
Stadium: Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum (93,607; grass)
Last conference title: 2008
Once USC athletic director Pat Haden cut ties with head coach Lane Kiffin during the middle of season, the Trojans played very well down the stretch. The team won six of its last seven games to finish 10-4. The offense in particular played at a much higher level. In the team’s final seven games, junior quarterback Cody Kessler threw 12 touchdowns compared to only two interceptions. Kessler had to battle earlier in the season with fellow quarterback Max Wittek to earn the starting job, but once Kessler was handed the reins, the team’s offense played at a much higher level. They did so under the supervision of offensive coordinator Clay Helton, who was retained by new head coach Steve Sarkisian. An experienced quarterback and improved system should help the Trojans play at a more consistent level on offense during the upcoming season.
As the Trojans prepare for the season, the team’s situation at offensive line is tenuous at best. Max Tuerk may be one of the most versatile linemen in college football — he’ll start at center for the first time this fall — and Chad Wheeler improved throughout his freshmen campaign. But the rest of the projected starters along the offensive line lack experience. Aundrey Walker was expected to provide a veteran presence and potentially start, but he has yet to practice during camp due to a lingering leg injury. Zach Banner (right tackle), Khaliel Rodgers (right guard) and Toa Lobendahn (left guard) continue to practice with the first unit, yet Banner is the only one to even appear in a game as a member of the Trojans. In fact, Lobendahn is a true freshman. It’s a unit that will require time to gel and needs to gain experience throughout the season for USC to play to expectations this season.
Will the Trojans ever be able to recapture the magic that once surrounded the program during Pete Carroll‘s nine-year run as the team’s head coach? It already failed to do so when named Lane Kiffin, the team’s former co-offensive coordinator, was named as Carroll’s replacement. Yet, the school went back to the same well and named Kiffin’s former running mate as the program’s newest head coach. Sarkisian seems like an ideal fit due to his history with the team, but the coach was never able to get the Washington Huskies over the hump during his five seasons with the program. Granted, USC’s talent level compared to Washington’s at the time Sarkisian took over is night and day. It has to be a concern for USC faithful that Sarkisian never finished better than 8-4 as a head coach.
MAKE-OR-BREAK GAME: at UCLA
Last season, the Trojans got the proverbial monkey off their backs by beating the fifth-ranked Stanford Cardinal for the first time since 2008. The next obstacle for the Trojans is overcome their cross-town rival, the UCLA Bruins. As the Trojans dealt with NCAA sanctions, Bruins head coach Jim Mora rebuilt UCLA and made the Bruins into one of the top teams in the nation entering this season. While the Bruins haven’t been able to overcome the Trojans on the recruiting trail, UCLA still won the last two contests between the teams by a combined score of 73-42. It’s likely that when these two teams meet to play on Nov. 12 the Pac-12 South division and an appearance in the conference’s championship game will be on the line.
HEISMAN HOPEFUL: DT Leonard Williams
Everyone knows that a only one player primarily from the defensive side of the football has ever won the Heisman Trophy, and Michigan’s Charles Woodson had the luxury of playing special teams and a little bit of offense too. However, Nebraska’s Ndamukong Suh and Notre Dame’s Manti Te’o have shown in recent years that dominant defenders in the midst of a special season can garner legitimate consideration for the sport’s most prestigious trophy. Williams is the most talented player on USC’s roster. He’s projected as a possible No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 NFL draft. In 13 games last season, Williams was second on the team with 74 tackles and added 13.5 tackles for loss and six sacks. It’s not out of the realm of possibility to think Williams will put together a season like Suh did in 2009 (85 tackles, 24 tackles for loss, 12 sacks) and establish himself as the most dominant defender in college football.
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